This is a repost of a book review I wrote for my original blog on May 13, 2014. It appears here as/is.
I honestly don’t remember why I downloaded Ned Vizzini’s book, It’s Kind of A Funny Story. It was published in 2010 and has been turned into a movie, but I think it was intended for young adults. No matter. I found Vizzini’s book very engaging and entertaining, even though it’s basically about an adolescent male who struggles with depression and suicidal ideation and ends up in a mental ward.
Craig Gilner is fifteen years old and attending Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School. He’s a high achieving kind with visions of success and prosperity in his very bright looking future. Getting that success means getting into the right high school, the right college, the right grad school, and marrying the right person. So Craig works to achieve those lofty goals and soon gets weighed down by depression. Craig realizes that compared to his classmates, he’s not all that impressive. He stops eating and sleeping and one night, decides he’s going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
So he calls a suicide hotline. At first, he gets routed to a guy who doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. The operator on the hotline tries to get Craig to do some exercises intended to reduce anxiety, but they end up making him more anxious. He hangs up and calls another suicide hotline and is advised to get to a hospital. He goes to the emergency room at a hospital two blocks from where he lives. He gets admitted to Six North, where he gets help. There, he meets people with some real problems… and isolated from his high pressure school, Craig is able to isolate the source of his anxiety and depression and change his life.
Author Vizzini has himself spent time in a mental hospital, so he’s able to make his story ring true. He injects a lot of humor into a story that could be bogged down with too much of a heavy subject. The end result is a very readable book that many people will relate to easily. I myself have dealt with depression and anxiety, but I haven’t yet spent time in a mental ward. I hope I never will experience such a thing… but I’m glad Vizzini was able to turn his personal experiences into a story that will help and entertain others.
Yes, this book is intended for teens from 9th grade up, but as a 41 year old adult, I also enjoyed it. That’s really saying something, because nowadays, I’m really more into true stories than novels. I would recommend It’s Kind of A Funny Story, particularly to young people who feel stressed about the future. Of course, most people worry about what’s coming next… but this book especially speaks to precocious teens and zany middle-aged people like me.
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It’s spring, and when I was in high school, that meant taking field trips. When I was a senior in high school, my government teacher, Mr. Eccleston, took us on a trip to Richmond, Virginia. This was something he did every year, although I’m pretty sure our class was the last one to go to the Virginia State Penitentiary. That’s because they closed the “Pen” in 1991, and tore it down. Here’s a repost of my 2013 blog post about my experience visiting Virginia’s old state prison… Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about today’s fresh topic.
Most high school kids go off to some interesting or exotic place when they become seniors. I guess, in my case, the place my senior class went for the “senior trip” was exotic and interesting enough, though it wasn’t an overnight trip. My senior year of high school was actually full of interesting field trips, to include a trip to a local medical school, where my biology classmates and I saw cadavers. We also went caving, and visited the National Zoo in Washington, DC. I skipped at least three other field trips because I didn’t have the money to go. But probably the most interesting of all the trips we took was the one that took us to the State Penitentiary in Virginia.
The Virginia State Pen was a very old structure that had received its first prisoners in 1800. If you click the link, you can see some photos of the place, which was eventually demolished. It sat next to the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia.
In the spring of 1990, when we had our field trip, the Pen was about to be closed down. There were still inmates there when we came to visit the place. I remember how my classmates and I were each frisked, then shown into this huge cell block that had several tiers of tiny cells. The place was painted light blue and there was a smell of human filth, sweat, and detergent in the air. The building was obviously very antiquated and unpleasant. It definitely needed to be torn down or renovated.
Gazing up, I could see the huge windows allowed birds to come in. They flew near the ceiling and probably mocked the inmates with their ability to come and go at will. On the floor, I spied a dead mouse that looked like it had been there for awhile. A heavily muscled guy with a mullet wore a wide leather belt with a set of handcuffs prominently displayed in a case as he led us through the facility. He didn’t wear a uniform, though he obviously worked at the prison.
