Before and After

Meg Rosoff’s novel How I Live Now has a definite before and after. It is so definite, in fact, that the page that separates the two sections has simply a dot on it, and the chapters begin again at one. There’s much to talk about with this novel, and unfortunately, some things might be spoiled.

Daisy narrates the novel. She is sent to live with her cousins in England when a war breaks out, and she is stranded there. Conveniently, there are no adults to care for them when this happens since Daisy’s aunt Penn has left to go to conference in Oslo for a few days. The war strands her there. The war is never named. The reason is never given. And the enemies never named. The first 29 chapters relate Daisy’s experiences with the war. Some of the scenes Rosoff paints are both gripping and horrifying. However, it is the second part of the book—the final six chapters—that are the most poignant. The war ends after many years. Daisy goes back to be with her cousins. In narrating the ending, Daisy glosses over the six years of war. And the final chapters focus on the ways life has changed, and as the title states, how Daisy and her cousins now live.

Ultimately, like most YA books, How I Live Now, is a coming of age story. Daisy learns that there are real enemies to fight, real reasons to starve, and real reasons to survive. Living is more than surviving. She learns the importance of relationships in helping one live and how relying on others isn’t a bad thing.

All of us have a before and after story in us. Some of us have many of those stories. For some, the event that creates their before and after isn’t quite so dramatic. It might simply be something as benign as heading to college—or for my students heading to middle school. Regardless, it is these life experiences that can separate time into before and after that forces us, whether we want to or not, grow, change, and mature.

My generation has a few cultural before and afters—The Challenger Exploding or 9/11—and we’re old enough to have more than a few personal before and afters.

Twenty-five years ago, this weekend, I was getting ready to start my first day of school as a teacher. I was nervous and excited. After my first day, I realized that my undergrad experience, while top notch, did not prepare me for everything middle school was going to throw at me that first year.

This past week I set foot in the graduate school classroom for the first time as a professor. I was nervous and excited. I’m back at UPenn, which feels like home. My classroom is in College Hall, which was the first building built when Penn moved across the river to West Philly.

(Image from

I think about those whose shoulders I stand on, and this space is a physical reminder of that. For me, I have to shift my identity from student to teacher. Something I thought I had prepared for and realized I wasn’t completely prepared for that until I had students in front of me.

I have been given the privilege of helping to prepare my students for their life as a teacher. They are also starting their before and after moment. We’ll be finding our new identities together and adjusting to how we live now.

Posted in Coming of Age

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