The Writing of Robert Cormier

 

 

I first became fascinated by the writing of Robert Cormier in 1987.

As a component of my Bachelor of Education degree, one of our professors said we had to critique a number of children’s books, including YA literature. I hadn’t read children’s literature in a long time and I was unfamiliar with many of the current writers; however, the professor provided us with a list of well-known books, and told us we could always critique classics.

I did not know who Cormier was at the time and I chose one of his books blindly, I have to admit. The book just happened to be his most famous, The Chocolate War.

The book, to use a cliché, was spellbinding. I kept rooting for the hero, Jerry Renault, to overcome the bullying attitudes presented in his school and I knew – I just knew – he would triumph.

Alas, he doesn’t and the reader is kicked in the shins. There is no happy ending; certainly no sweet revenge for Jerry.

Robert Cormier

This couldn’t be, I assured myself. Being hopeful, I learned that Cormier had written another book, Beyond the Chocolate War.

Of course, I told myself, there had to be a sequel to make up for the devastating ending of the first book.

Kicked in the shins a second time.

But Cormier had managed to hook me all the same and now I have read everything he’s written. Or, at least, published.

Never did find that happy ending.

Cormier stressed that there were rarely happy endings in life and, of course, he was right.

The last book of his that I had not read, I Have Words to Spend, I read a few days ago.

Edited by his wife, the book is a collection of articles, blogs by today’s standards, written for a newspaper and magazine, both of which employed Cormier.

The articles are extremely insightful and thought-provoking. And most of them are incredibly touching, focusing on the man’s love for his family and how he misses the people he cared about and who have died. He uses the word, poignant, a lot and this is appropriate, seeing that the articles are exactly that.

What is most poignant though, is that Robert Cormier died at the end of 2000. Here is a man, alive through his words, speaking of those he loves and loved, and now he has joined the dead. Now it is our turn to contemplate his life and his contributions to life.

In one of the articles, he writes, “…we are constantly mindful of the transient quality of life, how nothing remains, everything changes…that we no sooner arrive than we are leaving.”

I reflect on this quotation and how truly significant it is to the last two blogs I wrote.

Yet, in the same article, Cormier’s tone is slightly more optimistic when he says, “Life renews itself. The arrangements are different but the melody remains. The seasons come and go but they never cease.”

And, in another article, he reminds us of the lack of happy endings in life. But he slips in the hope that shines for all of us, one that made me smile:

“But we can still try for a happy ending, can’t we?”

Having read this collection of memoirs, and grasping how close Cormier was to his wife and children, I think he succeeded in finding a few happy endings.

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Another Reminder of Mortality

The other day, I attended the funeral of a cousin. He was closer to my dad and I was closer to his kids, getting together with them to enjoy our own escapades while our parents went out dancing.

Still, my cousin was good to me and I will always remember him fondly.

Funerals are moving experiences but they always hit me hardest when they’re over and I’m alone with my own thoughts.

What left me with an indelible mark (as other funerals have done) was seeing his coffin lowered into the ground, his body still warm within it, never to be seen again, down there with the cold earth and the worms.

images

Yes, there are those who believe that the soul has fled to a better place but it is still difficult to remove that image of the person, someone who stood in front of us, vibrant and animated at one time, descending lifeless into the all-encompassing earth.

When I got home, I rented The Theory of Everything, with no intention of drawing any relationship between the funeral and the movie.

And yet, there was.

You see, Stephen Hawking wanted to discover a theory about the origins of time and he asks such questions as, if we had the ability to turn back time, would we?

There is a touching montage at the end of the movie in which the major events of the movie go in reverse and we are left with the image of Stephen as a young, healthy, budding scientist with no disease.

So I think of the movie and my dead cousin and I wonder, if we had that ability, would we turn back time?

And, again, I am reminded of my own mortality.

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Time Passes

In spirit, I feel healthy. I cannot be more thankful.

But now, mirrors have become to me the worst invention. Almost outplacing gunpowder. Every time I look in a mirror, I don’t like what I see. The ravages of time have made the wrinkles around my eyes more pronounced. The meagre amount of hair remaining is spindly, hardly disguising the oncoming baldness. These days, I cannot decide on whether or not a haircut makes my head look better or worse. Sometimes, I wonder if a brush cut would be beneficial.