The inmates were in a different part of the prison when we visited. I remember looking at the first big cell block, which was apparently vacated as inmates were transferred to other facilities. We also visited death row, which had also been vacated. Some inmates were in a yard nearby as we made our way to the death house. They shouted and jeered at us. I remember the death row cells were a whole lot larger than the ones in the cell block. They had bars all around them and a lone television set was mounted on a pole that would have allowed all of the inmates to watch it.
At the end of the hall was the electric chair, which Virginia used to execute a lot of men until lethal injection became the preferred way to put condemned people to death. Several of my classmates sat on the big oak chair, outfitted with heavy leather straps with big metal buckles. I remember one teacher actually pretended to strap a couple of students in. Back then, it was kind of a joke, but today, it seems kind of inappropriate and not that funny. Virginia is a notorious death penalty state. (ETA: Thanks to former Governor Ralph Northam, the death penalty was abolished in Virginia last year. I never thought I’d see the day.)
I remember after we saw the penitentiary, we went to Virginia Commonwealth University for lunch. Two of my sisters are VCU graduates, so I was somewhat familiar with the place. By then, I knew I was headed to Longwood for college.
It was an eerie day… and probably the day that I first started to have ambivalent feelings about the death penalty.
Edited to add in 2022: In his amazing talk in the above video, Dale Brumfield, talks about the kinds of crimes that would land people in the penitentiary. At one point, he talks about how Black men could be arrested and imprisoned for being caught on someone else’s property. They could get up to ten years for just appearing to LOOK like they were going to commit theft. As he was talking about that, I couldn’t help but think about the Ahmaud Arbery case, and how he was gunned down by three White men who thought he was a thief. It’s so sad that we haven’t evolved much since the early days of the Virginia Penitentiary’s history.
Here’s a repost from the original blog, written March 28, 2018. It appears as/is. I know it’s not currently college application season, but I think this post could be useful for some people.
Yesterday, my alma mater did a fundraising drive called #LoveYourLongwood. This is apparently a new development. For many years after my graduation in 1994, Longwood University was rather relaxed about fundraising efforts. I’d say in the past ten years or so, they have become much more assertive about pushing alums to donate money. I usually ignore the pleas, although I did donate during the holiday season.
I probably would have made a donation yesterday, had I not looked at our rather paltry bank balance. March still has three days left in it. Still, as I get older and our finances have improved, I have given some thought to donating more money to my college. The truth is, I owe a lot to Longwood. Maybe my time there didn’t lead to a smashing career, but it did leave me with a lot of intangible gifts like wonderful friends, some excellent experiences, and the opportunity to study music simply because I love it. It was a warm, nurturing place to go to college. Today, almost 24 years after I graduated, I still reap the benefits of my four years there.
I have written about my college admissions experiences before, but I’m going to briefly repeat the tale for anyone out there in Internet land who is currently experiencing the pain of rejection from college. I’m inspired to write about this after reading an article in the Boston Globe about the immense pressure high school seniors are dealing with at this time of year. It takes me back to the spring of 1990, when I was myself trying to find a place to go to school.
I may call myself “The Overeducated Housewife”, but the simple truth is, I was a very ordinary student. I didn’t earn great grades in high school and didn’t have super high SAT scores. I did do well on standardized tests, particularly in writing. However, I was a singularly unimpressive student in high school, even in English class. I would get praises for my writing, but I didn’t care enough about the books we were reading to put a lot of effort into my papers. Consequently, I earned average grades.
My parents, who had already raised my three sisters, didn’t really care too much about my performance. I got through high school pretty much on my own efforts, with lots of Bs and Cs and the occasional D. I remember working hard in school, particularly in my math and science classes, but not as hard as I probably should have. I didn’t have any extra help, nor did I have anyone pushing me to excel. I was also completely unmedicated, which isn’t a bad thing, but I think if I had grown up ten years later, I probably would have taken meds for depression or perhaps ADD. I was encouraged to get good grades, but it was entirely up to me to accomplish that. I didn’t really know how.
