Rex Ogle is my spirit animal

When I first encountered the book Free Lunch, I never imagined the slim volume relating the author’s experiences as a sixth grade student in Texas would revive so many of my own elementary feelings, if not experiences. In the work, published in 2019 and awarded the ALA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction medal, Ogle shares a year from his life complete with emotional, verbal and physical abuse, poverty, housing insecurity, and reliance upon social services for essential needs.

It’s a story that resonated deeply with me.

To be 100% clear – I was never physically or even verbally abused growing up. Emotionally? Well, if you consider neglect a form of emotional abuse, that was definitely present in a way that neither of my parents ever were.

Before Covid blew up my librarian life, I had hoped to have Ogle visit my school and address all of my 6th grade students. Since that wasn’t possible, I took on the task myself this year by including his autobiography in a collection of books I presented to my new students, each with the central thread of being set in middle school, during their LMC orientation.

When I introduced Rex’s book, I explained to my kids that sometimes books have an impact because they reflect our own experiences and validate us, while other books offer a perspective which is incredibly foreign to our own personal history and are informative in a way that expands our understanding of our peers.

I read a chapter (most are fairly brief) entitled “Middle School” in which the author shares his night before his first day of 6th grade memories of trying to be prepared for his own very first day entering a new school as a middle schooler. This was the night Rex was informed that he would be receiving “free lunch” that school year because his mother had applied for and received the benefit.

Unfortunately, he had no idea how to actually get his lunch for free, a situation he describes later in the book that made me squirm in my chair uncomfortably as I remembered having to state aloud, in front of a line of peers, that I was “free lunch.” Free? Don’t kid yourself. Rex and I and every other kid who had to identify as being the recipient of free food most certainly paid a price for the meal their families were incapable of providing to them.

Rex has a new book which was published Tuesday, 10/5. Punching Bag continues the story which he began relating in middle school and has been described as:

Grim reading, with reassurance just the barest glimmer in a nightmarish landscape. – Kirkus

And it was said… “readers will see themselves in Rex and appreciate the hope he offers: life can get better.” -Booklist, starred review

On Tuesday night, his new book’s birthdate, Rex participated in an online conversation sponsored by Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston and moderated by Isaac Fitzgerald.

While Zoom is less than an ideal medium for an author visit, I was nonetheless completely engaged in the conversation. The exchange between the authors was thoughtful, with both sensitivity and humor fully present – and honesty. So. Much. Honesty.

There was one thing in particular that hit me during the hour-long event. Rex had mentioned repeatedly that he has worked to see the positive and appreciate the lessons he was taught as a child, despite having been reared in a violent and unstable home. He offered the example of having been raised to be independent, something I have also claimed as a positive lesson from my own childhood.

Somehow, though, I didn’t hear his statement as necessarily reflective of a laudable situation. It struck me instead as kind of sad – in both Rex’s life and my own. When parents teach force children to not be reliant upon them and to instead develop capabilities far beyond their years, what it’s communicating to a child is this: learn to take care of yourself because I won’t be doing that for you.

Sadly, our world is filled with children who have suffered through dreadful childhoods. The stories shared by Rex Ogle provide a vivid and painful peek into the life he managed to survive and, even more importantly, offer hope for those who need it most.

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