5 Lessons I Learned Teaching at a Teen Rehab

For nearly four years, I taught English at a drug rehabilitation facility for adolescents receiving in-patient treatment. Last month, my program was eliminated. I’ve been trying to process my New Normal, and decide what that will look like. In the meantime, maybe some reflection will be helpful. I’ll preface this by admitting that I’m not a counselor. That wasn’t my function for these kids. So if I use the wrong terminology, or share a viewpoint that’s slightly off-base, that’s on me. Here are a few things I learned there:

  1. It’s not just the drugs.

In my observations, children rarely use a drug only to be intoxicated. The drug is filling some role in that child’s life that is not being met elsewhere. If a 15-year-old feels insecure, unloved, or unsafe, then when they’re high, they don’t have to feel that way.

One of the biggest focuses of these children’s treatment plans wasn’t “Drugs are bad, mmkay?” It was, “Here’s how to cope.” For a lot of my students, the drug abuse was generational. They weren’t learning appropriate coping or social skills from their parents. They were self-medicating for the larger issues at work in their lives.

  1. School is not the primary focus of a kid’s life.

Often, I found that my job wasn’t necessarily to teach English. I tried to do it anyway, but as with all teachers, my success wasn’t solely based on my own abilities or intentions. My job depended heavily on the conditions my students brought into the classroom. Was I teaching that day? Was I listening? Or was I simply modeling appropriate adult behavior?

My students were dealing with grown-up issues, challenging even to adults. Notably, they were doing it using adolescent or delayed functioning. They’d been parentified, abused, and neglected. Some of them were parents themselves. Many of them had overdosed multiple times. Death was a frequent topic in classroom writing or discussion. How can you make algebra relevant to a child who has witnessed real horror before the age of fifteen? And how do you do it on a bad day?

  1. Everyone deserves dignity.

Many of my students were used to the process of institutionalization: the scrubs, the searches, the constant monitoring. It became important to me to recognize their humanity. Call people by their requested names. Speak softly when you can. Ask instead of demand. 

And I asked for that recognition in return. Most of the time, I received it. As my students were older than their years, they knew what respect was, and they appreciated receiving it.

  1. Teachers are experiencing trauma as well.

I became comfortable with using my sick time for mental health days. I did not learn these lessons immediately; there were some very hard days and weeks. I had days where I got out of bed and said, “I can’t.” My students occasionally had the option to take a day off. Why couldn’t I? When the knots in my stomach became too tight to unstring, I took a day off.

I recently met with a former student of mine who is studying forensic psychology. She talked to me about secondhand trauma, which accurately described my situation. The knowledge of my students’ experiences weighed on me. Add on the pressures of a pandemic, and my own life. I am guilt-free about those mental health days.

  1. They’re still just kids.

They are funny. They are goofy. They are creative and immature and hormonal and rude and smart. They like to draw and do crafts and play games and color. They like to show off their rap lyrics. They get really excited about space, but they’ll also argue with you about whether it’s real. They’re kind of weird. They’ll ask you personal questions (it’s important to be honest, but remember boundaries).

I would remind my readers here: these kids are in your schools too. You might not recognize them immediately. They might look like someone who sleeps in class constantly. They might look like someone who is nervous and fidgety, or angry and resentful. They might look like someone who is always having run-ins with law enforcement. And you might not know what they look like, because they’re never there at all.


Google Meets Manutius

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel, by Robin Sloan

I read this book on an e-reader. Specifically, the library app on my iPad. I feel like there should be some sort of subsection of academia out there that focuses on interactions such as this, meldings of the old world with the new, if there isn’t already (I’m almost positive there is, but I don’t know what one would call that; media studies? But it feels like it should be so much more…). That thought kept striking me as I read this book, which tries, I think, to be a part of that discussion: how does old media (i.e., books) hold up to new (let’s say, Google)? Does new media have any place in untangling the mysteries offered in old media? Is there any mystery there?

It’s something to think about. It’s also a red herring.

I say the book tries to be part of that conversation. I think it’s a very cool concept, and certainly the book is worth a read if that conversation is something you’re interested in. However, it’s very flatly written, a chessboard where Sloan could’ve given us a 3D journey. When I checked it out, the genre was labeled as “magical realism.” I hate to give away too much of anything, but I found the story to be magical in the way that books themselves are: transporting, engaging, elevating, but ultimately very real, everyday objects, not magical in and of themselves.

The characters themselves were collections of very pleasant quirks. Sloan’s protagonist, Clay, has apparently never met anyone he didn’t ultimately find uniquely talented and interesting. That’s a nice enough trait for a character. It threw me when that trait was almost universally rewarded. Maybe I’m too cynical?

