Stands With a Fist

There is a lot of good literature and art out there, but I think the real test of how great something is is whether you don’t immediately love it, but find that it wriggles into your brain and takes on new life there, growing connections from it to other things in your mind and in doing so, illuminating them. By that measure, the best thing I’ve read/seen recently is this comic by a Canadian schoolteacher who anonymously web-publishes under the name Lunarbaboon:

"Dress" by Lunarbaboon


I don’t know if this cartoon is based on the artist’s real life, or was inspired by this news story, or whether it just came out of his imagination.

What I do know, though, is that I love it, because I love that dad’s love for his son, but more importantly because I understand why he is clenching his fist in the last panel. Not because he’s angry at the taunting boys, or because he’s embarrassed — but because he’s ashamed of the first four panels.

I’ve never been really great at the whole “friend” thing. That may be an understatement. I was way too bossy as a child, and am too hermit-like as an adult. And in the middle, as a teenager and young adult? I was entertaining. I was smart and full of energy, and I loved my friends, and loved making them laugh — and as anyone knows, the easiest jokes are those made at someone else’s expense. So I poked and teased at my friends. Everyone had a great time. After all, the things I teased my friends about were patently ridiculous, right? So it was harmless, as harmless as someone teasing me about having green hair or being a great athlete.

My very best friend got the worst of it. Stupid jokes and pranks. Things that were calculated to make him blush because he did it so beautifully. Things that goofed on his masculinity. Things that I thought he found funny, too, until a few years passed and it turned out that none of it had been funny, because I had been hitting far too close to home and — completely obliviously, but still inexcusably — adding to a chorus of bullying that he suffered from people who weren’t his friends. I realized that while I had thought of him as my best friend, I had been his worst friend.

The thing is, when he wasn’t around, I was his staunchest defender. For example, I remember vividly a day in a senior class when I overheard some boys I didn’t even know making fun of him, and I made a big scene. But what good is someone who has your back while they’re stabbing you in the front?

So yeah. It has probably been ten years since I last pulled any of that crap on my friend, but I’m still haunted by it. I’ve apologized, and he’s told me that it’s okay, but something like a fist clenches inside me whenever something reminds me of the “hilarious” things I said or did back when I was a dumb adolescent attention-seeker. I work in secondary schools, so trust me — something reminds me a lot. It’s a vastly different world now than when I was in secondary school; even teaching in very conservative areas, I’ve had many openly gay and bisexual students. Still, I regularly see and hear things that make me cringe — and more often than not, it’s a “friend” (or worse, a teacher) instead of a bully who does it.

Depending on what study you believe, between 4-10% of Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. I taught for five years with 120-200 students each year, which means that I’ve been an important adult in the life of between 32 and 80 LGBT teenagers (not including whatever ambiguous relationship I now have as a middle school librarian). And even though things are better for young LGBT people now, compared to when I was growing up, it certainly isn’t easy. Hell, is middle school easy for anyone? Tack on doubts or fears about sexual orientation, and you’re talking about a hellish few years.

Now, wearing a skirt isn’t exactly going to be an earth-shaking gesture for me. There’s precious little on a visual level that a female educator can do that compares to a dad in a dress. But every day I feel like I’m readying myself to put on that metaphorical skirt. I work in a field and in a part of the country where you don’t exactly feel at ease about acknowledging the existence of non-hetero orientation around kids, much less starting up a GSA, but I try to do what I can to be an actual friend for the kiddos I work with when they need one. I can’t afford to lose my job (and it’s dreadful to think that’s even a possibility, but any of my friends who work in public education know it is) but I’d like to think that if called upon, I’d be standing on the right side of the line. I know I’ve tried to be there on the smaller occasions when the occasion presented itself. Little things. Quietly ordering and distributing rainbow armbands. Doing presentations on literature with LGBTQ protagonists and putting those titles on the shelves of my classroom library… working towards getting them on the shelves of a school library… gently working to shift the perspective of colleagues who have seen the world move too fast for them to keep up. Smiling and “loving on” the kids who may not know it yet but who are pulling a strong 5-6 on the Kinsey scale. Thinking once, twice, three times before making that joke or that remark. Moving quickly and firmly to correct students when they are less thoughtful.

A lot can change in a decade or so. You get older, often taller, usually wider, and sometimes — if you’re lucky enough to have your eyes pried open — wiser. Although, now that I say “wiser,” I hate that word in this context. After all, it was being a wise-ass that causes me my shame.

Instead, I am reminded of my favorite moment in my favorite movie:

For years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant. I recommend being kind, open-hearted, loving. I recommend thinking about how your words or actions might be hurting someone you love before you inflict them, rather than years later. And yes; you may quote me.


