Friday, September 1, 2017

Books that Shaped me, Part 4: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

I must begin by saying that, yes, I am aware of the hateful things Card has said about LGBT people. I don’t want to endorse Card. I don’t want to recommend him. I have serious concerns about purchasing any of his work again. That said, I cannot fully reconcile those public views with the voice of his fiction, which has always, for me, seemed to speak thoughtfully to the importance of acceptance and care for others, and to be filled with homoeroticism overt enough I began to pick it up as a twelve year old. I am not telling you to read Card if you have reservations, but when I was a small boy, I knew nothing about his politics or his religion, and this book was and remains hugely important to me.

Ender’s Game is a very important book when you are boy who is often lonely, who is self-consciously intelligent, who often feels somehow out of step with other children, who has an older brother and suffers the little cruelties and abuses that come with it. That was me. It is also, of course, a wonderfully paced story, with thoughtfulness and sadness and adventure mixed in perfect amounts to keep a young person reading and still make them think and grow while they do.

I was homeschooled until the 7th grade, when I entered normal school by choice. I could have continued at home. That meant I was often alone. I had a few friends, but they went to school and so were busy all day. My parents didn’t work nine to five, but they still worked most of the time. I never became involved with homeschooling groups, so I was alone often, and sometimes I was lonely. I was always told I was smart. I excelled academically, homeschooling and after, and it was a long time before I questioned whether that was the same thing as being intelligent. I have an older brother, and sometimes we play-fought, and sometimes he pinned me, because he was older and bigger and stronger, and then it was no longer fun. I often felt like I was somehow older than my classmates once I went to school. There were jokes that seemed stupid or boring. I never really understood why they committed the petty cruelties of annoyance and isolation that children often enjoy. They seemed so uncomfortable in their own skins sometimes, so much less sure of who and what they were.

For me, Ender’s Game is about my own experience of childhood, and it taught me lessons that helped me navigate adolescence much more successfully than I otherwise would. It taught me that my academic success would be praised and rewarded by adults, but that they could have their own agendas beyond my well-being and happiness. I was lucky, and most of the adults in my life really did care about me for myself, but it was good to be careful sometimes. It taught me, very importantly, the danger of investing all my self-esteem and self-conception in my academic success. It’s not good for you, even if you keep doing well. It teaches young people the wrong lessons when they equate their value with their successes, and it is very easy to do, when you are young and intelligent and teachers tell you so.

Ender’s Game taught me that really important thing in school, no matter how well I performed, was to build friendships with my peers, to care for them, and for myself. I made it out of high school without too much damage, and there are many bits of luck behind that, but Ender’s game is surely one of them. It taught me to care for myself before I cared for my work, to build friendships and try to keep them, but that not everyone would like me, no matter what I did.

It is, of course, a beautifully written book. The questions are weighty but not distracting. The descriptions are crisp and evocative in my mind. The action is fast and flashy and tight and ugly as it should be. There is wonder and courage and victory and regret, but it is more importantly a story about my own experience, about loneliness and intelligence and trying to fit in. It told me about I boy I recognized, and about how important empathy could be, even if understanding wasn’t always enough to bridge the gap between people.

Ender’s Game is book whose protagonist I most identified with as a child. Ender’s life was different, but his experience of being young was more like mine than any other child I read. Ender’s Game was important, and it is still important. I am claiming it for quiet, awkward, intelligent children, for myself and for others. I will not give it up because the person who wrote it is a bigot. It is not only his. It is mine, and I am keeping it.

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