by Kyle Mendelson
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer was chosen as the One School One Book for the upcoming school year. This novel touches upon intense topics such as death of an immediate family member, the tragic events of Sept. 11, absent parents, and a child that self harms. While the reading is rich in descriptive language and adventure within every page, I think that it was wrong to assign this book as summer reading.
What did not make sense to me was the disclaimer provided on Newton North High School’s website, stating that counseling would be available during the reading seminars. However, no counseling was available during the summer—the time period when students were supposed to read the book. Why assign a book with such emotionally intense topics during a two-month period without guidance?
During the seminar I attended, I raised the question “Do you think it was appropriate to assign a book with such sensitive topics, due to recent events in the community, during a period of time where students are not receiving guidance?” The Newton North staff member (special education teacher Peter Cavanaugh) hosting the seminar gave a respectful response to my question, stating that the melancholy nature of the text was considered extensively during the book selection process. While his response did not necessarily answer my question, he did not say anything offensive or make any sort of apologetic claim. And I had not been expecting this—I just thought it would be interesting to hear what he had to say.
My question was also addressed to the other panelists, and I ended up receiving a slightly offensive and frankly ignorant response. One of the panelists (trauma psychiatrist Michelle Wexelblat) responded to my question (the others respectfully did not), saying something along the lines of “you have your friends and family for support, so you aren’t reading this book without a support system available.”
This kind of thinking hit an extremely close nerve for me. It is by no means easy to reach out for help when feeling emotionally distressed. Not everyone has the confidence and the valor to say, “hey, I’m really hurting right now and I need to talk about this.” As someone that doesn’t always have the courage to reach out to people when feeling upset or lost, I was personally offended. I felt that I was being blamed for lacking a certain personality trait that enables me to express my emotions freely.
After a few other questions were asked, a short clip was played from the film, and I had to excuse myself from the assembly because it touched on the death of a parent; a topic sensitive to me.
While I do not think that this book should have been assigned as summer reading, I am by no means discouraging reading it in school. I think that reading this novel during the academic year with readily available guidance would have been more appropriate. This novel is amazingly well written and definitely raises awareness about sensitive topics, as well as autism and certain aspects of the disorder that need to be discussed.
The panelists response reflects a problem in our society today: the misconception that everyone can easily get help from their family. It is by no means anyone’s fault if they are having difficulty reaching out for help, and sometimes it is easier to come to a professional––a guidance counselor, for example––rather than a close friend or family member. Our community has experienced heavy losses in the past year, therefore reading this book unsupported could have been an extremely difficult task.