TEACHER’S GUIDE FOR BEFORE MY EYES…
“Before My Eyes, by Caroline Bock, takes the reader through the last few days of summer from the perspectives of three narrators: two teens and a mentally-ill young adult. Bock skillfully weaves together the topics of schizophrenia, gun violence, family issues, and typical adolescent angst while at the same time providing a compelling story. Though the reader gets a glimpse of the book’s climax in the first few pages, the end plays out in an unexpected way when unlikely heroes emerge. As a retired Professor of Education, I believe Before My Eyes would be an excellent book for an 11th or 12th-grade English class, and since it provides a realistic portrayal of schizophrenia, it might even be a good choice for an AP Psychology class. Whatever one’s reason for choosing this book, the reader will not be disappointed.”—Edmund Sass, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus of Education.
Summary: Before My Eyes is a powerful young adult novel about a fateful summer’s end in the fictional Long Island town of Lakeshore, New York. Following on the path of her acclaimed debut young adult novel, LIE, Bock brings forth complex characters in nuanced, descriptive language, layering relevant contemporary themes: Gun violence, mental illness, prescription drug abuse, and internet risks with timeless themes of love and hope. Before My Eyes captures a moment when possibilities should be opening up, but instead everything teeters on the brink of destruction.
Before My Eyes unfolds in the tightly woven first person narratives of Claire, Max and Barkley. Claire has spent the last few months taking care of her six-year-old sister, Izzy, as their mother lies in a hospital bed. Claire believes she has everything under control until she meets a young man online who appears to be a kindred spirit. She is initially flattered by the attention but when she meets Max, the shy state senator’s son, her feelings become complicated. Working alongside Max at a beach front food stand is Barkley. Lonely and obsessive, Barkley has been hearing a dangerous voice in his head. No one—not his parents, not his co-workers—realize that Barkley is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.
What is seen/unseen, concealed/unconcealed, and ultimately known/unknown layers this richly metaphorical text, and along with the deeply felt characters, makes Before My Eyes a novel that teens and their adults will be eager to read, discuss, and analyze.
The setting is critical to understanding how the author of Before My Eyes structured the text in order to build suspense and develop multi-dimensional characters. Here is insight into the setting:
Place: The fictional town of Lakeshore is on Long Island in New York, about thirty miles east of New York City during the end of a simmering hot summer. The majority of the novel takes place in Lakeshore and at its town beach along the Atlantic Ocean on the southern shore of Long Island. In New York, state parks, most notably, Jones Beach State Park, are open to all for a modest fee. However, as is commonplace, there are more exclusive ‘town’ beaches where one must be a resident in order to use a beach, and that is the case with this setting. This exclusive town beach gives the teens the illusion of safety and security.
Time: The novel opens on Labor Day Monday at a community park in Lakeshore at an event for state senator Glenn Cooper, who is running for re-election and is the father of Max Cooper. Barkley, suffering from what we will soon understand to be paranoid schizophrenia, is outside the tent—a gun concealed in his sweatshirt. Max is inside the tent. The foreshadowing is there in the text—there is going to be tragic confrontation—but who are these two young men? And who is the girl, Claire, that they are both waiting for? After these two short opening chapters, the novel will flashback to the Thursday prior and follow our three main characters—Barkley, Max and Claire—back to this fateful day, and one day beyond for a total of six critical days in the lives of these three teens. Day and times are marked at the head of each chapter in order to give the reader a sense that every moment of life is critical.
CHARACTER and METAPHOR:
Three first-person points of view comprise this novel: Barkley, Max and Claire. One of the central metaphors of Before My Eyes is the idea of what is seen/unseen. These characters are each hiding things—often from their parents, their friends, and themselves. To extend the metaphor of what is seen or not seen in the novel, a student should analyze these complex characters by looking closely at textual details. Here is a short description of each character:
BARKLEY — is a twenty-one year old drop out from community college, a would-be filmmaker and environmentalist. He is also suffering from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia. He is obsessed with Claire. His parents do not “see” what is happening to him, though they know something is wrong and are in conflict with him over his behavior and what to do to help. Special note: most of the scenes between Barkley and his parents happen with Barkley behind his closed bedroom door, and his parents pacing on the other side. No one “sees” that right before his or her eyes, Barkley is losing touch with reality.