Randy - Jan. 2015

It’s not just my physical looks that are causing me concern. As the clock ticks, I worry if I will ever see my novel published traditionally. I have two self-published books but I still feel uneasy about calling myself a legitimate writer. I just finished writing a YA novel which I think is good; certainly has potential. I am going to try to get it published but, as time passes, I keep wondering if someone out there with the exact same idea will beat me to the gate. I’m getting paranoid. To think that I might be plagiarizing without really knowing it. Poe’s doppelganger rears its ugly head.

Or perhaps, when I do get published, I will reread this blog and chuckle and whisper, I made it.

I visited my parents this past weekend and they remind me of my own mortality. They hobble around, both with bad hips. They get tired easily.

There is an episode in Roseanne when Roseanne asks her mother how she feels and her mother says, I’m 63. I feel like a 63-year-old. When Roseanne indicates she does not like this response, her mother asks her why and Roseanne says, Because you keep getting older and you drag me down with you.

When I first saw this episode, I was 30. Now, I’m 51.

But something tells me it’s just not mirrors and my parents that are reminding me I’m being dragged down, too.

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A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher

I’ve commented here before about the kinds of unusual situations that substitute teachers face. Well here are some things to add:

1) One would think that the teachers we are replacing would have everything organized for us when we enter the room. Given the fact that some teachers never had the experience of being a substitute teacher, I still wonder why very few teachers leave me a list of allergies or medical conditions that students in their room have. Or that they hide their sharpened pencils, erasers, and chalk. I can always mime my name but it’s easier writing it on a chalkboard. Of course, chalkboards are almost obsolete now so I guess the teachers expect me to have an expertise with smartboards so I can put my name on them. However, the biggest piece of information we are not given is where to go in the room if a lockdown were to occur. I’ve even found children that have no clue about lockdown locations and they’ve been in that very classroom for a few months;

Teacher with Students

2) My name is Mr. Coates but I have been called, sometimes purposely, Mr. Goats, Mr. Boots, Mr. Jackets, Mrs. Coates, Mom, Dad, Mr. Cokes, Mr. Forehead (I am balding), and Jerk;

3) I get all kinds of interesting questions from students but the most common one is, Have you always been a supply teacher? Will you ever be a real teacher? Sometimes, I say, I have a degree just like the one your teacher has. I have taught longer than you have been alive and, in some cases, longer than your parents have been alive. In fact, I want to say, I’ve probably been teaching longer than your teacher has been alive. This isn’t always true, of course, but, yes, sometimes; and

4) The Jeopardy Answer is: Storm, First, Fresh, Song, Lark, Poem. The Jeopardy Question is: Not Subjects That I’ve Taught or Good Words for Poems but…Students I Have Taught.

I still think I have the best job in the world.

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Teachers Vs. Hockey Players

There is always a lot of teacher-bashing and, as a teacher, I take it personally.

Most of the bashing revolves around too much pay and too much time off. Then, even with these benefits, some people say, teachers still whine about things like not getting enough sick days or having large class sizes.

Being a substitute teacher, I don’t always have the same grievances as contract teachers. For example, I do not get paid for taking a sick day. When I’m sick, I just don’t make myself available to go into a school. I stay home and I don’t get paid. Situation closed.

But I agree with many of the concerns that contract teachers have. Class sizes are too big. Having been in a classroom, I know that I often cannot interact with some students, usually the quiet ones who get overlooked because they pose no discipline problems.

Interestingly, I never hear the teacher-bashers complain about such sports figures as hockey players. I admit that teachers make too much money but if one were to put them on a pay scale, I believe they should make more money than hockey players.

I enjoy watching hockey games and I do believe that the players bring entertainment to the public and so, yes, they should get paid as entertainers. But paid more than teachers? I think not.

hockey player

If one were to compare teachers and hockey players, the teacher-bashers’ opinions might be humbled.

The best teachers never get million-dollar contracts. Even mediocre players receive more money than the excellent teachers. Even the enforcers, those paid to fight, get paid more than teachers.

The moment I decide to fight another teacher or, God forbid, a student, I lose my job.

Yes, contract teachers in elementary and secondary schools end up working less than 200 days a year. However, hockey players, when they’re healthy, work less than 90 days a year.

