Sunday, April 25, 2004
I spent the weekend reading Theo Padnos's book My Life had Stood a Loaded Gun: Adolescents at the Apocalypse: A Teacher's Notes. Theo is an old friend from high school, though I hadn't seen much of him since then--once when he was teaching at UMASS and I was teaching in Atlanta, and once when I was living in Paris and he drifted over looking for bike racing.

I was suprised (and happy and a little jealous all at once) to find that, in the interim, we had both written books and they were coming out at the same time. And then I saw him on 60 Minutes, and then in an article in The Atlantic, and then when we were reviewed in the same issue of 7 Days, though I haven't been able to track him down in person.

I read some reviews of the book which were mixed, to not so good, and the endorsements, but held off reading it until now. I shouldn't have--the book was excellent, though not for the reasons that the reviewers seemed to want it to be--for the insight into teenagers in prison, or the social forces that drove them there, or the general decay of society and why. This is not a book on public policy or sociology. It is much more of an autobiography through the lens of books and teaching in prison, and it is told with real honesty and care. From the opening scene of Theo rolling around on the dusty floor of a graduate seminar in pain and jest, through his ambivalent progress into the jail, he does a brave job of casting light in himself, his shortcomings, his doubts and his struggles. He is seeking after some authentic edge to his own existence--through violence, or drugs, through people or texts, and he steadily draws us through his own half-heartedness and enthusiasm, self-deceptions. It is pleasantly free of the simple moralizing that the book has been critisized for (how can he possibly be sympathetic to terrible murders and rapists?--by sitting in a room with them day after day, at a time when their passions have passed and he is exploring shakily his own grip on himself). His descriptions of the books made me want to read them and re-think them (and their reception made me not want to teach again ever). This is a fine autobiography--find the social science somewhere else. Bravo, Theo, wherever you are....


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