The F Words: The Gift of Fire

After the 5,000-year-old body of the Iceman (later named Otzi) was discovered preserved in a glacier in the Alps in 1991, scientists began examining  everything they could about this person — in order to better understand the past and its importance to the present. Among the many things they discovered about the Iceman was this: he carried with him fire-lighting tools which included tinder fungus, flint, and pyrite. Fire enabled him to cook food, to stay warm, and to ward off wolves and other predators. It was a life-saving gift.

What does this have to do with today’s struggles for social justice and my current-day YA novel, The F Words?

Everything.

During the Sixties and Seventies I participated in and helped build demonstrations for social justice: calling for an end to the war in Vietnam and demanding equal rights for Black Americans, Latinos, women, and other oppressed groups. Although the majority of us demonstrating then, as now, were young people (in their teens and twenties), there were many, many older adults present. Some in their forties, some in their eighties. And every age in between.

Many of these adults had fought in and built massive demonstrations and strikes during the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and even into the McCarthyite Fifties. They fought against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. They helped build important strikes led by the industrial unions: Auto Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, and others. These adults were heartened by the student radicalization of the Sixties — and they were eager to impart their knowledge of how to organize and how to protest. They carried with them the gift of fire and knew they had to share it.

Those adults are no longer with us. But we who were students during the Sixties are now adults, and so many of us are eager to share our gift of fire — the lessons we learned from those who came before us, and the lessons we learned on our own as we built mass demonstrations for social justice in the Sixties and Seventies.

And that is what The F Words has to do with the Iceman and his gift of fire. The F Words, set totally in the present, nonetheless has gifts from the past imbedded in it. When teen Cole Renner is unjustly suspended because he fights back against a bully, he, with the help of his friends, comes up with slogans; constructs protest signs with those slogans; prepares a sign-up list; contacts the media; and divvies who-does-what tasks with his friends. Although this all takes place in the present, it is based on the lessons of the past. Constructing picket signs today (2×4’s, poster paper, liquid marker, staples) is not very different from constructing them during the Sixties. Or, for that matter, the Thirties. 

Cole’s father is in Cook County Jail for supposedly inciting-to-violence. While serving his 120-day sentence he leaves his new bullhorn at home, where Cole decides it’s just what he needs to talk to fellow students. And in talking to them, Cole relates his problem of being unjustly suspended to the fact that all students face suspension, just or unjust, while having no say whatsoever in their fate. Cole moves the struggle forward (as we did in the Sixties) by demanding student control over suspensions. If he had simply demanded his own reinstatement, he would have been fighting for social justice, yes. But only in that one spot, for that one thing: his suspension. But Cole and his friends Felipe and Treva discuss the things that affect all students, not just Cole. They come up with demands that benefit all students.

And just as we learned in the Sixties, so Cole learns in the present — social justice  needs to include everyone. In order for there to be social justice for, say, working class kids (the students in The F Words), there must be justice for Black Americans. For Latino/Latina, Native, Asian-Americans, and Arab-Americans.  For  gays and lesbians and trans. In The F Words Cole and his friends understand the oppression of others (immigrants being deported, hijabs being snatched off the heads of Muslim girls and women) and support the struggles against those injustices.

Did I ever think, back in the Sixties, that I would write a novel about students who protest social injustice? No: the thought never crossed my mind. But the experiences I had and the valuable lessons I learned never left my mind. They were always there: part of the events and beliefs that shaped me. It stands to reason that, even though I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel, my most deeply-held principles and most vivid experiences would eventually come to the fore — that the fire that shaped me would also help shape a novel.

Fire, when kept alive, does not die out. It lives to be rekindled by others.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Conflict

Conflict is at the heart of all good fiction. The main character is in conflict with something: another person; society; himself/herself; the forces of nature. The attempts of the main character to achieve his or her goals results in conflicts, some small, some large. Conflict engages reader interest. Conflict helps the main character grow. Without conflict, a novel would be slow. Even dull. 

In the opening scene of The F Words, Cole is in conflict with society: the city of Chicago has sentenced Cole’s father to time in Cook County Jail. Cole believes his father did nothing wrong. In fact, Cole believes his father did everything right in helping the neighborhood and community fight against the closing of a local public  school. 

In anger and frustration — because he sees no way of confronting the forces he is in conflict with — Cole tags his high school wall with the f word. He is caught doing so by his English teacher. In a nonosecond, Cole’s conflict with society changes into a conflict with his teacher. That conflict is resolved, thanks to his teacher’s commitment to what’s important. 

The life of most teens is full of many different conflicts, ranging from the fact that they are not permitted to make decisions on issues that are important to them, to the fact that they confront bullies in school, to the fact that they want to be liked but might not know how to achieve that aim. And so on.

Cole’s life is no different: he faces many different conflicts. One of the important but minor plot points in The F Words involves standardized testing as required by Illinois and other states. The students hate the yearly tests, but even more they hate repeated classroom drills on the tests. The  principal (Ms. Delaney), however, wants the teachers to teach to the test and wants the students to perform well so that her school’s federal funding won’t be affected. She is an advocate of “item teaching” rather than “curriculum teaching” — that is, teaching answers to the questions that have appeared on previous tests rather than teaching the larger body of knowledge and skills that would allow students to answer the questions correctly even if they haven’t memorized those  particular questions. Cole’s refusal to take the standardized tests the previous year put him in conflict with the principal, who wants 100% turnout for each standardized state test.

Another thing that puts Cole in conflict with the principal (far greater conflict than his refusing to take the state tests) is that she suspects he’s the one who tagged the high school wall with the f word. She calls him into her office and tries to get him to confess. But Cole knows that if he confesses, he will receive a suspension and thus won’t be able to run cross country. This scene occupies most of Chapter 2 of the book . . . and the conflict escalates as the story continues.

In addition to the state testing and the principal wanting to know who tagged the high school wall, there’s the issue of bullying: a serious problem not only in schools, but throughout our society. Sometimes those who say they are against bullying and intimidation act otherwise: when a victim confronts a bully, the victim is sometimes held as being of equal blame. This is the case in Cole’s school, and the situation causes still more conflict between Cole and the principal.

The principal isn’t in conflict only with Cole — she’s in conflict with his best friend, Felipe, who wants to run for class president. The principal really supports the other candidate, who’s a known quantity. Felipe is not. In trying to discourage Felipe from running for the office, the principal finds herself in further conflict with Cole, who is helping his best friend run the campaign.

While it may seem that Cole’s conflict with society, as shown in the opening scene, is dwarfed by his conflicts with individuals, that’s not the case. In his struggles against the principal and against a bully, Cole is in conflict with society because the social and political structures support the principal and the bully: they do not support Cole or his friends. Whether or not the political is personal (as with the principal and the bully), it remains political. Whether or not the conflicts in The F Words take on overtones of the personal, they remain deep political conflicts between right and wrong, between those in power and those deprived of power.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.