Shame Clings by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
I didn’t grow up poor, but my mother did. She grew up in an unheated home, eating the occasional squirrel shot by my grandfather, and when there was nothing else, a bowl of crackers floating in milk. Her poverty was not the only thing that caused her humiliation. Her mother, while suffering from schizophrenia, was prone to do things like roll around in newly laid tar in her baby doll pajamas. That is, when she wasn’t in the state hospital.
It frightens me to type these words. Shame is generational. It’s a legacy. It seeps down in insidious ways so even though there was food on my table (and plenty of Drakes cakes in my school lunches), a layer of cootie dust coated my skin as well. Get off of me. You are repulsive when you are needy. Shame clings.
Two boys meet in my new novel The Dollar Kids. One suffers from guilt, the other from shame. They’re not the same thing. Guilt is a snakebite. If promptly treated, it can heal. Shame is the venomous snakebite that leads to paralysis. Sometimes snakebites turn you into a snake.
Lowen, the eleven-year-old protagonist in my story, suffers from enormous guilt (his internal struggle is beautifully illustrated in comics by Ryan Andrews). It’s a guilt that prompts him to convince his family to apply for a new home in a new community — a home that will cost them one single dollar. His family does apply, and along with four other families, is accepted.
When folks hear the premise of my book: five families purchasing a home for a dollar, they often jump to the conclusion that these families are poor. But dollar housing programs, which actually exist in communities across the country, have strict regulations that almost always include the repair and upkeep of the decrepit homes — a regulation that those with low incomes can rarely meet.
Nevertheless, assumptions prevail. So, while the dollar families move to Millville believing that their optimism, elbow grease, and goodwill will save a town that has lost its mill, the people of Millville are convinced that their kindness and generosity will support (save) five diverse dollar families. Egads.
Yeah, things don’t go so well at first.
Meanwhile, the grieving Lowen meets the angry, ashamed Dylan and his even angrier grandfather — Mr. Avery, a man who has made it his mission to see that the dollar program (and in particular Lowen’s family) does not succeed. Battle lines are drawn.
Sound familiar? We seem to be living in a particularly divisive time. Yet we need to be cognizant. Saying “our country has never been so polarized” demonstrates little understanding of our history and the myriad of destructive lines that have been drawn throughout. What we are living in is a time of corroding, destructive divisiveness made visible — again.
So, what do we do about it?
One course is to identify wrongdoers and shame them into “correct” action. Right? Let’s face it. Shaming is not only expedient, it’s gratifying. There’s something so cathartic about taking down others who demonstrate behaviors that we deem to be ignorant, uninformed, destructive, wicked. That’s why in literature, the penultimate scene often includes a big-old comeuppance — a public spectacle in which the antagonist is ripped apart by shame and then sometimes physically destroyed (though the shaming no doubt provides the greatest pleasure). But let’s face it again. Shaming never makes someone feel respected, or understood, or whole, or open to loving. It has no power to heal.
And shame clings.
It seeps down, infecting the next generation.
And the generation after that.
It’s a source of divisiveness.
It’s a snake that devours its own tail.
So, spoiler alert: the already ashamed Mr. Avery is not further shamed in the end. Instead, with The Dollar Kids, I chose to imagine a town, a growing community, in which compassion breaks the cycle of shame.
Admittedly, it’s hard to write a story in which the antagonist is treated with respect. But that is the challenge I have given myself with every book I’ve written. I write, and I rewrite until I love the villain. I figure that’s my job.
Because day by day by day, it’s compassion, and only compassion that can turn cootie dust into magic dust.
It’s the only legacy I want to leave behind.
Jennifer Richard Jacobson is the author of many books for children and young adults including Small as an Elephant, and Paper Things, which not only received a Charlotte Huck Honor and an ILA Social Justice Literature Award, but a Nerdy Award 2015! When she’s not in her Maine home writing or coaching children’s writers, Jennifer is on the road providing professional development on Writer’s Workshop. Her book No More “I’m Done!” Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades supports her philosophy that all learners can experience joy in writing. She can be found at http://www.jenniferjacobson.com
THE DOLLAR KIDS. Text copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Richard Jacobson. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Ryan Andrews. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.