In high school, I spent most of my free time riding horses. I did do well in that activity, although I wasn’t particularly talented. My success in riding was mainly due to my fabulous pony, Rusty, a dedicated riding coach, and a lot of dogged hard work. I was definitely not “born in the saddle”.
When it came time to decide on a college, I had sort of a beer budget and champagne tastes on every level. I didn’t have the money to consider attending private schools. I didn’t have the grades or impressive resume to consider trying to get scholarships or applying to super competitive schools. My mother, ever the pragmatist, told me I shouldn’t bother applying to the one school I really wanted to attend. She didn’t think I’d get in there. She was right. In fact, Longwood was the ONLY school out of the four I applied to that accepted me.
Looking back on it, I think I would have had more choices if I had applied to a couple more schools. The other three that I’d applied to, besides Longwood, were in a slightly higher league– too high for me at the time. I do think I would have ultimately succeeded if I had gotten into any of the other three schools, but they were very popular choices among my peers. My crummy grades and mediocre test scores were simply not competitive enough and I got the dreaded rejection letters. Even Longwood accepted me conditionally, mainly because I was struggling in math. Fortunately, I had a wonderful math teacher my senior year who made sure I got through with the required C.
My trend of mediocre academic performances mostly continued at Longwood. I never once made the Dean’s List; however, I did blossom in other ways. It was at Longwood that I finally started doing what I was probably born to do.
People who knew me when I was growing up didn’t know that I could sing. My mom knew that I had absolute (perfect) pitch, because I took piano lessons when I was very young. My piano teacher noticed I could name pitches without a reference note. But I would never sing in front of anyone because I was (and still am) very sensitive to bad singing. I knew I could sing on key, but didn’t think I sounded particularly good. So I wouldn’t sing in front of other people, and was never encouraged to try. My parents were both musicians, though, so it makes sense that I’d have a knack for music.
To earn a bachelor of arts degree at Longwood, I needed to take a course in one of the fine arts. I chose music appreciation and a one credit voice class. I ended up excelling in the voice class and my teacher invited me to study privately. Before I knew it, I had joined Longwood’s Camerata Singers, which required an audition. I was soon singing with people who had been in choirs all through high school. That experience was truly life changing for me. Making music is now something I do most days, even if not many people hear my efforts. It’s made me a much happier person.
It may seem like a minor thing now, but that one voice class opened up a whole new world to me. I only wish I had taken it sooner. I might have majored in music instead of English. I both excelled in and loved my music classes. I got straight As in them, with the lone exception of that one music appreciation class I took. By contrast, I was a mediocre English major, except when I took writing classes. In my writing classes, I excelled like I did in music.
It was an adjunct music professor at Longwood who cared enough about me to encourage me to study music, even if she couldn’t persuade me to change my major. I can’t help but wonder if I would have gotten the same attention at any of the other schools I had considered. Looking back on it, it seems as if I was destined to go to Longwood. Maybe I wasn’t a superstar student, but I think I flourished there. Even today, I communicate with professors who knew me in the 90s. My husband, Bill, attended much more prestigious American University and he hasn’t seen or spoken to any of his former professors since the 80s. Sometimes, the less famous college offers a better value. I know I’ve often mused about how much more I got out of my time at Longwood than I did the University of South Carolina.
After Longwood, I joined the Peace Corps kind of on a whim. I was soon exposed to people from other parts of the country and then the Republic of Armenia, a place that had been mostly off limits to Americans only four years prior to my arrival. I used my music skills a lot in Armenia. Then I went to graduate school and earned those two master’s degrees that I don’t use… which became the reason I call myself “overeducated”. Still, I recognize that I was able to compete with people who went to “better” schools, both as a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student. I don’t regret any of those experiences now, but sometimes I wonder how in the world I ended up here. In some ways, I have been extraordinarily lucky. I often feel kind of like a fraud, but I know deep down that I’m not one.
I empathize with high school seniors who are now dealing with the hell of trying to get into college. I don’t envy them at all. They’re dealing with so many things that I didn’t have to deal with. Life has gotten super competitive on many levels. I thought it was bad in 1990, but my generation had nothing on their generation.
