Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Do-Over Review

Do-Over! by Robin Hemley

From the book jacket:

Robin Hemley’s childhood made a wedgie of his memory, leaving him sore and embarrassed for more than forty years. He was stepped on in kindergarten and picked on at camp. He forgot his only line in a play in second grade and had completely lost his way by sixth. Now a middle-aged father, he’s haunted by his youth’s flops and failures, from the prom for which he was dateless to the fraternity that lost his membership.

But if kids have the luxury of calling “do-over!” when things go wrong, why can’t he? Why not return to his youth with an adult’s wisdom, perspective, and giantlike size?

At age forty-eight, a married college professor and a father of three, Robin sets out to face his formative challenges a second time. He becomes a kindergartner for a week, during which his classmates don’t understand why he gets a ride from his wife instead of his dad; plays his second-grade part, complete with angel wings and halo, in The Littlest Angel; returns to summer camp and confronts the swimming test one more time; samples fraternity life and redefines fortysomething frat boy; sleeps over at a childhood home, where his room still exists; and even finally gets another chance to go to the prom – at his actual former high school and with his former crush!

Despite being bigger and taller now, Robin learns that the bullies haven’t gone away. But more surprising are the old friends that pop up in unexpected places, and the old places that look different but feel just like home. By physically embedding himself in his youth, Robin retraces his life’s trajectory and learns what’s most important: simple pleasures, second chances, and the forgotten joys of recess.

Robin Hemley went on a mission to get a second chance at some of the things he messed up, or he thought had been messed up for him, the first time around. It is an interesting idea, to see if you can go back and “fix” those mistakes. But when a 48 year old goes back to kindergarten there are also going to be some laughs. His conversational tone, the fact that he can see the absurd and share it with us, and his whole approach to the project and the people he meets or remeets make it a lot of fun to read. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and doesn’t mind making a joke at his own expense. But it isn’t just a joke either. He does get serious sometimes as he explores his past and tries to see if he can change the way he thinks about the things he finds there and in turn change his outlook about his present. It does end up a learning experience for him, sometimes unexpectedly. It’s interesting to see how he has different memories of an experience than someone else who shared the experience with him; or how people reacted (it was amazing how supportive people were) to his project and the reaction and acceptance of the kids of various ages to his presence; or his reaction as an adult to some of the things that the children were taught, (a classroom repeating in unison “Different is great!” looks different from an adult perspective); and to see how things have changed and how they have stayed the same over the years. It is a very entertaining read that is both funny and thought provoking. I liked how he worked both the serious and the absurd sides, not only into the book, but into the entire project. And Robin Hemley tells a good story. In the end I think that is what made the project come alive and made the journey with Hemley a trip you wanted to go on.

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