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Book Review: I Am J by Cris Beam

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Plot Summary: J had always felt different. He was certain that eventually everyone would understand who he really was: a boy mistakenly born as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; eventually J stopped praying to wake up a “real boy” and started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible — from his parents, from his friends, from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend he thought would always be by his side, J decides that he’s done hiding — it’s time to be who he really is. And this time he is determined not to give up, no matter the cost.

My Review:  One of the great things about this book is its main character J. He is fleshed-out well enough that he is just a person rather than a transgender person. He is a photographer, a comic book geek, and his ethnicity is Puerto-Rican and Jewish. J’s ethnicity and interest in photography adds depth to J as well as the plot.

In addition to the main character, the supporting characters were fleshed out well too. They are diverse enough that they provide a different view of Jay’s world. A few characters represent the uninformed and narrow-minded view of  transexuality and homosexuality. Contrastly, some represent the tolerant or supportive side. Also, the inclusion of gays and bisexuals is an honest and fair aspect.

Besides the characters, the plot is emotionally charged. J’s journey to become the person he wants to be is internal and external. By following the story from J’s point of view, you can see and feel what it is like to go from hating yourself to embracing yourself. Through the supporting characters, you can see what it is like to feel like misunderstood, excluded, and accepted by others.

Finally, the author’s writing style is amazing. Using photography, he cleverly displayed J’s self-worth. It literally progresses from a shadow of his true self to his true potential being realized. Furthermore, he uses a photography term called “parallax” as a metaphor for how people view each other.

Overall, this was a poignant and authentic read that was well researched. I recommend this to anyone who wants a better understanding of transgender community or any transgender youth.

Written by Serena Zola

June 13, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Op-Ed: School Violence

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This week, three incidents of school violence are making me reminiscence about my own high school days: the Chicago school stabbing which just occurred today, the Ohio school shooting that occurred Monday, and the Joanna Ramos tragedy that occurred last Friday.

When I was in high school, it seems like every month people got into fights. At some point, our principal and assistant principal summoned the students to the cafeteria for a meeting.

The assistant principal said something along the lines of, “We’re so tired of hearing about these fights over “he said-she said” stuff.” By that, they’d meant that the fights were occurring over things that people said about someone.

The assistant principal then asked us, “Why couldn’t we talk out our problems?”

The response from most of my fellow classmates was loud muttering, as if the assistant principal had suggested something stupid.

At the time, I didn’t understand how these fights could occur or what people should do about it. That is, until I went through some troubling times of my own.

My high school years were half happy and half angst-ridden. Whenever the latter occurred, I would be either depressed or angry. Unlike some of my classmates though, I had  healthy ways to get rid of these feelings: reading, listening to music, and writing. Yet, there were days I wanted to explode and take out my feelings on others because it seemed like no one understood or cared about how I felt.

It is the feeling of being about to explode or wanting to explode, the lack of healthy outlets, and the lack of resources like counseling that causes  tragic school violence to occur.

When I was in high school, it seemed like all the school faculty cared about was passing tests. I remember them saying clearly over and over, “We gotta make AYP (academic yearly performance).” “We gotta get our test scores up, we gotta keep our test scores up.”

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Just because students have good grades, doesn’t mean they are all right inside. I made honor roll every year, yet I was still unhappy half the time I attended school. If it wasn’t for my healthy alternatives and outlets, I would have self-destructed and maybe hurt others around me.

That is why everyone around a student as well as the students themselves need to start doing the following:

  • Talk!  Teachers, parents, and students should ask or tell how a student or fellow peer is doing every day. While it might not be easy, doing so can prevent emotions being bottled up and exploding.
  • Find healthy outlets to blow off steam. Examples of this have already been given from my experience, but others can include sports and music. In some cases, talking can also be a good outlet.
  • Find resources if you need to get help. Schools should provide resources via the counseling office for things such as depression or stress management, but you can always look online or in your local library for additional material.

Written by Serena Zola

March 1, 2012 at 2:41 PM

Book Review: The House on Mango Street

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In the Latino section of Chicago lies the House on Mango Street.

In the house lives a young girl named Esperanza.

This is the story of her world.

One of the most powerful things about the House on Mango Street is the storytelling. Instead of chapters, the story is told in a series of vignettes. Think of a vignette as a verbal snapshot of a specific moment in time. With rich sensory detail and the narration of Esperanza, it is like a story and poem rolled into one.

Another notable thing about this book is its universal themes of identity and empowerment. Even though the characters in the book are Latino, the feelings and experiences that they have can resonate with anyone. In fact, the rawness and honesty in this book is similar to another well-known coming-of-age novel: The Outsiders.

While this novel does have its strengths, it also has a weakness. Besides Esperanza, there are many other characters featured. Since you only see things through Esperanza’s eyes, it can be confusing to take in her and everyone else she sees all at once. Despite this, The House on Mango Street is still a fantastic read.

Written by Serena Zola

February 29, 2012 at 10:43 AM

Op-Ed: Minnesota’s War on Gays

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I was typing up a completely different new post until I came across this article via the Huffington Post:

My immediate reaction: ANGER.

