It is my pleasure to introduce Viridorari’s first guest writer, my eleventh grade English teacher, Rebecca DeSol! Mrs. DeSol is an inspirational and insightful human being with an unprecedented amount of devotion to her students. When I leave high school and head off into the world, I will remember her for her caring soul and our shared enjoyment for deep, philosophical conversation. She is one of the best high school teachers there is, and I can’t think of anyone better to kick off Viridorari’s “Suggested Reading” section. Today, she will be sharing Feed with you, a futuristic fiction novel by M.T. Anderson she teaches her students. While the focus of this book is the influence of technology on society, it also provides a horrifying view of what our future planet could be like if we keep traveling on our path of environmental destruction. First, I’ll get you started with some information about Mrs. DeSol, and then I’ll let her sweep you away with her prolific and thought-provoking writing.
Mrs. DeSol teaches at Pal-Mac High School, and she wishes she had the time and energy to ride her bike to work, she would like to see renewable energy made more available, and she needs to save her money for a house with a bigger backyard so she can grow more vegetables to eat and share with friends in the summer. In the meantime, she composts when she can (trudging through a foot of snow makes a garbage can appealing sometimes), avoids eating meat, and believes her students will not only find the answers they seek, but act upon their questions, continuing to change our world for the better.
So, without further ado, I'll let Mrs. DeSol take it away. I hope you will all consider reading Feed by M.T. Anderson and discover its invaluable message about technology and the environmental dilemma.
playing among the ruined languages,
so small beside their large confusing words,
so gay against the greater silences
of dreadful things you did…”
- W.H. Auden
I caught myself doing it again: complaining about the speed of my smart phone. I’m due for what used to be known as that two-year upgrade through one of those big cellular companies. Not sure if they do it anymore; though this phone has clearly been engineered to last just about two years, so I’m easily convinced to buy a new one, I’m trying to fight that as long as possible. I couldn’t tell you what the new phones are right now; I am the proverbial ostrich with my head in the hole. Don’t tell me don’t tempt me don’t make me – because then I’ll be forced to figure out what to do with my old cell phone once I have a new one, and I don’t know whether it’s best to recycle it, donate it, toss it, or just add it to the growing pile of discarded cell phones in the DeSol household junk drawer.
In the meantime… this phone is moving so slow!
Which brings me to what Faith has asked me to write about: M.T. Anderson’s Feed and the environment. “Google” that (never mind that we’re using Google as a verb), and you’ll probably get to the answer faster than I will in this article. But as student of mine once wrote in an essay, "If information is so readily available to the average student, the student in turn learns that everything will be given to them and that resources will always be plentiful. Thus, they learn that they have to work for Nothing in order to gain Everything." (Yes, Faith, I saved that one)
So let’s learn.
I present Exhibit A: comedian Louie C.K. ‘s bit “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy” http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8m5d0_everything-is-amazing-and-nobody-i_fun
Focus in at about 2:15. Particularly at 3:15-4:00.
And Exhibit B: The Colbert Report takes a look at Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff. http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/267056/march-09-2010/annie-leonard
Now that we’re hopefully a little more “reverent for our stuff,” as Annie Leonard encourages (and as Louie C.K. reminds us: “Give it a second! It’s going to SPACE!”), I invite you all to read M.T. Anderson’s satirical young-adult science-fiction novel, Feed.
Using Feed in the classroom actually started out as a study in language: its evolution (and de-evolution), its function, etc. Ironically, and intentionally, it contains quite a bit of swearing. A bunch of future teens take a spring break trip to the moon, and, as the first line of the book states, it turns out “to completely suck.”
And so begins our tale of Titus and his friends. They all have “feeds,” or essentially super-advanced smart-phone-esque computer chips, embedded in their brains, which provide them access to anything they need to know. Titus’ narration is choppy, simplistic, peppered with futuristic slang, and full of horrendous grammatical errors. Yet, every year, without fail, my students are hooked by the time I’ve finished reading our first reading selection out loud. Students leave the classroom referring to each other as “units” and “unettes,” talking about their “meg brag” plans for the weekend, and commiserating over how “null” some homework was.