Ultimately, this book is very optimistic. You will not be rewarded for navel-gazing or misanthropy. This is a book for hopers and dreamers, for readers and doers.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Next-Gen Business

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation is a riveting industry expose. Author Blake J. Harris tells the story of the late 80s/early 90s videogame renaissance, and the battle for market dominance between elder statesman Nintendo and impertinent upstart Sega. Harris hinges the narrative on Sega of America’s CEO, Tom Kalinske. Kalinkske himself is a disgraced businessman, once the driving force behind Barbie’s can-do attitude at Mattel. He is recruited to SoA by then-president of Sega Enterprises, Hayao Nakayama. The goal: revitalize Sega in the American market, and beat Nintendo at its own game.

Harris does a terrific job of building tension and character. Even though I knew how the story ended, I found myself rooting for Sega (a fact my husband, a retrogamer and devout Nintendo fanboy, finds difficult to reconcile). I wanted them to sell those million units, as they’re pulling all-nighters and coming up with brilliant marketing strategies seemingly from scratch. I wanted so badly for SoJ’s farm team to win.

We hear from Nintendo’s side as well, but their viewpoint is not as developed as that of SoA. If SoA is the underdog farm team, Nintendo is- what, the Russians? The better-financed team from the other side of the tracks? Maybe this sports analogy is badly developed. At any rate, Kalinske and his team of Bad News Bears find themselves with two foils: in addition to Nintendo, they struggle with their Japanese counterpart. The tension is terrific.

I really enjoyed this book. After I read chapters at a time, my husband would quiz me on trivia I gleaned, and it was nice to chat with him about our common knowledge. For me, those interactions enhanced the experience of reading the book. The story itself is compelling.

I have a few quibbles. The foreword, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is vapid. Don’t even bother reading it, unless you’d like to recreate the last time you watched two dudes talking aimlessly about videogames they played as a kid (I get that all too often in my real life; also, these two dudes have since optioned the book for movie rights). Second, Harris’s attempts to recreate key scenes of dialogue reads a little cringe-worthy. Let’s hope Rogen and Goldberg finesse the lines for the film. Harris also has a habit of projecting warm, fuzzy, soft-focus feelings onto the women in the story (and there are but a few, but that is more an indictment of the industry than of Harris’s storytelling), at one point insinuating that a marketing strategist’s professional efforts resulted in her miscarriage (ew). Only Kalinske, as the story’s protagonist, receives such scrutiny of his personal life.

Console Wars is definitely an enjoyable read, even if one is not necessarily immersed in gaming.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf Walk Into a Ball…

I was a freshman in college when I started reading comics, and as someone who’d cut her teeth on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Bill Willingham’s Fables struck a sweet spot I was previously unaware I’d had. Fables, the literal characters and enchanted objects from fairytale and legend alike, have been displaced by an otherwise unnamed Adversary. Chased into our world, they occupy a block in Manhattan, and hide their existence from the “Mundies” using a variety of means, but mostly magic.

Fables manages to take the truly outlandish and otherworldly, and translate it to the bureaucratic and banal. I mean that in the best way. Fabletown is draped in more red tape than one woman can handle. Fables: Legends in Exile, the first trade paperback of the comic series, follows Snow White and Bigby Wolf through a murder investigation. Snow is the beleaguered assistant to Major King Cole, handling the heavy-lifting while he takes care of the gladhanding. Bigby Wolf, pardoned from his crimes against other Fables after the diaspora, is the sheriff, investigating the murder of Snow’s sister, Rose Red. Whodunnit? Rose’s boyfriend, Jack the Giantkiller? Or her fiance, Bluebeard?

The characters themselves come off as charicatures here, which of course they are. Willingham is exploring what the audience knows of Snow White, our expectation of her versus who she is now in the Mundane reality. What is a displaced princess with a rogue sister to do? Bigby serves as a fun contrast to Snow; he is every inch the hardboiled detective, grizzled and gruff with a spotty past. It’s fun to watch how various Fables react to him.

Legends in Exile is a fun mixture of noir and fantasy. The art is laden with easter eggs (what’s that in the background? The vorpal sword? Snicker-snack, and all that?). And if you decide to seek out the individual issues, James Jean’s covers are breathtaking. I’m pretty sure that Jean’s covers are why I picked up the book initially. It’s worth noting, though, that even though the subject matter stems from childhood fairytales, the story is not for children. Willingham’s Fables are decidedly adult in their appetites (yes, even Pinocchio, though not explicitly).