One could argue that players put in time to practice but so do teachers: marking papers on weekends, taking additional qualification courses, attending workshops on non-teaching days.

Some complain that teachers work 6-hour days: 9-3. I’ve had the opportunity to observe that many of the best teachers show up an hour before the students start classes and often go home an hour after students have departed for the day. They use this extra time to mark, phone parents, decorate bulletin boards, prepare lessons.

In a hockey game, meanwhile, even the best players play half an hour at the most. And sometimes, they play poorly.

I’m not trying to be blatantly facetious here. I know that weak teachers do exist and that some teachers show up at school just as the kids come to class or go home the minute the kids have left for home. But these are in a minority. Plus, some teachers do have families to tend to.

Teachers sometimes get lazy and sometimes, on bad days, do not show their best efforts.

But neither do hockey players.

Hockey players, when performing poorly, have thousands of fans screaming or booing at them. Teachers may not face this calamity but we do have to confront often-demanding, often-needy students. Sometimes, we’re even told that we suck or we’re told to shut up. And that happens even when we’re teaching well.

I could go on comparing teachers to hockey players but I’ll end on this note: hockey players get the summers off, too.

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The F Word

 

I was speaking to an acquaintance of mine yesterday and we began a conversation about Gay-Straight Alliances, groups that are forming in schools. We both focused on the positive nature of such organizations, seeing that there are so many suicides by gay teenagers and how such groups can be extremely supportive.

This acquaintance and I work in a hospice for people who are HIV-positive. Not all of them are gay but many are and they have faced stigmas and misinformation all of their lives. Which made our conversation all the more intense.

As a supply teacher, I go into all kinds of schools. Although the treatment of homosexuals by staff and students has improved over the years, there is still a lot of work to be done.

I never hear the N-word raised in hostility in schools any more. This is a bonus. Unfortunately, the F-word, Faggot, still gets bandied about, sometimes in anger, sometimes in jest.

homophobic language

About three years ago, I was in a grade 8 classroom and I told the students that the F-word was becoming the new N-word.

After the fact, I realized I had overstepped my boundaries. After all, it’s not my job as a substitute teacher to come into a classroom and start preaching politics.

The black students in the room took offence and I almost had a riot on my hands. They argued that “they were born black but that gay people choose to be gay,” a common misconception that many people still have.

No wonder some ignorant people still think that using the F-word is less harsh than using the N-word. As adults, we need to guide them in their thoughts.

Just this past week, I was in another grade 8 classroom and a male student called another one faggot.

When I confronted him about this, he simply said, “Well, he made me angry.”

I spoke about his right to be angry with someone but not to resort to homophobic language to express himself.

He didn’t seem to get it.

Come on people, do you get it? If so, educate others because homophobic teenagers often become homophobic adults.

Then, this week, there was also the incident in which one grade 8 student started calling himself a slut because he thought this was humorous.

That’s another topic for a blog.

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Haven’t Quite Figured Out Kids Yet

 

Kids are a fascinating study.

I would have thought that by now, being a substitute teacher who goes into all kinds of classrooms, I would have figured them out.

In my last blog, I wrote a discouraging account of a grade 4 class in which the kids seemed blasé about stickers as rewards. Most of the kids were feisty and not too concerned about classroom rules. When one student called another one stupid, I took a teachable moment to talk about how we’re all smart at doing something. I then proceeded to ask various students what they were smart at.

One replied, “I’m smart at kickin’ butt.”

Teacher with Students

Uh, the joys of choosing wrestlers as role models.

Yet, I taught another grade 4 class this past week and the kids were joyful, kind to each other, and welcomed the possibility of receiving stickers.

There had recently been a big snowfall in the city and when I took them outside, they played happily with classmates, rolling in the snow, laughing, not caring about getting wet.

Nice to see at this time of year.

So although my career is in teaching, I guess I can say I haven’t quite figured out kids.

To most teachers, grades 6-8 are the toughest to supervise, as students are going through puberty. Yet, I’ve seen some extremely polite classes in this age range.

And, as I have already indicated, I’ve witnessed some very turbulent students in the junior grades.

So when I go into schools for the first time, I never know what to expect.

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