Saturday, March 3

How To Get Suspended and Influence People


by Adam Selzer
Delacorte Press/Random House 2007

I really didn't want to like this. Actually, I didn't think I would like it first and that eventually led to me thinking that I didn't want to like it, because I was sure that I would hate it.

But I tell you what, I did like it. And probably for the same sort of reasons that it will appeal to smartass middle school boys if they ever get their hands on it: it has a delicate subversive streak in it that doesn't hit you over the head as you read it so much as it sidles up to you, asks you what you're reading, and then womps you before you can answer.

It starts lamely enough with Leon Noside Harris explaining his crazy middle name (Edison spelled backward), his crazy dad (inventing useless things) and his crazy mom (cooking and delighting in meals from cookbooks that use weird ingredients). It skitters like a crab into the beginning of the school where the usual assortment of misfits is settling into their various roles while Leon grows impatient for everyone to start acting up.

Then there's this shift, Leon and some of the other misfits are part of the gifted set, kids who get special treatment because while school recognizes their abilities they are at a true loss for ways to address them. It is decided that these eighth graders should utilize their talents and the school's multimedia equipment to update the various educational films to be shown to the sixth and seventh graders. If that doesn't sound like the ingredients for misguided thinking and elevated hi-jinx then you haven't been around eighth graders for a while.

Leon's got his eyes set on the sex ed films. He wants the younger kids to know, yeah, puberty gets weird, and things happen, and thoughts cannot be controlled, and it's all good. Naturally he's not going to be allowed to show any real nudity, and eventually the morality police (in the guise of one truly repressed teacher) will want to have final say over what Leon produces, but he's undaunted.

Hanging out with misfit kids means that eventually his girlcrush Anna is going to have to take him gently by the hand and give him some influence. He sees Fellini's La Dolce Vita. He sees the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou. His sex ed film becomes the attempt to cross Italian neorealism with a sense of the absurd, something he calls Avant Garde but is really more akin to the experimental collage works that appeared in the 1960, something he titles La Dolce Pubert. I could mention the works of Bruce Conner, but that's probably going a bit too deep here. Besides, Leon never mentions other influences.

His big idea is to show nudity as portrayed in classic works of literature while a friend with a gift for satire turns Byronic odes into fell-good permissives about the joys of wanking off. An early idea to include an explosion of some sort -- never mind how or why it connects, Leon hasn't really figured it out himself -- is scotched due to a fear that Leon might harm himself. And when the big scene regarding the popular "it" couple of his band refuses to participate in his climactic kissing scene (something about it not being Marxist enough for the girl) Leon and Anna must stand in and then all heck breaks loose.

The rough edit of the film is seen and Leon is given in-house suspension. The film is seized and word travels that Leon is being censored. Teachers and students protest in support and even Leon's dad doesn't see the harm in it all. But Leon has the master print. A little final tweaking, plus some friends who are willing to post the film on the internet and burn hard copies to be shared, and Leon becomes a cause celebre. The principal backs down, the morality police elect to leave the sodomites to their sins, and future gifted classes are kept from making sex ed films. Leon and Anna plot a future of films where plots serve as excuses for more kissing.

I lived this story.

Okay, so I got suspended for cussing out a teacher who had wrongly punished me (by his own admission) to set an example, and the films we made were newscasts in the future full of sex and violence and sex. And a friend of mine and I wrote an update of Romeo and Juliet so that one of us (*ahem*) could have some kissing scenes with a secret crush. It would be another ten years before I'd see Fellini or know what surrealism really was but if I'd been shown them in junior high I'd have grokked my future a bit earlier. No matter.

What Selzer does is set you up with a typical smartass outsiders story that at its base has some real criticisms of the way "gifted" kids are treated and how anything outside the norm really isn't accepted no matter how much it's encouraged. He hints that a number of gifted kids may have been placed in the program because they were disciplinary problems and the extra attention would remove their disruptive influence from the classrooms, and I have to say I've seen plenty of proof to support that. As for encouraging gifted kids to push at the edges, but being afraid of the results and finally coming down on the conservative side of control, well, that's just the history of the Western World writ miniature to fit the little dioramas of educational fiefdoms.

There are elements of How to Get Suspended... that I could see keeping it from the grasp of its target audience -- specifically in the way of censorship from various adults. First, the title is a more a reference to Lenny Bruce's autobiographical How to Talk Dirty and Influence People than it is to Bruce's reference, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Woe to the unwary who don't heed the cover illustration of a nude with a black bar across her breast! It isn't that there's anything too graphic or untoward, but Selzer appears to want to be frank with the readers in a way he knows would make some adults uncomfortable. Leon doesn't seem to have it bad but at least one of friends seems to intimate matter-of-factly daily masturbation. Let's also not ignore when one of the school coaches checks in with the suspended Leon and commiserates, explaining how when he was in college he was part of a free-speech group called freedom Under Charles Kerr.

"Think about the initials," the coach suggests. Indeed.

It's these little things that won me over, that pulled the book slowly from the mire of other, similar middle school-based books that try to get the kids to side with them. It suggests that the awkwardness of puberty is not only normal but makes for entertaining reading.
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