Consequently, the following few weeks we spend on the book are a riot. Students who have managed to get away with not reading in English class for years sidle over to my desk to whisper how much they love the book; how they couldn’t put it down and read past the assigned reading; how they read parts of it out loud to their jealous friends; how they went and bought their own copy; how they keep having “Feed moments.”
Ah, “Feed moments.” I still get the occasional email from a former student with the subject line: FEED MOMENT! Makes my day every time, because I know I’ve gotten through to one more student. I’ve printed them out over the four years I’ve been introducing Feed to juniors: TED invention videos, Google Glasses (https://plus.google.com/+projectglass#+projectglass/posts), and those futuristic Microsoft productivity vision videos (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6cNdhOKwi0) detail just a few of the parallels. This year I even had several former students burst into my room one day after school to share how Droid’s new commercial depicts a cell phone being fused to a person’s very DNA: “Omigod Mrs. DeSol, it’s Feed!!!!!!” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYIAaBOb5Bo)
Feed’s appeal, I’ve discovered over the years, is not based on its language, as I originally planned. Instead, its appeal is the very thing that makes some people dislike it: its plausible, albeit satirical, technologically-saturated reality.
Titus tells us, in the opening sentence, that things “suck” in this futuristic world of ours. My students always surprise me with how quickly they pick up on the heart of the matter. The mass marketing and focus on technology distracts our futuristic society from real matters of concern, like our relationships with each other and our very real, very vital connection to that which keeps us alive: our environment. Earth.
The environment of this futuristic world is in complete decay, on the brink of something near the apocalypse, if we read the signs. Right there, after Titus’ bizarre opening narration of their travel to the moon, we get a glimpse of the initial decay: “…the craters all being full of old broken shit, like domes nobody’s using anymore and wrappers and claws” (4). The jumbled narration, combined with the distractions the feed creates for the characters, convinces us we are endlessly better than these vapid characters and their silly exploits. Clearly, the problem lies in the feed; this technology that makes it so hard to think: “…I can’t hardly remember any of it. I just remember that everything in the banners looked goldy and sparkling,” Titus says as he struggles to walk and keep up with his friends, despite the feed’s aggressive advertisements blinding him. “…[B]ut as we walked down to the luggage, all the air vents were streaked with black” (8).
Students picking up on a part of the text I’d previously overlooked is one of my favorite parts of teaching Feed, or any piece of literature, really. I love when they can make a critical observation and be able to discuss its importance. For some reason, however, the pollution issue always catches my students’ attention. Any adult who reads it notices the marketing plots, the various allusions, and the other satirical connections to today’s society. But the students always notice the environment.
Titus’ friend Violet dreams of living by a lake that’s “not on fire,” rages at the destruction of one of the last forests to make room for an air factory, and savors her trip to an “old-fashioned” farm, where “you could walk around and see everything grow” (141). Titus tells us it feels peaceful, and it smells like the country: “It was a filet mignon farm, all of it, and the tissue spread for miles around the paths where we were walking. It was like these huge hedges of red … they had these tubes… we could see the blood running up and down…” (142). Nothing like teenagers falling in love amid genetically modified slabs of meat.
It’s extreme, it’s ridiculous, and it’s all too real.
At one suspenseful point in Titus’ narration, while he’s anxiously dwelling over an inner moral debate, Titus’ father subjects us to his recent business retreat. To our shock, the father excitedly narrates over the play-back of a whaling expedition, a hunt with all the glory of Melville’s Moby Dick, with one glaring difference – the whale is encased in some sort of plastic. Why? The ocean is dead. Nothing can survive in it anymore. But how wonderful - scientists have figured out how to keep the whales alive. Yet, somewhere amid the gory details of spouting blood and dipping buckets into the valuable spermaceti, the wrongness of everything hits Titus, and us. A whale, an endangered animal, is purposely kept alive in an environment that cannot support it, for the purpose of killing it.
