As the end of the school year gets closer and closer, I am feeling the anticipation of a large and harmonious sigh from teachers everywhere. However, in keeping with our mission of “teachers today, students forever” I find myself searching for strategies and opportunities to continue pushing, learning, and keeping my passion alive even though the year is coming to an end and transitioning into the gloriousness that is summer. Luckily, I found ‘Be Frank With Me’ by Julia Claiborne Johnson and it has given me a nice positive little push to help get through these last few weeks.
‘Be Frank With Me’ by Julia Claiborne Johnson
‘Be Frank With Me’ is a story that is relatable on many levels. The narrator of the story is a sweet and entertaining young woman named Alice. Her voice sets a realistic, sarcastic and enjoyable tone as she unfolds her new job assignment. She has been sent to support an author as she attempts to write a novel. She expects to spend months going through drafts and sending progress reports back to her boss; But finds that her responsibilities range drastically as she is asked to care for the author’s son, Frank.
Personally, I find that when I read a book I often read from different perspectives. Sometimes I relate to stories as a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend, and in some rare cases as a teacher. It wasn’t until the end of this novel that I realized the teacher in me was fighting to analyze the main character. Frank is one of the most wonderfully written characters I have ever met. But what I didn’t know before I plucked this gem off of the bookstore shelf is that throughout the story Frank would exhibit what the Special Education World would call, “Autistic tendencies”.
Many times I would find myself telling Alice, “don’t do that Frank doesn’t like being touched” or, “of course he didn’t understand that he didn’t comprehend the social cue”. Or I would be fighting the desire to console/commend his mother, “you’ve done an excellent job, don’t feel like you have failed him in any way” and, “fueling his fire is what makes your bond so strong and allows him to feel confident and I admire that in both of you”.
When I finished the last page of this story I closed the book and sat, for quite a while. I just thought over and over about the characters, the events, and Frank. And it dawned on me. The reason this book was so refreshing to me is that Julia Claiborne Johnson never once used the words “Autism”, “tendencies”, “spectrum”, “diagnosis”, “goal”, “objective”, “progress monitor”, etc.
Why is the absence of special education labels so important in this story?
The reason why I feel this book should be a must read for all teachers this summer is because it brings back the essence of teaching. It is not a secret that our school systems inadvertently shove labels down our throats. The first thing I experience of a child is usually an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). I don’t see their smile, get to say hi, learn their favorite color, or what they like to eat. I see a diagnosis. Test scores. Present Level of Performance. Goals. Objectives. Progress Monitor Data Collection.
‘Be Frank With Me’ allowed me to see Frank’s face, (and more enjoyable, his wardrobe!) Julia forced me to experience Frank as Frank. I saw his highs, his lows, and his quirkiness just as I experienced every other wonderful character in this book. I was able to relate to Frank just as I was able to relate to Alice, Xander and Mimi. That is what is important and that is what I as a teacher need to keep in mind at all times. The child is more important. Their smile is more important. Their spark is more important. And when I say important I mean that as it should be first. Seen first, loved first, addressed first. The diagnosis should always be secondary to the charm, quirkiness, sweetness that is the child’s spirit.
At the end of the year many of us are fighting to stay motivated and keep our passion for teaching alive. This book gave me no choice but to love Frank because he was written in a real, raw, and heart-warming light. It was refreshing and up-lifting. This book often times made me laugh and smile. It brought on the urge to hug Alice as she struggled to create a strong friendship with Frank, and listen to Frank spout off everything he knew about an old classic movie. The novel as a whole is funny, quirky, sarcastic, light-hearted, and full of vastly different personalities. And I loved it. I promise it is worth meeting Frank and the gang for yourself.
Check it out and let us know what you think!