MAX –is about to turn eighteen as the novel opens. He is the son of New York state senator Glenn Cooper and his campaign manager and wife, Debbi Cooper. He has spent his summer working at the Snack Shack at the town beach and obsessing about a missed penalty kick in the last soccer game of the year and the seemingly unattainable girls in bikinis on the beach. Notably, Max has a dog, King, a blind dog, who plays a pivotal role in the action of the novel.
CLAIRE— seventeen-year old Claire has been taking care of her six-year old sister, Izzy, short for Elizabeth, ever since her mother suffered an aneurysm earlier in the spring. Her father is barely able to cope—emotionally or financially—with his wife’s rehabilitation so he does not “see” the sadness overcoming his dreamy, lonely daughter. On line she meets “Brent,” who is in truth “Barkley,” but she doesn’t “see” this until it is almost too late.
INSIGHT INTO THE WRITER’S RESEARCH:
A wide cross section of research and outside sources were consulted in order to develop realistic, complex characters.
The novel was inspired in part by a true event: on January 8, 2011, U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others were shot during a meeting at local supermarket Six people died, and many others were injured by Jared Loughner, a 22-year old Tucson man.
In addition, key outside sources and research was utilized to write this novel.
The novel was reviewed by Dr. Frances Bock, PhD, a neuropsychologist, and by David Blech, a nurse practitioner with experience working with psychiatric, particularly young male schizophrenics. Both are close relatives of the author and offered a careful reading of early drafts of the novel in order to help shape Barkley’s story. In addition, many books and websites regarding mental illness in teens, most notably the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), were consulted.
Research on gun violence and gun control in the United States, a controversial subject under much debate in our society, was also critical. The websites of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violenceand Moms Demand Action for Sensible Gun Control were also researched for key points on gun violence and young people. And while a novel is by its very nature not a work of journalistic balance, but a subjective story of people and their actions,also considered was the other side of the debate, those that advocate for gun rights: The National Rifle Association.
Ultimately, the background research done on this novel should only serves to enhance the character’s lives and situationsl this research, hopefully, lends to the richness and complexity of Before My Eyes.
1.QUESTIONS FOR CLASS DISCUSSIONS AND ACTIVITIES :Analyze how these complex characters—Barkley, Max, and Claire— develop over the course of the novel? How do they interact with one another? How do they each contribute or develop the overall theme of the novel?
2.In particular, is there a point in the novel in which one can express empathy for Barkley (i.e. it is both implied and inferred that he has been bulled throughout high school and that he has been exhibiting signs of mental illness for several years)?
3.What inferences can be drawn by the opening two chapters of the novel? How does does the opening create suspense and foreshadowing? How does the reader infer the mental states of Barkley and Max at the beginning of the time, citing specific textual references.
4.How does the title, Before My Eyes, describe a central metaphor or idea in the text? How does it emerge and shapes the text through the characters and what they see or hide, what they conceal or reveal, to their parents and peers? Suggested activity: Have the students closely analyzed each of the main characters and create a chart or character map that cites specific textual references on what is seen/not seen or unconcealed/hidden or unknown/known by parents and peers.
5.Claire writes poetry—several poems are included in her sections in the novel. What are the central ideas in the poems and how do they relate to the larger themes of the novel? Suggested activity: have students write their poems inspired by the novel and/or building on the metaphor of what is seen/unseen about them or their world. (Special note to teachers from the author: I was the editor of my high school literary magazine, Opus, at New Rochelle High School in New Rochelle, New York and referred to back issues to remember how it was to write as a seventeen year old, and to write Claire’s poetry.)
