Free Spirit Author Spotlight: Alex J. Packer

The staff at Free Spirit is privileged to work with many amazing authors. We will be sharing more author spotlights with you, and hope you enjoy learning about these writers who are dedicated to helping kids succeed. The following interview was recently published in our newsletter, Upbeat News.

HowRudeMay’s author spotlight is on Alex J. Packer, a former school headmaster who first joined the Free Spirit family in 1997 and has been entertaining us with his winning charm and amusing anecdotes about manners in the wild ever since. This month we are releasing a revised and updated edition of his classic (and comprehensive) etiquette guide for teens, How Rude!® The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out. The book’s main message? Teens who know how to handle themselves in social situations come out on top, get what they want, feel good about themselves, and enjoy life to the fullest.

Q: What prompted you to write and revise How Rude! The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out?

Alex: Inspiration to write the original How Rude! was provided by countless ill-mannered, disgusting, ignorant, and arrogant adults who reminded me on a daily basis that we didn’t need another generation like THAT. Since adults were failing in their responsibility to teach manners to the next generation, I decided to bypass them and go directly to teens.

When I wrote the first edition of How Rude! in the mid-1990s, teenagers didn’t have cell phones and most families didn’t have computers. There was no Facebook or Google. No tweeting, trending, or texting. If something went viral you gave it an antibiotic. Fast forward to today. People are crankier than ever. I still get run over by skateboarders and ignored by sales clerks. But now, kids come out of the womb wearing earbuds. Parents yell “no electronics at the table.” Ask people about their “significant other” and they’ll show you their smartphone.

With all these changes transforming our culture and the world of teens, I knew it was time to update How Rude! and address the new manners violations made possible by 21st-century technological advances and societal regressions.

Q: What was the most rewarding part of working on this book?

Alex: I loved talking with teens, hearing firsthand what they had to say about manners, technology, social media, and the behavior of their peers. I also experienced great satisfaction as a writer in entering “the zone” and having a productive day at the keyboard and, dare I say, even allowing myself a little chuckle now and again at what I’d just written.

Q: What book inspired you the most as a teen?

Alex: Definitely Freddy the Pig! Oink, oink. (That’s pig talk for “wink, wink.”) I should stress that this was when I was a preteen. I adored the Bean farm, where justice, compassion, and honesty prevailed, and evil, buffoonery, and skullduggery got their just desserts. It was a community built upon the best of human, er, animal nature.Freddy the Pig Freddy—pilot, detective, magician, newspaper editor, community organizer, explorer—was a renaissance pig, a quality that appealed to me as a child (the renaissance part, not the pig part). Not surprisingly, my hero as a teenager was Thomas Jefferson who, as an architect, writer, inventor, musician, farmer, politician, lawyer, and diplomat was as gifted, intelligent, and curious as Freddy, if a bit less porcine.

Q: What was your favorite thing about school as a teen?

Alex: Apart from the dismissal bell? I went to boarding school as a teenager. I loved the independence and the close relationships formed with teachers and classmates—many of whom continue to be my best friends today. I enjoyed belonging to a community, and being able to feed my passions with courses, such as architecture, not typically available to high schoolers. I liked dormitory life, my evening ritual of strolling to the corner store for a nutritious snack of Fresca and Hostess Snowballs, and crunching through the snow on a cold New England night to look at the stars and ponder the nature of the universe. Of course, my accelerated maturity meant that as a freshman in college I was bemused by all the eager, bright-eyed youngsters leaving home for the first time. Been there, done that, I thought.

Q: Did you have a least favorite part?

Alex: The pressure of grades as the be-all and end-all of school. As a teenager who grew up with the expectation that I could go to any college as long as it had ivy, I was profoundly affected by two books I read as a 17-year-old. The first was Summerhill, about the progressive “free school” created by A.S. Neill as a democratic community that responds to the needs and interests of its students, as opposed to the more typical approach of molding pupils to fit the school. The other book was The Wild Boy of Aveyron (upon which Truffaut based his film, The Wild Child). This recounting of the true story of a feral child who grew up in the woods got me thinking even further about nature versus nurture and the role of education in the developing adolescent, and certainly contributed to my decision to become, if not a feral child, a psychologist, educator, and “alternative school” head.

Q: You’ve worked as an alternative school headmaster and with other organizations that serve teens. What do you like best about working with students as an adult?

Alex: I like their passion, energy, humor, hopefulness, empathy, and capacity for extreme goodness and kindness. As for what I don’t like… well, you didn’t ask about that.

Q: What makes you a “free spirit”?

Alex: Learning to fly ultra-light aircraft—you know, go-karts with fabric wings—and buzzing around at sunset 3,000 feet above the Blue Ridge Mountains would qualify me as a “free spirit.” No, on second thought, that makes me a “free idiot.” My “free spirit” can be found in the fact that my life’s course has been unpredictable. If you had asked me at any point what I expected to be doing in five years, my answer would have been proven wrong. While that might indicate a lack of direction and perseverance, I much prefer to think of it as a courageous willingness to take risks, go with the flow, and learn and grow as a person. Yes, I much prefer that interpretation!

Q: What qualifies you to be manners guru to the youth of America?

Alex: That’s easy: My academic and professional expertise in psychology, education, adolescent development, parenting, and family relations; my flawless behavior and demented sense of humor; my having had my mouth washed out with soap as a child and being raised by parents who were unable to hear requests that did not include “please” or “may I.” As a child I was a precocious bon vivant and adventurer, traveling abroad by myself at age 15 and subsequently to over 35 countries, providing me with a deep understanding of the diversity of rudeness of which the human species is capable. I am also pathologically prompt, considerate, and responsible, and possessed of a highly developed sense of outrage at boors, bigots, ingrates, narcissists, hypocrites, and, at the risk of being redundant, politicians.

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