Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper

Teacher A: The first book we have to teach for the freshmen is Tears of a Tiger.
Teacher B: Okay, what do we do the second week?

--actual conversation between two teachers at my school

--Hey Rob! Live game, man. You be flyin' with the hoops, man! Swoosh! Ain't nobody better, 'cept maybe me.
--Yo, Andy, my main man! I see you been eatin' bull crap for dinner again! You only
wish you was as good as me! I, Robert Orlando Washington, will be makin' billions of dollars playin' for the N.B.A.! Want me to save you a ticket to one of my games?

--actual opening lines of Tears of a Tiger

Apparently, years ago, when my school first opened, none of the English teacher positions were actually filled by English teachers and so when it came time to choose books to teach someone decided on something called Tears of a Tiger, which may actually be the worst book I have ever read all the way through.

The story is this: Andy Jackson and Rob Washington are best friends and basketball teammates at Hazelwood High. One night, after a win, they go out and celebrate a little too much and Andy, who is driving drunk, crashes into a retaining wall, killing Rob. (From the locker room to the hospital, according to the time-stamp before each chapter, is an hour-and-a-half. Beer bong, anyone?) The rest of the story details Andy's grief, the deterioration of his relationships with his family and friends, and his eventual suicide.

The entire book is written without any sort of action or description, trading off between chapters of confusing, unattributed dialogue, and some sort of epistolary sections cobbled together from letters, homework assignments, and diary entries. Which would be fine, if it made any sense and weren't completely tone-deaf as to the way young people talk, even back, I'm sure, in the mid-90's when it was published.

I also have two much larger, moral issues with the book (Oscar Wilde be damned)--first of all, as if it weren't enough to chronicle Andy's internal struggle, Draper goes to great lengths to describe the kind of social ills that young black students face, like the teacher who predicts that Andy will be fine because "black kids are tough" and the conflict that Andy has with his father about what Andy feels is his dad's toadyism with regards to his white bosses. The book boasts an ensemble cast of Andy's friends and classmates, so we frequently are privy to their racial sensitivities as well, including the character who would get rid of band-aids because they're not the color of his skin, and Andy's little brother, whom he chastises for preferring dolls with blonde hair. Thematically, it's oddly out of place and serves only to minimize Andy's grief by placing it on the same level. Furthermore, Draper's tone-deafness in the way that she airs these greivances had many of my students convinced that the book as a whole was quite racist.

Secondly, and worse, is the treatment that Andy's suicide receives. The event is clumsily foreshadowed multiple times, including an instance in which Andy runs out of the classroom when one of his classmates observed that Lady Macbeth probably deserved her death at her own hands (cue bewildered white and clueless teacher). Yet, when after the act the school counselor recommends that Andy's friends and family write letters to him, not a single one offers any pity or sympathy toward him, but all show some variation on this sort of condescension:

You know what really pisses me off? You! You're a coward and a sellout! You decided to end your life, without saying good-bye to anybody, without asking anyone for help. You deserted your friends and family--the people who love you the most. Suicide is the coward's way out. Brave men face their problems. So what does that make you?

..I hate you for leaving me here. I hate you for making me feel like this. I hate you for making me cry. And I hate you for making me face death again so soon.

Does anyone really think this kind of intimidation is effective in keeping kids from suicide? Andy maintains that no one understands his grief and his guilt, and in the end he's right; no one does. The book is, at the very least, emotionally manipulative, and ultimately comes off as an anti-suicide screed that lacks any sort of insight into what might make a young man kill himself. It is clearly also written by a person that has never considered suicide and has no sympathy for anyone who has.

Worse even still, the book is almost devoid of anything that ought to be taught in English class--there is no figurative language, no deeper meaning, and the characters are paper thin. But I taught the damn thing--where's my Teacher of the Year award, Obama?


Nihil Novum said...

So what did you actually teach from it? And did you tell them it sucked?

Christopher said...

What a bad book looks like.

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