6.The novel ends on a Tuesday afternoon, with the reference that the next day, Wednesday, school starts. Suggested activity: In a creative essay, which builds on textual references and analysis of each character, have the students describe what happens on that Wednesday either writing in the character’s point of view or writing an analytical essay about what should or could happen.
Special note on the first print edition of Before My Eyes: Erratum, an error in printing or writing.A quote attributed on p. 169 to Lewis Carroll, “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,” is in fact attributable to Edgar Allan Poe from his poem, ”A Dream Within A Dream.” I trust the publisher will correct this in subsequent print editions.
FREE PRINTABLE TEACHER’S GUIDE AVAILABLE AT www.us.macmillan.com/beforemyeyes/CarolineBock.
TEACHER’S GUIDE for LIE
Summary: As the novel opens, seventeen year-old Skylar Thompson is being questioned by the police. Her boyfriend Jimmy stands accused of brutally assaulting two Latino brothers from a neighboring town, and she’s the prime witness. Skylar is keeping quiet about what she’s seen, but how long can she keep quiet? Since her mother died before the start of her senior year in high school, Jimmy has been everything to her. She never had a boyfriend before Jimmy, and everyone in the school wanted to be his friend. He was the star of the football and baseball teams. He was a Scholar-Athlete. It was Jimmy’s idea to go “beaner-hopping” and beat up random Latinos from the neighboring town. Everybody in school wanted to be part of it. Now, as her best friend Lisa Marie instructs, “everybody knows, nobody’s talking.”
But Skylar is realizing the enormity of what has happened— and what she has been involved with over this past school year. She struggles with whether to protect him or to do as her best friend Lisa Marie says— to say nothing. As :Lisa Marie says, “Everybody knows, nobody’s talking.”
Jimmy’s accomplice on that fateful night, Sean, is facing his own moral dilemma. He must also decide whether or not to turn on his friend in order to save himself. Eight other characters, four teens and four adults, weigh in on why this hate crime happened in this Long Island town and what should happen next. Most importantly, both Sean and Skylar, as the central characters, must figure out why they followed someone like Jimmy in the first place.
This novel is inspired by real events, notably the murder of Marcelo Lucero of Patchogue, New York in November, 2008, a murder perpetrated by young people who were out “beaner-hopping.”
One of the central themes of LIE is a multi-layered exploration of why people follow those who are acting without regard to consequences, without regard to the law, without regard to other human beings. Another central theme is the internal psychological struggle of the characters, primarily Skylar and Sean, to understand their own motivations and to come to terms with their personal moral dilemma about their participation in this crime. Ultimately, LIE is realistic contemporary fiction, setting out the story of a two young people facing the choice of whether to tell the truth— or lie.
Setting and Geography:
Time : Present Day. The action takes place over a week in the character’s lives.
Location : An unnamed suburban town on Long Island in New York. Long Island is east of New York City and has one main expressway that runs west to east– the Long Island Expressway, locally called the L.I.E. Yes, the title can be interpreted as a play on words. Please note in several instance the teen characters want to escape their suburban town; however, when they do drive off — they drive east. Here’s the geography lesson: Long Island is an island — and if one drives east one can never leave the island — one only hits the Atlantic Ocean. Conversely, several characters struggle with the idea of driving west, which is towards New York City. Metaphorically, the characters do not give themselves permission to leave and expand their view on the world.
Point of View : Ten distinct points of view comprise LIE –all of which contribute information about the community and the inciting incident — the assault masterminded by Jimmy on two brothers, Arturo, the undocumented older brother born in El Salvador, and Carlos, younger and American-born. There are five teen points of view and five adult points of view, and within that a mix of white and Latino characters.