If you are into: fantasy/fairytale tropes and noir mysteries. Fables: Legends in Exile is a fun (though not sticky) read.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Just So-So Stories

I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning reading Rob Lowe’s book, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. The late hour was not due to any exceptional interest in the book (though I am a sucker for good Hollywood gossip) nor any other particular qualities. I just really wanted to finish reading it.


To those who would shame my interest in decades-old drama, be content with the knowledge that I did not get what I came for. As an author, Lowe pulls his punches. There are no villains in Rob Lowe’s life. He seems remarkably well-adjusted despite the childhood trauma of his parents’ divorce, and subsequent stardom and infamy. Lowe spends the first third of the book talking about that childhood, while the rest is divided into the making of “The Outsiders,” and, incredibly, he manages to cram everything since then into the final third. The most arguably eventful period of his life is glossed over, and even the “villains” of his story (the writer who coined the term “Brat Pack” comes to mind) are given free passes for having screwed him over.


This did not feel like a book of stories Lowe only tells his friends. This felt like a book of anecdotes Lowe might share with the neighbors at the block party. It does not feel intimate, but it does feel sincere. He approaches California, fancy new jobs and fancy new neighbors with a midwesterner’s awe. He is not Sam Seaborn. He is not Chris Traeger. As actors go, he seems to have spent the last two decades demurring from the spotlight as far as his personal life goes. And that’s fine, and probably makes for a very happy, satisfying life. However, it doesn’t make for a very interesting book.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!


Sure, I’d like to do cool sh*t.

It’s the title. The impish little asterisk accentuated by Crayola-colored block print on a field of black. The irreverence of such a scatological term in a title, of all places. Maybe you knew Miki Agrawal before you picked up Do Cool Sh*t, as the owner of WILD, or maybe, like me, you’d heard of her latest endeavor, Thinx, before you ever heard the name of the “Bohemian Capitalist” (that one’s from the Grey Lady herself, not me). But what drew me to the book was definitely the title.

I mean, who doesn’t want to do cool sh*t? When I began reading, I didn’t know exactly what Agrawal’s cool sh*t credentials were, but the title alone made me feel like she got it. As I read on, I found a fount of vignettes from her life, warts and all, that helped develop her current success. If you’re interested, by all means, check it out, as I did, at the library, but I will share her wisdom here: a fearless attitude and the ability to ask for things will get you far.

Perhaps that is oversimplifying things a bit. But while I found myself occasionally rolling my eyes at her rather singular life experiences, I never felt that I had to recreate those experiences in order to duplicate her success. I think if I were an extrovert, that would get me farther than Agrawal’s degree from Cornell, or her extremely close relationship with her twin sister, or her aborted soccer career. Relationships (in general) and expressing gratitude seem to be Agrawal’s strengths. This book aims to help you find your own, although it’s a little light in that department. This is a narrative, not a textbook.

But yes, Agrawal has absolutely done some cool sh*t. Whether or not her cool sh*t is your cup of tea, if you are floundering, her experiences will hopefully guide you to your own.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Hamilton Makes a Dent in Modern History

Please spare me your lack of surprise that I’ve finished Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s book chronicling the gestation of the eponymous musical, before having finished the book said musical was based on, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. They are both big thick tomes spanning years (arguable decades), but while Chernow’s prose is delightful and accessible, his book does not consist of rap lyrics, easily digestible footnotes, and beautiful photos.

Like Cannonballer ellesfena , I bought the book because I am an obsessive Midwestern fan, and I’ll take any glimpse of the Richard Rodgers Theatre I can get. The photos were one of the main draws for me; they are lovely and evocative, giving hints of the drama of the live stage. The book is beautifully designed too, with deckle-edged pages that contribute to the sense that the book’s designer was attempting to recreate a Hamilton-era pamphlet.

While the photos are worth the price of admission, McCarter’s essays are sentimental, and serious, and self-conscious of the musical’s place in history. Doesn’t that sentence sound big? “Place in history.” One of the things I appreciated about the book was that it offers an egalitarian view of the cast and crew, offering perspectives on the creative process beyond Miranda, who already has an established platform, and is already pretty widely published. Perhaps because of Miranda’s accessibility, I found myself wishing for more of a Rap Genius experience. As a hungry Hamilton fan, the footnotes were not as packed as I’d hoped. What I did take away was a deep yearning to hear Leslie Odom, Jr. sing “It’s Quiet Uptown.” In that sense, my appetite for the show has been further kindled, and the book’s purpose is accomplished.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!