How can anyone let these kids feel so bad that they chose to kill themselves?

How can the teachers in the school, who are supposed to be role models for the students, remain neutral on the subject of homosexuality, when showing and teaching tolerance could have prevented these deaths?

How can the others adults and students turn a blind eye to a student crying out for help?

How can some of the adults outside the school judge these poor kids based on stereotypes as well as what others have told them?

More people need a mind of their own and a compassionate heart.  People say, “Children are the future” but with every senseless death like these that future diminishes.

Written by Serena Zola

February 4, 2012 at 8:55 PM

Best Book of 2011

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For the first time ever, here is my pick for the best book of the year: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins. It is a non-fiction book about popularity and outcasthood in high school as well as what the author calls “the quirk theory”. We’ve all heard of mean-girls, jocks, nerds, and teen angst so often that it has become the norm. Recently, a new phrase is giving these terms more meaning: bullycide, suicide due to bullying. These days, most people seem to think it is only gay teens that are being bullied or worse, that any kid being bullied should just ignore it because “kids will be kids”.  As a person who has experienced bullying, I know that the only way to “ignore” bullies is surrounding yourself with supportive friends. In the case of gay and straight teens being bullied, bullycide has occurred because they either feel that they are alone or they actually are alone in what they are going through. This feeling of loneliness can be the result of being excluded at school or feeling alienated because they are different from other classmates.

Taken from the author’s site:

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth follows several real teens who are different from their classmates:

  • Danielle, The Loner, who has withdrawn from classmates since they persuaded her to unwittingly join her own hate club
  • Whitney, The Popular Bitch, a cheerleading captain both seduced by and trapped within her clique’s perceived prestige
  • Eli, The Nerd, whose differences cause students to laugh at him and his mother to needle him fornot being “normal”
  • Joy, The New Girl, determined to stay positive as classmates harass her for her mannerisms and target her because of her race
  • Mark, The Gamer, an underachiever in danger of not graduating, despite his intellect and his yearning to connect with other students
  • Regan, The Weird Girl, who battles discrimination and gossipy politics in school but leads a joyous life outside of it
  • Noah, The Band Geek , who is alternately branded too serious and too emo, yet annually runs for class president.


All these teens are given a challenge in the middle of the school year to change their circumstances without changing who they are. By doing this, they will prove the quirk theory, which states that the qualities that cause them to be ostracized in high school will be the qualities that people admire in college and beyond. While the reader follows the characters, they will also be given a look at the science behind popularity and outcasthood as well as famous people who demonstrate the quirk theory. Whether you are a parent, teacher, or a student, anyone who is involved with teens should read this book.

Written by Serena Zola

November 19, 2011 at 11:59 PM

Bullying: A Rant and Some Tips

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It seems like all year that I’ve been hearing things about bullying on the news and elsewhere. The headline usually involves a youth suicide, a youth beating, or an attempt to raise awareness about bullying. The latter is the most vexing to me, because it seems to focus on either GBLTQ youth (i.e. gay, bi-sexual, lesbian, transgender, queer/questioning) or asinine suggestions on how to prevent bullying. Most people think this is just a discrimination or education issue.

Until late 2010, it didn’t seem like we needed to put much effort into bullying prevention, because youth suicides and bullying casualties didn’t seem to happen much. One bullied kid kills themselves, and we just pass an anti-bullying policy in schools. Then, in September, five young people kill themselves because they were either gay or perceived to be gay. This event causes many musicians, authors, celebrities, politicians, activists, and other people to either raise awareness about bullying or come up with solutions.

Phoebe Prince. Jaheem Herrera. Jessie Haffer.

These are just a few of many young people who have committed suicide before the September’s Children’s Tragedy, not necessarily because they were gay, but because they were different.

It is for this reason, as well as intolerance, that caused the September’s Children to take their own lives. It is for this reason that more youth will continue to do this unless something is done.

Some adults say, “Kids will be kids.” Some teens do nothing or participate in the bullying for fear of being bullied themselves or to fit in.

The whole point of being a teenager is figuring out who you want to be, not what somebody else tells you to be.

How are teachers supposed to care about their students when all they’ve been told to do is prepare them for college and get good test scores to make the school look good?

How are parents supposed to raise their kids well if they either refuse to listen to their child’s views or assume they already know what is best for them?

How are students supposed to find who they are when they have to worry about being normal?

Parents, teachers, and students must be involved with one another for non-educational reasons as well as educational ones. Just because a student is making good grades, doesn’t mean that they are doing well. Adults around a student’s life need to be willing to ask, “How are you?” or “What’s wrong?” if they are troubled. Parents and teachers need to listen to students without judging them and try to see things from their point of view.

Students need to keep an open mind when dealing with their peers as well as adults. When it comes to peers, they shouldn’t make assumptions based on how a person looks or what clique they are from. They need to get to know a peer’s head and heart before they judge. In addition, they need to be willing to talk to a parent or another adult if they are having issues. Even though adults may not understand what it is like to be a teen today, if they are good people, then they should be willing to at least listen.

Ultimately, the key to ending bullying, or at least reducing it, is acceptance and tolerance of people’s differences and the willingness to find out what we have in common with each other.