Questions for Class Discussion and Activities:
1.LIE has 10 distinct points of view. However, one point of view is missing — Jimmy’s. One of the central themes of the story is how someone like Jimmy, a popular Scholar-Athlete on one hand, a controlling bully and biased individual on the other, influences those around him. Why do people follow people like Jimmy? Ultimately, what does it take to stand up to him? And how is dramatic irony and suspense developed by knowing Jimmy only through the eyes of others, particularly his girlfriend Skylar and his best friend Sean? How do Skylar and Sean’s responses vastly differ? Activity: Write a scene in one character’s point of view. Bonus: Write a scene in Jimmy’s point of view.
2.LIE has a shocking turning point about mid-way through the novel. Why is this incident necessary? How does it change the trajectory of the plot and the characters?
3.LIE is set on Long Island, home to original post World War II suburban communities. An exploration on the growth of suburbia and its historical divisions among racial and ethnic groups, may be one way to explore LIE. Information on the rise of suburban communities can be found at the National Center for Suburban Studies based at Hofstra University on Long Island. Activity: Explore how geography affects the character’s decisions in LIE? How does the setting/sense of place impact the plot or outcome of the novel? Could this novel be set anywhere in the United States and why?
Other texts that may be used to contrast and compare with LIE could include Sherman Alexis’ The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, which explores about the divisions between American Indians and whites in his northwestern community.
A LIBRARIAN’S POINT OF VIEW:
“Summary: Jimmy saved Skylar’s life. Or at least, that what she would say. After her mother died and her dad drifted away to work in the city, it was handsome and funny Jimmy, the new boy in town, who drew her back into the world. But now Skylar is in an impossible position. You see, the girls don’t tag along when the boys go out ‘beaner hopping’ on Friday nights, jumping Latinos to scare them away from town. Usually it’s nothing serious, just some stupid fun. But when Skylar’s boyfriend Jimmy takes it too far and picks up a baseball bat, a Salvadoran man is left dead on the street and a small town on Long Island spirals into disbelief. And as the police begin to ask questions, the words of her best friend echo in Skylar’s ear: “Everybody knows. Nobody’s talking.” If Skylar shares what she knows about what really happened, her whole world will fall apart.
As this breathtaking debut novel alternates points of view between Skylar, her friends, her father, and other members of the community, including the victim’s younger brother, a clearer picture begins to emerge of what exactly happened that night but the question remains: How could such smart kids participate in such a senseless, violent acts. This is realistic fiction at it’s finest, a gripping page-turner with gut-wrenching twists and turns that will leave you stunned.
Who will like this book?: Readers who like intense stories that don’t shy away from difficult topics. People who like books that have multiple characters telling the story. Nicole, Teen Librarian (reprinted from the Fairfield Public Library Reader’s Advisor for Teens website)
Author Workshops/Talks to Libraries/Schools/Groups : I am available for workshops and talks. “You truly engaged our students through your workshop, and it was fascinating to listen to students add their characters and perspectives to your novel. Many of them reported that they felt they were looking not only at the situation your book portrayed from a different point of view, but they were also looking at writing from a new perspective. I am delighted that your workshop and your interaction with the students went so well.” – Stephen Collier, Wheatley High School, Curriculum Associate for English and Language Arts (K-12), in East Williston, New York after a two-hour Caroline Bock creative writing workshop for ninth and tenth graders on “Character Building.”
Additional Thoughts For Educators:
St. Martin’s Press has produced a Teacher’s Guide to LIE –available at no charge at http://us.macmillan.com/lie.
A PBS documentary ‘Light in the Darkness’ about the community of Patchogue, NY where the murder of Marcelo Lucero took place, and which in part inspired this novel, was produced in 2011 and is available on DVD. Numerous newspaper articles on the Marcelo Lucero case are available to support student research (google: New York Times or Newsday, the local Long Island newspaper).
One extraordinary high school English teacher, Glenda Funk, has independently put together a lesson plan based on LIE. Find it at: www.evolvingenglishteacher.blogspot.com – look for the August 21, 2011 entry.
Lastly, If you are interested in more information or if you or your students have questions regarding BEFORE MY EYES or LIE, please email me at email@example.com.