Monday, June 22, 2009

Common Ground: Extra Credit by Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements' books are all about finding a common ground. In his best-selling Frindle, Nick Allen's free-wheeling ways with neologisms (in this case "frindles" for ballpoint pens) comes up against his teacher's linguistic purism. In No Talking (reviewed here) the clash begins with the usual one between boys and girls and goes on to become a conflict between the kids and school authorities, with the students asserting that they "have the right to remain silent" to the eventual consternation of their teachers, and in his last novel, Lost and Found, (reviewed here) identical twins come to grips with their commonalities--and their differences.

But in his just published Extra Credit, (Atheneum, 2009) Clements takes on the search for common ground between two very divergent cultures.

In the search for enough extra credit to ensure that she is promoted to junior high, Abby Carson reluctantly takes on a cross-the-curriculum semester-long extra credit pen pal project, one which has her writing letters to a student in a village school in Afghanistan. Abby chooses the location only because she loves climbing the simulated rock wall in her school gym, and after all, Afghanistan has lots and lots of rocky mountains!

When Abby's hasty penciled letter arrives at its destination, however, the school authorities are in a quandary. Their best student is eleven-year-old Sadeed, by far their most proficient in English, but "Abby in America" is obviously female, and by local customs it would be unacceptable for Sadeed to correspond with a girl. Finally a compromise is reached, and Sadeed is asked to have his younger sister Amira dictate her replies to him to translate into his neat handwriting and formal English.

But when Abby receives his long, painstaking reply, she is suddenly ashamed of her slapdash first letter, and in truth, of her lack of attention to her own school work altogether. As Sadeed points out, he has no time or energy for climbing mountains; to him the Hindu Kush is a beautiful but overwhelming presence, whose ice and snow are a hindrance to communication and sometimes a threat to life. As the letters continue, Sadeed begins to put more of his own feelings into his "dictated" letters, and Abby is touched by the tiny rock Sadeed sends her, telling her that if she looks closely, she will see that it is a little mountain in itself. Feeling a bit ashamed that she called her level and fertile farm "flat and boring," she sends him a sample of rich Illinois soil, saying that if he looks closely, he will see in it a bit of an American field.

"I like that idea, that of all the people who have ever lived on the Earth, I am the very first one to touch this spoonful of soil. And now you are the second one.

It's the kind of thing that makes you think." she writes.

But just as Abby and Sadeed are beginning to understand each other's lives, fundamentalists in his village discover the project, and Sadeed writes one last letter to tell Abby that their correspondence has become too dangerous to continue. He is afraid, he says, that these people will make it impossible for his sister to continue to go to school. Sadly and thoughtfully, as Abby prepares her final oral report, she re-reads his letter. "Wishing you every happiness in your life," he had written.

It felt so final. Like a last good-bye. It felt like from now on she would be going along one road in life and he would be taking a different one.

In his first letter he had talked about the field of tall corn, the one in the picture she'd sent to him. What had he called it? Then she remembered--"like a smile of God."

And for the first time in her life, Abby really looked at the land speeding past her eyes in the June sunshine. She saw it through Sadeed's eyes.

And it wasn't flat and boring. It was beautiful.

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