According to the book, The Geeks Will Inherit The Earth, teens who are ostracized in high school because they are different will be admired for who they are in college and beyond. However, some teens can’t afford to wait that long.

Now is the time to unite and end bullying the right way; MAKE IT STOP!!

Written by Serena Zola

November 2, 2011 at 4:13 PM

The Truth About Goth and Emo

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When I was in high school, I didn’t know anything real about teen stereotypes, because well, they were stereotypes. It wasn’t until I befriended a goth girl, became labeled a nerd, and read books and a couple of teen newspaper articles about teen stereotypes that I became more knowledgable. Over time, I realized that while stereotypes can be a way for teens to identify themselves, they could also be used to misjudge others. While I was a nerd in high school, I also developed a goth and emo side to myself. Yet, others didn’t know about these sides about me for two reasons. The first reason is that I didn’t look goth or emo; I only looked like a nerd because I was smart and wore glasses. The second reason is that there were little to no goths in my class. The only reason I befriended a goth girl was because she was in a different grade from me.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I did most of my self identification alone. Because of this, I didn’t develop my goth and emo sides until after I graduated high school. It was during this time that I was starting to figure out what the goth and emo stereotypes were. Goths seemed to be kids who were happy, wore all black, worshipped the devil, and were extroverted. On the other hand, emos wore all black with bits of color and were depressed kids who wrote dark poetry, self injure by cutting themselves, and were introverted. Emos and goths were also outcasts in school;  goths take pride in it, but emos hate themselves. It is the style of emo and goth that causes teens to confuse goths with emos and vice versa. During this time, I was more emo than goth. While I didn’t dress like one or self injure,  I was depressed and insecure and I wrote poetry as a hobby and outlet.

Another thing that defines a teen as emo is the music they listen to. The music is usually rock and contain lyrics that show hurt & comfort or upbeatness. Some examples of bands that have been called emo are My Chemical Romance, Black Veiled Brides, and Tokio Hotel. As I developed my emo side, I began listening to Tokio Hotel. Most of the songs I listened to were hurt and comfort, but I also listened to a couple of upbeat ones too.

It is the hurting side of emo music as well as the self injury that causes the emo stereotype to become controversial. It causes emo kids to be seen as “whiners” by their peers and dangerous to themselves by parents. While the hurting side of emo music can cause some emo teens to wallow in self pity, it doesn’t mean that all emo music is bad. In fact, it is the upbeat emo music that makes things better. A year after I got into Tokio Hotel, I started listening to another band called FallOutBoy. While their music covers different rock sounds, their album Infinity On High has an emo vibe to it. However, the songs I listened to were more upbeat instead of self pitying. Songs like The Carpal Tunnel of Love made me get up and dance. They also made me feel better about myself.

As for the self injuring, depressed, and self-pitying side of emo, these things have been around before this stereotype appeared.  As I’ve already stated, a person can have these issues without looking like they are emo. Self injury is just an unhealthy way for teens and other people to find release from overwhelming emotions or circumstances. Emo teens, like any other teen, can feel depressed and overwhelmed for a variety of reasons. It can be as a result of school problems, family problems, personal problems, or any combination of issues. If they are not dealt with properly, then the teen can have a pessimistic outlook on life, which is what causes them to be seen as “whiny” by their peers. They feel as if they are stuck in whatever circumstances they are in, and that nothing they do can change it.

Not long after I got into FallOutBoy, I began to develop my gothic side. First, I started listening to gothic music. Most people think gothic music is just heavy metal with screaming, but that’s not the case. While gothic music is usually a sub- genre of rock, it can also be classical. An example of this is the music of Adrian Von Ziegler. Furthermore, the goth I befriended in high school played cello in the school orchestra. In addition, classical music and rock music have formed a genre known as symphonic metal. Since most of the bands in this genre are international, it isn’t well-known to most people in the United States. Some examples of symphonic metal bands are Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Apocalyptica. According to comments I saw on YouTube, some people who listen to symphonic metal are called goth or emo.

Another thing I did to develop my gothic side was read gothic literature. Most teens today count paranormal books like Twilight as gothic literature. Some teens even go further and call fans of the series goth or emo. While I did read a similar vampire themed series, I do not count neither this nor Twilight as gothic literature. By gothic literature, I mean the works of Edgar Allan Poe. I loved his poetry the most, but his horror stories were entertaining as well.  Even the goth I befriended enjoyed his dark poetry, and wrote some of her own as a hobby.

It is the music and literature of the goth and emo stereotypes that contain the true definitions, my definitions of goth and emo. Goths or gothic things find the beauty in darkness through creativity. Emos or emo things are introspective and self-aware. Depending on your definition of words such as “beauty”, “darkness”, and “creativity”, these two stereotypes may overlap each other. Yet, both of these stereotypes have valuable characteristics that teens need in adolescence and beyond. It is these characteristics that identifies a teen as a person instead of a label.

Music Links:

Tokio Hotel-


Adrian Von Ziegler-


Written by Serena Zola

October 8, 2011 at 11:18 PM

Posted in Youth Op-Eds

Tagged with , ,

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