The authenticity and possibility of this futuristic world make us hyper-sensitive to how close we actually are to it all. With this awareness comes the growing concern I have about using this book: its ideas are quickly becoming dated as Titus’ world becomes our world. Each year, a few more students decide the concept of the feed isn’t so bad. Having a feed in their head would make reading some book for English easier, after all. While that may in part be contributed to that typical teenage need to think differently from the group, some students are uncomfortable with the satirical parallels to today’s controversial problems.
Suddenly it’s not so fun anymore to read the awkward language and count the swear words as we hear our own peers speaking eerily similar to Marty, Link, Quendy, and Calista. In conflict mediation, adults encourage students to “think of what you’d text him/her; say what you’d text.” Teens are bullied in cyberspace, and jokes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram become permanent and follow us to college and our future careers. Siri, Amazon, and all the rest keep tabs on what we like. Japan defends its right to hunt whales, and economically disadvantaged countries are pressured and bribed into supporting this claim. Organic foods, once simply referred to a simply “food” before GMOs, additives, dyes, chemicals, pesticides, and hormones, are now marketed as gourmet products.
This is the worst part of the book – that so-quick-you’ll-miss-it-if-you-blink transition of when my students mature from teenagers into young adults. Their eyes become a little clearer, their minds become a little more critical, and the world around them changes. They present their final projects on Feed – brilliant, inspiring, passionate takes on all the issues brought up in the novel. They vehemently discuss the problems Anderson has highlighted, and then, at some point, they turn to me: the adult, the experienced one, the teacher. Surely, I will have the answer.
What do you do, as the adult – the teacher – in this moment?
There are twenty-five pairs of eyes looking at you in this class alone – and more will show up next period. These teens, at this precarious precipice, look to you for guidance. These eyes represent the future generation of this world. At this one moment, they fear they will be like the children of Auden’s poem: oblivious to the damage they’ve wrought upon the world. Some of them have never even been to the ocean, after all. For a moment, the gut reaction is to say something idyllic and prophetic, perhaps invoke Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” But that sounds hollow; their eyes demand action – perhaps throw the curriculum out the window and start a mass campaign movement – Save the Whales! – in your classroom? That’ll never work; Bob Barker gave Sea Shepherd a boat to help save the whales, but they still never manage to find the Japanese whaling fleet until the climactic end of every TV season, anyway; what can my classroom accomplish, in comparison?
And so I pause a moment and take a deep breath, and they realize I’m going to give them a hard answer; an answer that doesn’t have the instant gratification they seek.
Just act on your convictions, when the moment arises, I tell them. Some of you will go home and experiment with veganism; others will swear off their cell phones – for a week, anyway. Others still will pay more attention to recycling, perhaps, or carpooling, or seek to reduce their carbon footprint. Some will make an effort to conserve water, and some will research how to start a compost pile.
Many, however, will forget this conversation the second you walk out that door. And that’s okay, too.
I remain satisfied that this generation does in fact care about the environment, for they picked up on it in a book when I originally did not.
One student remains, after all the others leave.
What do you do, Mrs. DeSol?
She wants me to say I joined the peace corps before I went to college; that I ride my bike to work, instead of drive my car; that I have solar panels installed on my roof; that I only eat what I organically grow in my backyard…
One night, the tide receded and left thousands of starfish stranded on the beach. A young boy saw this, and quickly began picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the sea. Nearby, an old man watched, eventually asking the boy why he bothered at all. The majority of the starfish were going to die before the boy got to them. Surely the boy could see his valiant attempt didn’t matter. The boy stopped in his tracks, and studied a starfish in his hands. Then, tossing it into the sea, he turned to the old man and said, “It mattered to that one.”
If you have questions or comments for Mrs. DeSol, email them to email@example.com or comment below and I will make sure that she receives them. I hope you enjoyed Viridorari's first guest writer.
Work Cited for Text Citations:
Anderson, M. T. Feed. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2004. Print.
Picture courtesy of: