Can You Feel the Love?

One of the great pleasures of this writing game is to receive the occasional effusive email from fans who really enjoy my work.  Because my books so often involve adolescent protagonists (usually, but not always, in secondary roles) I hear from many young readers who are almost always complimentary of the stories and the characters.
Of all my books, none gets more fan mail from young people than Nathan’s Run.  In that story, the main character, Nathan Bailey, is a 12-year-old fugitive from the law, having admitted to killing a juvenile detention center guard and running away.  While it’s a thriller at its face, it explores some pretty complex themes about how little voice children have in society.  In schools where it’s not banned, it is frequently taught.  (The book contains, by one irate woman’s accounting, 409 unacceptable words.)
Whether in fulfillment of a class assignment or of their own volition, it’s not uncommon for students to contact me via email to “interview” the author.  On these requests, I am a sure thing.  I never say no, and I always try to respond promptly.
There’s a fine line, however, that I won’t cross, and that is the one where I sense that the student is essentially trying to get me to write his book report for him.  On biographical details, for example, I point them toward my website, or to other places where they would have found the information if they had tried.  I also shy away from questions regarding theme, symbolism, and other very English-classy subjects where I imagine the teacher wanted them to do some analysis on their own.
Last Sunday, I received this email from a boy named, shall we say, Tom:
hi john i have a question i have read yur book now i have a project to do wit it i kinda wanted to ask yuh how did nathan solve the problem and what was the turning point
That is cut and pasted in exactly the format I received it.  Clearly, it was easier to write an email than it was to read a book.  I have no idea how old “Tom” is, but if he’s been assigned to read Nathan’s Run, he’s got to at least be in middle school.  Plus, his email strummed another sensitive note: respect for the language.  I understand that kids are kids, and that texting language is different than real English, but I figure that I owe some allegiance to the rules of grammar.  So I donned my dad hat and took the high ground with the following response:
Hi, Tom.
Nice to hear from you–sort of.  Let’s start over, with you recognizing that I am an author, and that punctuation, spelling and grammar matter.  If you ask some properly formatted questions, I’d be happy to address them
Best regards,
John Gilstrap
That was me doing my part to be cooperative, yet not compromise my principles.  To this, he responded:
suck my dick Nigga
Again, that’s a quote; word choice and punctuation are his alone.
Well, goodness.  I confess that when I first read his response, I laughed.  It was so . . . startling.  But then I thought about the fundamental lack of respect, and my amusement turned to concern.  I’m sure that in his mind my reply showed disrespect, but come on.  To be really honest, I have second- and third-guessed myself about even posting this here, for fear of seeming like a bully.  At least I changed his name.
I’ll resist the urge to draw a larger conclusion about the state of adolescents today, and instead look to my son and his friends as the models for the actual norm.  (Okay, their adolescence is 10 years in the rearview mirror, but work with me.)  I have often thought that I would like to teach writing at the high school level, but when stuff like this happens, I have to check myself.  My hat goes off to those who do teach, and who find a way to control their anger despite their instinct to smack a kid out of his chair.
Yep, I’m becoming that old guy down the street.

19 thoughts on “Can You Feel the Love?

  1. First off, John, the proper response to the second e-mail you received from “Tom” would be 1)”I gave up baby food long ago, Sirrah!” or 2)” But…if I did that… your poor mother would starve!” I must confess, I have been that old guy down the street for years. Age and experience beat youth, droopy pants, and bad attitude.

    I received some very nice correspondence last week from a young man who addressed me as “Mr. Hartlaub”, asked me a couple of serious questions, and thanked me profusely when he received my answers. I hold out hope that there are more like him than there are like “Tom.”

  2. Apparently John, he has a thing for older men…I mean its all kinda anything goes these days.

    Suffice it say that those with the utmost ability to communicate intelligibly will in the end be the ones in charge, while those who talk like idiots end up in the gutters.

    Reason #294 why I teach my kids to be literate and speak like adults instead of like morons.

    ten bucks says ‘Tom’ walks around with his underpants showing and doesn’t realize he looks like a dork

  3. Love your response, Joe Moore!

    John it sounds like you’re another victim of cyberbullying – I’ve been doing research into that topic this week for my big girl job as a Family Nurse Practitioner.

    You did the right thing with your first response – if we don’t model appropriate respect and love for the language and critical thinking, who’s going to do it?

    Sounds like Tom does what alot of kids do today – he reacted with anger, and circulated his hateful words online.

    Shame on him.

    If kids want to play with the Big Dogs they need to learn the lingo. And respect.

    The more we bring things like this to light, the better. I’m glad you posted it, John.


  4. Kids have a new thing. They go to online book retailers & “hook up” at certain book titles. They post crazy comments & can drive your rating down with anonymous regularity. Amazon stopped allowing anonymous reviews, but B&N allows them. My latest B&N Top 100 got hit by these. By the comments, you could tell they never read the book–comments like “I never read this book. Tell me what it’s about.” I reported the obvious ones, but no response from B&N.

    Tom has a set of brass ones. With the lack of respect comes a sense of entitlement that’s infuriating too. I really pity teachers who are on the front line dealing with this crap.

  5. Oh, wanted to say that you should report that email with the inappropriate language to the ISP – the bylaws of most providers won’t tolerate that sort of thing. His account will be deactivated because of that language he used.

    Wonder if Tom read the By-laws?



  6. Lack of respect is, well…lacking, from ALL age groups I have noticed (it’s a major problem in the business world too). For just one example–when I was growing up, I was taught that you call anyone older than you Mr. or Miss. I’m not sure why, but even among adults, this practice has gone out the window.

    On a good note, the teens I know do not act like this. At least not that I’ve ever observed.

  7. Too bad there’s no way to know who his teacher is. Imagine the potential merriment were you able to send this exchange back that way.

    I taught high school for a couple of years in a tough neighborhood; I also watched my daughter and her friends as they grew through this period. I believe Tom is far more the exception than the rule, though seeing kids in groups trying to impress their peers may make people wonder otherwise.

  8. I must look like a total Miss Priss, because people are always apologizing when they use foul language around me (they’d know better if they read my books!). I haven’t run into any online crudeness, except while reading comments on web sites. I gave up reading those long ago, because it threw me into a state of despair about the intelligence of American society, and our prospects for the future.

    I think historians a thousand years from now will look back at this era as being a major turning point in printed communication. Sentences are becoming shorter, and capitalization and punctuation are gradually eroding. Even spelling is being changed by texting.

  9. Bahahahahaha. I teach grades 6, 7 & 8. I agree with Paula that these things need to come to light a lot more often. Teachers can’t post these little tidbits without jeopardizing their jobs. Anyway, my best young adult sources tell me that in my region “nigga” a word I have heard and read zillions of times but would personally NEVER say or think, actually means dude. Except in your case. Normally it is used among friends. It might mean something else somewhere else, but believe me I have interrogated the youth who use it. I’ve threatened to send some to the office.

    The insult that compounds this injury is, if we can’t educate such cherubs then we’ll get support them during their life through our tax contributions.

  10. Whoa. I’m with Paula on reporting the incident to the ISP. Then again, I worry that he might, indeed, begin to cyber-stalk you. Or find your house.

    I’m married to a writer/creative writing prof. The sad news is that he sees writing similar to the kid’s first email all the time–in his 300 level classes. : (

  11. You know, after a little thought about the young man in question and how to deal with society’s collapse of respect I’ve come up with this solution.

    The Draft. Re-institute mandatory two year military service for all young men, and maybe women too. But do not train the disrepectful or stupid ones in combat skills. Save that for volunteers with higher literacy and math scores and the ability to communicate well. Successful combat operations require good communication skills, respect for chain of command, and emotional self control more than anything else.

    Thug wannabes would be placed in support positions only, cooks, clerks, and labor positions etc, but required to go through the same discipline structure as combat soldiers. During that service everyone would be given the opportunity for continued education to improve their skill set and transfer to a different job if they qualify.

    Just my opinion, but history has shown it works. Countless young folks in generations past ended up finding purpose and meaning for an other wise directionless life via an unexpected two year stint in the military. Some ended up making it a career, others found the discipline needed to focus on their future and get into a good job after wards.

    Again, just my opinion, any other ideas for how to deal with it?

  12. Basil!

    Now that’s a wonderful solution!

    Fight Stupidity with a Tried and True solution.

    You know I’ve been thinking all day what an amazing Antagonist “Tom” would be in a thriller.

    There’s got to be a YA novel in this piece somewhere.

    He’d be the perfect way to “Hash Out” this argument in Prose.
    Maybe the good kids would learn something?


  13. I had to go to my annual lawyer school today. This post not only cracked me up, it gave me hope for my own job security and future.

    You see, if he wasn’t smart enough to know it was time to put a sock in it, he won’t be smart enough to smart enough to know when to put a sock on it.

    Did I mention that I prosecute and enforce delinquent child support orders?

    ::puts “Tom” on my tba (“to be arraigned”) list::


    PS: my word verify captcha was more literate than the second note.

  14. I’m with John Ramsey Miller. You just lost a reader. But that’s not even the point. This kid tried to engage you in conversation, albeit with poor English and grammar. Wouldn’t it have been good to respond in a less judgmental manner and develop a bit of rapport before chastising him for his lack of skills? Hope the kid continues to read, even if he’s crossed you off his list.

  15. PatriciaW,

    I appreciate your thoughts, but I don’t think for a moment that this young man was trying to engage me in a conversation. I clearly can’t know his heart, but from the very nature of his questions, it was clear to me that he had not read the book. I’m not sure what his agenda was, but I get dozens of emails from children every year who want to have a genuine discussion, and as I said, I respond to every one. Even his first email was a rare example of disrespect for art and craft that are very important to me.

    I could have ignored him, but instead I reached out to engage HIM in a conversation, making it clear what was in MY heart–that a discussion of literary matters must first respect literary basics. My response wasn’t judgmental; it merely laid ground rules. If those rules forced a young man to turn to a dictionary, or merely to make use of the punctuation that has been taught to him since third grade, I see no harm in that.

    This stuff matters. If I’m not part of the team to help young people improve essential communication skills, then I’m just part of the problem. In my view, Tom screwed up an opportunity to learn everything I have to offer. It’s a shame.

    John Gilstrap

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