Worst Neighbors Ever.

I wanted to love The Wordy Shipmates. If there’s anything that speaks to the essence of Me, it’s highly literate, passive-aggressive Puritans with authority issues. Who wouldn’t be into that? I re-read Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation last year, and she has a way of making history so relatable, with real, long-reaching consequences that 21st century Americans feel everyday. The Wordy Shipmates is really no different in that sense. But there’s something missing


As to the writing, Vowell’s tongue is lodged firmly in her cheek. No one is safe from her snark. She is most sincere when she discusses what she loves about the Massachusetts Bay Company, acknowledging moments that are of course emotionally manipulative and problematic to our eyes (for instance, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon, while still celebrating their intent.


I found a few heroes here. This book brought back a few latent APUSH/junior year historical crushes on Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. I love cantankerous idealists, and these two fought so hard for their beliefs (including a shared belief in religious freedom), and ticked off so many people, that they went and founded an entirely new state. And then, it wasn’t enough that now THEY had religious freedom; they had to go and guarantee it for others who were escaping religious oppression. It’s a beautiful idea, and it makes me want to visit Rhode Island, which sounds like a utopia of sorts. They make interesting foils for Winthrop, who seems all right himself, at first. If you read the book, read it for Williams and Hutchinson.


But of course this is history, and it’s not all freedom from oppression and religious liberty. Other people had to get stepped on to guarantee all that freedom, right? Vowell’s introduction of the Pequot War is ominous, and the book ends on this topic, which is probably why I felt so bad after it ended. I don’t know that I would re-read The Wordy Shipmates as readily as Assassination Vacation, barring an early U.S. history cram session, or participating in a Sarah Vowell compendium. Or maybe just to get reacquainted with Hutchinson and Williams.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!


A Busy Season

Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America in 1927 invites you to the party. Bryson narrates the major historical events of that summer (and there were a lot of them), weaved together loosely with aviation (Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight and its aftermath are recurring motifs) and law and order (multiple murders and executions, including that of the controversial Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti). The book has a freewheeling feel to it that perfectly captures the 1920s and the decade’s major influences. Lindbergh’s nascent airplane with limited forward visibility, propelling through uncharted air. Babe Ruth’s sixtieth home run, hit off Tom Zachary’s arm, hurtling past the outfield. The ingenuity of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, deciding to tax gangsters for their ill-gotten gains.


Bryson manages to give an open, unapologetic view of the 20s. This book is neither deluded nor disillusioned, celebrating the optimism of an era where the sky was literally the limit while acknowledging the very real flaws (see: Prohibition, when the government would rather poison its citizens than let them have a drink), as well as hinting at the horrors to come. The book captures a feeling of mania, and that was fascinating to read. So much happened in 1927, that it’s easy to see how intoxicating that summer might have been for American citizens – metaphorically, of course.


I really enjoyed this book. It took a chapter for it to grab me, but when it did, I didn’t want to put it down. This is the first Bryson book I’ve read, but if his prose is always this witty (and his other subjects as engrossing), I will definitely be looking into more of his books.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

A Different Look at Art

It was really hard for me to turn off my teacher brain while reading Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer. The book’s intended audience is middle-grade readers, and while I think the me of that age would have been delighted with this book (it would have appealed to my snootiest, inner-art-snob instincts), 33-year-old me had a hard time getting into it. I kept looking at it from a “Would I want to teach this?” perspective, rather than from “Am I enjoying reading this?” I don’t know that I did.


Balliett does a terrific job of bringing alive the setting. I loved imaging Hyde Park in the fall, as well as Ms. Hussey’s classroom. The main characters, Calder and Petra, seem like nice kids, maybe a little prodigious, but altogether nice. Foils are provided in the form of a nosey classmate and a malcontent older lady.


My chief complaint is that mysteries must have their solutions hidden in their pages. Solutions that come out of nowhere or coincidentally are not satisfying solutions to any mysteries other than the author’s (“How am I going to get this character from point A to point B?”). The ending does not offer a satisfying conclusion.


I think I am jealous of Calder and Petra. These are students who have regular access to the Art Institute of Chicago, who attend an experimental university-sponsored school, one of whom “works” at a world-famous bookstore. Both 12-year-old and 33-year-old me are envious.


Would I teach Chasing Vermeer? Not in my current situation. I probably will read the sequels, but my enthusiasm has dampened somewhat from what I imagined the mystery could be.

This review has been cross-posted to Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing all of the books I read in 2016 as I attempt to reach my goal of 52. Read along with me!