It’s harder and more expensive to go to college these days. So many young people are racking up huge debts, and competition for well-paid work is stiff. Young people are having to worry about gun toting lunatics invading their schools and killing random people. We have a total buffoon in the White House who doesn’t care about anything but making rich people even richer (ETA: Remember, I am writing about Trump, not Biden).
I don’t envy you young folks at all, although I am very impressed by how young people are standing up and making their voices heard. And young people today are doing such incredible things… things that perfectly average, mediocre people can’t conceive of doing. I would imagine that the pressure to stand out must be insane… and yet it gets harder and harder every year.
I’m impressed by that insane drive to succeed that some young people have, but I have a heart for those who were perfectly average folks like me. It’s true that life is not a dress rehearsal, but most people end up okay, even if they aren’t stars. These years on the brink of adulthood can be tough going, but eventually, most people come to a place where grades and test scores no longer matter. So take heart. There’s life beyond the spring of your senior year. You just have to get through it and keep your eyes on the prize.
This post originally appeared on January 31, 2016. I am reposting it as/is today because it accompanies a book review I will repost after this.
The 70s and 80s were an interesting time to grow up. They don’t seem like they were that long ago to me, but now that I’ve reached middle age, I can say with honesty that they were. One story that intrigued millions of people when I was growing up was the story of David Vetter.
David Phillip Vetter was born on September 21, 1971, about the time my parents conceived me. He was from Conroe, Texas, a suburb of Houston. He had an older brother, David Joseph Vetter III, who died the year prior to his birth. Both David and his brother had a genetic disease called SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency). It meant that they were born without immune systems that could effectively fight off infections. The slightest illness could be fatal to someone with SCID.
Because David had this disease at a time before there was a treatment for it, he was forced to spend all but two weeks of his life in a plastic bubble. I distinctly remember hearing and reading about David. I also remember the 1976 film John Travolta, Robert Reed, and Diana Hyland famously starred in called The Boy in The Plastic Bubble. I saw the movie many times when I was growing up. It was based on the real life story of Ted DeVita, a teenager who had severe aplastic anemia. Ted DeVita lived in a sterile hospital room for over eight years. DeVita’s and Vetter’s experiences were fascinating to people all over the world. DeVita died in 1980 of iron overload, caused by too many blood transfusions.
I’m reminded of David’s story this morning. There was a link to a New York Times retro report on my Facebook feed. Though I hadn’t thought about David Vetter in a very long time, I quickly found myself recalling him as I watched the 12 minute video and read the accompanying article.
Had he lived, David would be my age. He had a bone marrow transplant that initially worked. Unfortunately, the marrow had a dormant strain of the Epstein Barr virus in it. The virus activated, and David ended up with a virulent cancer that overwhelmed his body. He died on February 22, 1984.
On David’s grave, the epitaph reads “He never touched the world… but the world was touched by him.” Even now, knowing that children with SCID are no longer kept in plastic bubbles, I can’t help but wonder what life would have been like for David, had he managed to become an adult. Though he was able to accomplish a lot in his twelve years and provided science and medicine with new knowledge about a rare disease, there were so many things he couldn’t do.
NASA made David a space suit, which he wore a handful of times. The suit allowed him to emerge from the bubble, though he remained tethered to it by an eight foot long cloth tube. He never felt his mother’s kiss until he emerged from the bubble for the bone marrow transplant. He never would have been able to have sex. I even wonder if he ever saw a dentist… though, I guess if you live in a sterile environment, bacteria is not an issue. Doctors worried what life would be like for David if he made it to teenhood or even adulthood. Would he be able to tolerate life in the plastic bubble for an entire normal lifespan?
I am amazed by what David Vetter’s twelve years on Earth did for the advancement of science, ethics, and medicine. I am also amazed at how old I am now. It seems like yesterday, I was just a youngster. I look at those photos and videos of David Vetter in his germ free environment, knowing that was state of the art medicine for the 1970s and 80s. What happened to him then, would never work today. Nowadays, kids who are identified with SCID before they get sick are given bone marrow transplants. In fact, in the video posted with the New York Times story, there is even a story about a woman whose son had SCID identified in utero. He had a bone marrow transplant before he was even born.
