When Variables Unbalance the Equations of Teenage Love & Life: My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

If I could only rearrange and eliminate

the variables of hit-and-miss relationships

to achieve the perfect balance.

–By Alexandra Caselle

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

Like a moth to a flame

Burned by the fire

My love is blind

Can’t you see my desire?

That’s the way love goes

–“That’s the Way Love Goes” by Janet Jackson

Image Courtesy of Google Images

Image Courtesy of Google Images

First love is like a Goody’s powder:

All that ails you goes away,

giddiness bubbles up inside,

the calm before the storm.

Then the effects wear off.

–By Alexandra Caselle

 

rhombus 2     My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson. 2007, Woodbury, MN:  Flux. ISBN13:  978-0-7387-1160-7.

Teen angst involves Mother Nature’s cruel joke of puberty:

Gangly arms grazing against the ground.  Boys’ voices echoing in alternating crescendos of thunder booming and frogs croaking after a summer rain. Fitting rooms brimming over with World War III battles of the hems between mothers and daughters.

Then Mother Nature wanted to add hormones to the mix.

Falling in love for the first time derails and disrupts.

If adolescents only knew that the first relationship creates a lens in which they will view every future, intimate connection.  It will propel them like caterpillars into a cocoon where they will eventually break out and transform into a monarch butterfly—each tear, each experience, each emotional, mental, and spiritual scar imprinted on the mosaic of their wings.

The next significant other bound by the coordinates on the x(ex)-y axis.

With Rhonda, she chooses to rely on the “comfort in the exactness of math and the precision of science (pg. 33)” to prevent future heartbreaks.  The whirlwind of fun, fumbling sex and the flowing legato of game ends when Rhonda gets pregnant.  Christopher’s choir boy image risks the chance of being marred not only socially, but physically by his father’s pummeling fists.

Rhonda’s dad decides to take her to Atlanta to end her pregnancy.  Rhonda returns home to focus her energies on studying and tutoring in the local college’s program. It isn’t until one of the most popular girls waltzes in with trig problems and baby issues of her own that Rhonda realizes that she may not have been totally sure of her father’s decision.

So the overlapping of Sarah’s problems into Rhonda’s life blurs the lines of order. Having a crush on Sarah’s brother, David, does not help the situation.

David is the inverse of Christopher, but Rhonda continuously wants to label him as a jerk like her ex, Christopher. She can’t deny the way she feels.  She soon realizes that she must see herself through a different angle before she can explore all of the contours of real love that David can offer.

There is an element of surprise when the father of Sarah’s baby is revealed. This climactic event also places David in conflict with Christopher.

Johnson’s writing style really draws the reader in. Throughout my reading of the novel, I thought Varian Johnson was a female.  He depicts each character with such deft detail, especially the way he is able to place himself inside the thoughts and emotions of a teenage girl in a predicament like Rhonda’s.  The reader can actually feel the steely personality of Rhonda and Christopher’s mother, Judge Gamble.  Forget about Miranda on The Devil Wears Prada and the mother in Mommie Dearest.

Dare I say, that this writer who has always been plagued by math anxiety thoroughly enjoyed the blend of math and literature.  Some areas of his book helped me, the mathematically challenged, understand some concepts through his writing.

And those adolescents who love numbers like writers love words (those extraordinary individuals affectionately dubbed as “blerds” or “nerds” by today’s social media communities) will enjoy Johnson’s use of word problems, graphs, Venn diagrams, geometry, and other mathematic functions to describe the complexities of Rhonda’s, Sarah’s, and David’s lives as the plot advances.

Johnson also dispels the stereotype that boys excel in math and sciences. Here, he portrays a young, African American girl who loves these subjects and plans to study a major.  Adolescent girls need to read about Rhonda so they can be motivated to enter those fields.

Through the language of mathematics, Rhonda breaks down the language of recovery: healing from the past, manipulating the variables of relationships between parents and children, and discovering new postulates of friendship and romance through Sarah and David Gamble.  She draws new boundaries of intersecting life lines.

The rhombus also becomes a significant symbol because of the way Rhonda negatively boxes her identity into it, but she inverts its meaning into something more defining and beautiful.

This book would be a great read-aloud for English/ reading classes and all levels of math classes.  It provides many opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching. Math teachers could also use the problems in the book to simplify the concepts behind the actual mathematical functions.  English teachers can show how mathematics can be used to tell stories mathematically and figuratively. It also will fit nicely into a Southern literature unit, high school or college-level, since Johnson sets the story in South Carolina.  Teachers can discuss how the characters and the themes/topics challenge or confirm Southern mores and how they compare to today’s Southern culture.

Since My Life as a Rhombus deals with handling different types of math, people and situations, teachers can bring the kinesthetic into the classroom and make the reading of this novel more concrete by participating in “The Marshmallow Challenge:”http://www.productivemindset.com/problem-solving/team-building-with-the-marshmallow-challenge/.

I participated in this activity in a team-building training. It challenged my perspective on how our imagination and thinking processes change as we progress from kindergarteners to adults.

My Life as a Rhombus will also challenge readers’ perceptions of mathematics, romance, and tough decisions.

Text-to-Text Connections— Romance & Relationships in African American Young Adult Literature (YAL)

jason and kyra   Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson

played   Played by Dana Davidson

a teenage love affair  Teenage Love Affair  by Ni-Ni Simone

boyfriend diaries  The Break-Up Diaries by Ni-Ni Simone and Kelli London

breakup diaries   The Break-Up Diaries Vol. 2  by Nikki Carter & Kevin Elliott

chasing romeo  Chasing Romeo  by A. J. Byrd

kelli london  Boyfriend Season by Kelli London

love on 145th street  What They Found on 145th Street  by Walter Dean Myers

romietteRomiette and Julio by Sharon Draper

born Born Blue by Han Nolan

woodsonIf You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

Can you suggest any other YAL romances that can be paired with this book?

COMING UP IN BOOK REVIEWS (Yes, Virginia, there are African-American YAL paranormal books. They do exist!):  Ninth Ward  by Jewel Parker Rhodes, Asleep by Wendy Raven McNair, & Orleans by Sherri L. Smith


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4 Comments

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4 responses to “When Variables Unbalance the Equations of Teenage Love & Life: My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson

  1. Great line-up of Young Adult books featuring African-American characters. I wish there had been such a broad range of choices when I was reading YA growing up.

    • Yeah, I didn’t see much while I was growing up. There was Virginia Hamilton, Rita Williams-Garcia, & Walter Dean Myers–all have been in the genre for a very long time, like late 70s/early 80s. But they were not promoted much.

  2. Your prose and poetry are very nice, Alexandra. I’m stopping by thanks to Julie.

    Be well.

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