Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review - I'm Down: A Memoir by Mishna Wolff

I read this book to laugh out loud. Recently caught in a slump of serious books, I needed a comedy. Although I did laugh out loud at parts, this memoir mostly made me empathetic to the many trials and triumphs of growing up different and trying to please. I'm Down is actually quite serious. Mishna is white, as are her father, mother, and sister. However, her father grew up in an African American neighborhood, and he identifies with that culture, wanting his children to do so too. Mishna's sister seems to have no problem fitting in, but Mishna is self conscious of her extreme whiteness. Just as she finds a way to fit in at school, she is sent to the much more white private school, where she is too black in culture and too far down on the economic scale to fit in right away. The memoir explores race, identity, class and privilege. Many of the moments about Mishna's wealthy and yet unfulfilled friends stand out to me, and make me think again about the variety of experiences of our student body. Mishna is overjoyed to go to a friend's house and play Nintendo and eat Hotpockets all day undisturbed by adults, while her friend just wants her parents to pay attention to her. Mishna is embarrassed as she tries not to inhale the warm cafeteria lunches that her wealthy friends look at with disdain. And the section about skiing is enough provoke me to feel what is must be like to be a child on scholarship at one of our independent schools. Mishna's family doesn't understand the responsibilities her school places on her, nor how important these responsibilities are to her. She straddles two cultures and it doesn't always work to her benefit. Mishna is worried, angry, sensitive, scared, but above all, she is hopeful. I highly recommend this quick memoir to everyone in high school through adulthood, but especially to those of us who work with teenagers, many of whom struggle to fit in at home and at school every day.

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