When I was in high school, one of the most popular guys in the senior class developed aplastic anemia. He ended up going to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died just weeks later. The day Mike Haury died, was coincidentally also the day 55,000 Armenians died in a massive earthquake… December 7, 1988. I have read that aplastic anemia is now much more successfully treated than it was in the 80s. Again, it just doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. I guess it was.
Edited to add: Although I know that COVID-19 life is nothing like it must have been for David Vetter, in a weird way, the constant focus on contagion and masking kind of reminds me of him. I’m looking forward to having the next vaccine.
Good morning, y’all… It’s my third Wednesday as a pseudo single person. Bill is supposed to come home sometime between tomorrow night and Friday night. Originally, the plan was for him to come back Friday night, but he needs to get a new ID card or he can’t work. Our cards expire on the 23rd, even though we just updated them in September. Bill is now on a new contract and that means new cards. Come to think of it, before long, I’ll also need a new regular military ID– the one I’d use in the USA if we were there.
In any case, Bill tried to get a new card made at an installation somewhat close to where he is right now, but that office ran out of ID cards on the day he was going to go. The other ID office near his current location is closed until the 29th. So then Bill said maybe he’d come home on Thursday night and get new cards made in Wiesbaden. I assume he’d be taking me, too, since I also need a new card, not that I spend any time on the installation during the COVID-19 mess. But then last night, he said getting one in Wiesbaden is also not possible. So now he says he will try to get one in Hohenfels, which was his original plan. Maybe they have a restock of IDs by now. If he does that, he says maybe he’ll be home Friday morning. That would be good.
It occurs to me how lucky we are to like each other so much. Yes, we love each other, but we also LIKE each other a lot. And we miss each other when we aren’t together. Bill’s business trips are boring for both of us. Sometimes I go with him, but then I end up hanging out by myself all day in a hotel room or wandering aimlessly. I am actually glad I got to go with him to Poland in November 2019, though. That was a pretty interesting trip. It would have been even better if we could have driven ourselves there rather than flown.
Anyway… on to today’s topic. I cannot, for the life of me, understand the mentality of some people– mothers especially– who feel the need to commit crimes on behalf of their children. Especially crimes that are more about their egos than preserving life or limb. I mean, I can understand a woman going all “mama bear” on someone who literally threatens or hurts her child somehow. But what about the moms who feel like they need to engage in fraud, harassment, or computer crimes to make sure her little darling(s) is/are on top of the heap? We’ve spent the last two years hearing about Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin committing fraud and cheating to get their daughters into good schools. But more ordinary moms of more modest means also commit these crimes on behalf of their children.
I ran across two such stories yesterday involving meddlesome moms who are now in legal trouble because they couldn’t or wouldn’t let their daughters achieve things on their own. In one case, the mom and daughter were both involved and BOTH of them got arrested. I’m sure that will look good on the girl’s permanent record.
Ms. Spone allegedly doctored photos of her daughters’ rivals on a Doylestown area cheerleading team, creating realistic looking images that make it look like the girls were photographed nude, vaping, or drinking beer in bikinis. She sent these fake photos to cheerleading coaches in an effort to get the girls kicked off their team. She also texted the photos to the girls themselves and suggested that at least one of them should kill herself. The three victimized girls were all on the same team as Spone’s daughter, but investigators don’t think she had anything to do with the harassment or was aware of what her mother was doing.
A case like this has all the trappings of a Lifetime movie. In fact, back in the 1993, HBO made a satirical movie about Wanda Holloway, a mother in Texas who actually hired a hitman to kill her daughter’s cheerleading rival. Fortunately, the would be hitman turned Wanda in and the plot failed. In that film rendition, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Holly Hunter played Wanda Holloway. In 1992, ABC also made a movie about Wanda Holloway, Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story, with Lesley Ann Warren playing Wanda. I haven’t seen either film. Maybe I’ll seek them out today.
I wonder if Raffaela Spone thinks someone might portray her on film someday. I’m sure Lifetime would be all over it. At least in this case, no one was physically hurt and murder was never on the table. If she is convicted, Raffaela Spone could spend six months to a year in prison. Mitigating matters is the fact that in one of the doctored photos that was supposed to appear to be a nude, Spone had digitally removed the bikini in the photo and overlaid flesh colored bars that gave the photo a “Barbie doll” effect, with no genitalia showing. Had anything private been showing, Spone would be facing much more serious charges.
Meanwhile, I’m sure everyone in their town now knows who Spone’s daughter is, even though she wasn’t implicated in the case. In her quest to cheat for her daughter, Spone has made things much worse for her. Even though the daughter wasn’t involved, her permanent record now has a blight. Hopefully, the people of that community are empathetic. I can only imagine Spone is probably a nightmare when she’s behind closed doors, particularly if she’s willing to go to these lengths to cheat for her daughter.
We now move south to Florida, where a 17 year old high school student and her mother, Laura Rose Carroll, who also happens to be an assistant principal at Bellview Elementary School, have been arrested for hacking the school’s computer system. Ms. Carroll is alleged to have logged into the school’s computer system and casted 246 votes for her daughter, who was on the Homecoming Court. Ms. Carroll’s efforts, had they not been discovered, would have resulted in her daughter winning the contest under false pretenses.
The list of charges against Laura Rose Carroll and her daughter is long. According to The Hill, “the mother and daughter will be charged with offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks, and electronic devices, unlawful use of a two-way communications device, criminal use of personally identifiable information and conspiracy to commit these offenses.” Arrest records also indicate that Ms. Carroll’s daughter also had improper access to her mother’s “FOCUS” account. I’m assuming that FOCUS is some kind of school computer system that has all of the permanent records of the students in the school system. Naturally, that would include personal information that should not be accessible to anyone who doesn’t specifically need access to such personal and confidential information. A witness claims that the daughter had access to the FOCUS account for a long time and use it frequently to get information about test scores and grades. The daughter also allegedly divulged private information about other students to her friends.
Given who Ms. Carroll is, it’s highly likely that everyone knows who her daughter is, despite her name not being printed in the media due to her age. Not knowing anything at all about this duo and not finding the news articles about them particularly illuminating, I wonder what the conditions were that led to this mother-daughter crime spree. Which one of them is the more toxically ambitious of the two? Is it mom who wants to see her daughter crowned in a means to stroke her own ego and, perhaps, vicariously live through her daughter’s achievements, even if they were ill gotten? Or is it the daughter who convinced her mother to help her cheat? It will be interesting to see if the media reveals any more details about this case.
I suspect Ms. Carroll is now unemployed. If she’s not unemployed yet, she probably will be very soon. Her bond was set at $8500, while her daughter was carted off to juvenile hall. I wonder if it was worth it to them.
These cases make me appreciate my mom more. I mean, hell, my mom won a beauty contest when she was 16 years old. I’m sure she would have loved it if I had been pretty and popular instead of outspoken and obnoxious. Fortunately, my mom is not ambitious for anyone but herself, and she pretty much stayed out of my life once I was at puberty. She stuck to paying the bills and encouraging me to get a job and GTFO on my own. She sure as hell wasn’t involved in my horse shows, which was what I was doing when I was a teen. She didn’t even look at my report cards. At the time, I thought that made her uncaring, but now I think she did me a solid. Anything I achieved, I did so legitimately and mostly on my own. At least neither of us were ever arrested for cheating or harassment or any other embarrassing misdeed that would have wound up on my permanent record. I have the satisfaction of knowing I can do things on my own… which I’ve been unhappily proving for almost three weeks now.
On another note… for some reason, as I type this, I am reminded of this classic song by Violent Femmes… the album this song comes from never ages, even though the lead singer can’t sing. What he has is vocal charisma. I’m sure it’s served him well over the years.
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