Adolescence

Jo Joe, by Sally Wiener Grotta

Pixel Hall Press, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) Members’ Titles
314 pages, Publication Date: May 6, 2013

It would be hard enough growing up any different kind of kid in a small rural community. Growing up the only Jew in a poverty-stricken mountain town would be significantly harder. So what would it be like growing up a brown-skinned Jewish girl — the only Jew, the only person of color and the only foreigner — in an inbred narrow-minded fundamentalist Christian town with a strong skinhead militia contingent and longstanding prejudices against anyone who is at all different?

Add it together and it goes far beyond difficult and moves into the realm of nearly impossible.

Judith Ormand spent her early life in Paris, France, the daughter of a Black man and a converted-to-Judaism white mother. After her mother dies of causes never clearly explained, she ends up being raised by her Moravian German grandparents in a small insular Pennsylvania mountain village.

Her growing up years were punctuated by racial attacks, by violence, hatred and fear. Her only protector? Joe Anderson, a handsome blond football player, son of a drunken father and a skinhead, drug-dealer brother. When Joe — her beloved best friend — turns against her, her world is shattered. She vows, encouraged by her grandmother, to never under any circumstances return to Black Bear, Pennsylvania.

But Gramma and Grampa are gone and despite any promises she made, Judith — Jo — must return and face the nightmare of her growing up years and uncover the truth about the people she loved and lost.

The book is a compelling  psychological drama and Judith Ormand is a fascinating character, a perfect target for bigoted small town residents. I found the story gripping and honest …. until it approached the end.

All of a sudden, the book went into overdrive, as if the author had reached her page limit and now had to quickly tie up all the loose ends and somehow give this sad story a happy ending. I didn’t believe the ending. I didn’t find it emotionally honest and didn’t think it made sense based on everything that had gone before. After such a very promising start, it was a big disappointment.

For all that, the book is worth the read. The misery of a child who is so very different trying to find happiness in a frightening and hostile environment is heart-wrenching. I wish the author had stayed the course and written the ending with the same integrity she gave to the story’s beginning and middle.

Jo Joe  is available as a hardcover from Amazon. It will be available in paperback and on Kindle in June 2013.

Life hurts

My granddaughter and many of her friends are having big problems in high school. Their problems are identical to those of my generation but this generation is even more clueless than we were. They have no idea how to cope. They are like those monkeys raised with wire mothers, at a loss to relate to other monkeys. 

They don’t know the difference between a real friend and a casual acquaintance. The glib labeling from social media is, for them, the real deal … until they discover it’s not.

Becoming a misfit in high school is easy. If you are different, you are going to have social problems. How large these problems loom is a function of the vulnerability of the individual.

In the “good old days” when I was growing up, rumors and lies spread no faster than however long it took to pass the word from person to person. Today, with the click of a mouse on a Facebook page or mobile phone, the same meanness, backbiting and gossip that has always been with us can be distributed instantly to hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. It’s the same stuff, but it gets around faster.

Schools can’t deal with the problem. It’s too amorphous. They can’t control the Internet, text messages, and social media sites. It’s so easy to pick on someone. It doesn’t even have to be intentional.

A moment of pique, thoughtlessness, a casual reference, ordinary gossip can do an enormous amount of damage to a fragile adolescent ego. The electronic world is as real to them … maybe even more real … than traditional relationships. I’m not sure they understand there is a difference.

I’ve watched the dynamics of this first generation of young people for whom cell phones and computers are as ordinary as electricity was for us. I’ve watched them sit together in groups preferring to text each other rather than talk. I’ve wondered how in the world they would ever learn how to have a real relationship, to make the kind of friends that last a lifetime.

The answer is that they haven’t learned. They are lost.

They are starting to pay the price of hiding behind electronic communication. They have used it as a substitute for face time, conversation, of really being with other people.

Shy kids have had no motivation to get over it. They can’t handle even the simplest conversation. They don’t get it that people can be two-faced, dishonest, and just mean and that it isn’t personal. People are what they are. We older people could help if they let us, but we’re fossils, stupid old people suggesting they talk to each other, spend time together, that you can’t become “best friends for life” by exchanging emails.

They’ve relied on words alone, out of context of the rest of the package: facial expression and body language.  They have never learned to “read” people. They can’t see when someone is lying.

Growing up is hard. Being a teenager is rough. It was as true 50 years ago as today, but we never had the choice of hiding behind a computer.

A lot of young people have had only minimal contact with other kids. There are a lot of forces at work, not only the hyper-availability of technology but also the fearfulness parents, the limited availability of free time, the overly structured lives kids have. They can’t just hang out. They aren’t encouraged to do stuff  independently.

If my generation suffered from unwillingness to discipline our kids, this generation of parents not only doesn’t discipline kids, they smother and over-protect them from life itself. They label everything as bullying. They do not encourage their offspring to face problems and assure them they can handle it, that you don’t get emotional strength by avoiding life. Instead they buy into the endless psychobabble and make their kids feel even more helpless.

I’m not surprised at the problems. Despite my son and daughter-in-law’s contention that kids are meaner than they were, I don’t agree. Kid, people, are no different than they ever were.  The difference is that parents are afraid to let their kids work out their problems. They don’t let them grow up. Sometimes, I think they don’t really want them to grow up, as if they want them to stay permanently dependent and childish. They have no idea how much they will regret it.

It’s natural to want to protect your children from hurt, but you shouldn’t protect them from life.

Life hurts. Life is also wonderful, rich, rewarding, exciting. But never pain-free.

There’s no turning back from technology. Nor would most of us want to dump our computers and cell phones. There does need to be a better balance. Technology won’t produce relationships. Exchanging words is not bonding. Sending texts and emails can’t establish closeness.

It’s a tall order convincing teenagers that emotional pain is part of growing up. Nothing but experience will help toughen them up so they can function in the world.

No one gets a pass from pain. Money won’t buy it. Private schools won’t keep life away. There’s only one way to become a survivor — experience. These kids need to get out and live. Put the cell phones away and talk to each other. Get involved. Let life happen to them, be swept away by events and emotions. Learn that feelings are manageable … with practice.

They aren’t getting the message. Maybe if they read it on Facebook?