Review: Eon and Eona

eon and eona Eon: Dragoneye Reborn and Eona by Alison Goodman

My rating: 4 out of 5

My copy of Eon: Dragoneye Reborn had been sitting on my classroom library shelf (and on my to-read list) for a while before I finally felt the urge to tackle it. I had some doubts; I had heard a lot about it, particularly when I’d been doing research on YA books with LGBTQ characters, but was worried that it would be all hype and no bite. After all, there are an awful lot of mediocre YA books out there with dragons in them; as a teen, I would have consumed them all haphazardly regardless of quality, but as an adult reader I have less time and broader interests. When it came time to close up my classroom for Christmas break, though, I grabbed Eon and took it with me — and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t really what I was expecting, but it was a darned good ride.

The novel and its sequel, Eona, take place in a fictional country that bore an initial overwhelming resemblance to feudal China (although as the story goes on, strong Japanese and other Asian elements are woven in). This country is protected by twelve energy-dragons, each corresponding to cardinal directions, elements, and the signs of the Chinese zodiac. The general population can’t see or sense the dragons, but every generation produces a handful of boys who possess not only the ability to see the dragons but to work with them as Dragoneyes. These boys are identified, trained, and then presented for that year’s ascending dragon to choose between. If chosen, the boy will partner with the dragon, gaining supernatural powers and great social prestige in exchange for allowing the dragon to sap his vitality or hua. Over the course of the twelve years of partnership, these boys become old men.

Eon is one of the boys who wants to become a Dragoneye, but he has two major hurdles to overcome. First, he is physically handicapped in a culture that shuns any signs of physical imperfection — and because part of the selection process involves martial arts, he is at a disadvantage from the very beginning.

Eon’s second obstacle is that he is actually a girl in disguise. In this fiercely patriarchal land, women aren’t allowed to become Dragoneyes — in fact, they’re really not allowed to be anything. Females have no value beyond servitude and breeding stock; they have no education, no rights, and no voice. Eon, who has been pretending to be a boy for so long that he thinks of himself as male, is hoping to maintain his secret and be chosen by that year’s dragon so that he can ascend from poverty, bring honor to his sponsor, and have a chance at a real life.

Balancing out these two problems, Eon is powerfully gifted at being able to see the energy-dragons. Most potential Dragoneyes will only see their own dragon; Eon can see all of them, at will, and seems to be able to communicate with them to some degree.

It obviously wouldn’t be much of a book if Eon wasn’t chosen by a dragon, so I was prepared for the anticlimax of the selection ceremony. That’s when Goodman delivered her first “gotcha” of the story, which I won’t divulge in the hopes that you’ll read it for yourself, but which lays the foundation for the entire saga.

From that point on, Eon and Eona comprise a riveting tale of secrets, betrayal, revolution, war, survival, and redemption. Despite the invisible drove of dragons on the margins, the books never really feel like fantasy novels. Instead, the emphasis is on the human characters and their struggles to come to terms with themselves, each other, and their circumstances. Eon must decide who he or she truly is, and what sort of person s/he wants to be, as power threatens to corrupt. Her friends and compatriots, many of them also with unique gender-identity issues (this is a land where eunuchs are still commonly used as servants, and where male-to-female transgendered people can possess a certain amount of spiritual capital, similar to the “two-spirits” of the Cherokee nation) must establish their roles in the maelstrom that comes to surround Eon and the young emperor. The emperor must decide how to save his country and what relationship he wants with a Dragoneye that he may or may not be able to fully trust… And as Eona begins, Eon’s chief antagonist must also determine whether  he is villain or antihero.

Goodman treats all of her characters with even-handed respect, by which I mean she doesn’t use these novels to make some sort of political or social statement about sexuality and gender identity. Eon, Lady Dela (M-F transgender) and Ryko (eunuch) are merely people with the same sort of troubles and triumphs and day-to-day lives as everyone else around them. It’s refreshing to see LGBTQ characters in a fantasy or science fiction novel period, but doubly great for it to be a “no big deal” sort of depiction. (Okay, so Eon’s issues are a big deal, but that’s more in terms of her society’s attitude toward women than anything else.)

Ultimately, Eon and Eona reminded me a bit of Mulan, a bit of stories in the vein of The Last Airbender, and a bit of samurai-type epics like Shogun. It reads at times like a historical fiction and at times like a light fantasy, and has elements that will appeal to male or female readers — a nice thing to find in a YA novel. Mostly, though, it was a lot of fun to read and definitely well worth the time (and the wait).