In January, in a fit of – what? frustration? overwhelm? a desire to make someone somewhere happy? I wrote to the authors of the books my 12th graders were reading & thanked them. I explained that during yet another lockdown, yet another round of remote learning, the students were finding interest and pleasure in their novels. Then, I took a leap and invited each author to my class to talk with us, if they ever had the time. To my astonishment, Lawrence Hill, the author of The Book of Negroes (known as Someone Knows My Name in the US and Australia), The Illegal and Any Known Blood, among others, wrote back and said yes. (I wrote about this here.)
Hill’s virtual visit was a highlight of this year – heck, of many years! – not least because my students prepared well and led the entire visit by asking thoughtful questions. Hill himself was a delightful guest: he took each student seriously, writing notes as they spoke, addressing them directly by name and engaging them in thoughtful discussion. I think we all left that class feeling a little more connected, a little more like a part of a larger community of discourse.
That should have been enough. The story should be that I sent a note & something wonderful happened, but it turns out there’s more. This quarter (ugh) I have a new group of students who are reading many of the same books. I don’t quite have the nerve to ask Lawrence Hill to visit us again, but many of the students I’m teaching now know many of the students I taught last quarter, and they know he visited. I’ve also shared my decision to write & the results as an example of the power of writing – and the idea that it’s ok to fail. After all, only one author wrote back – but what would have happened if I hadn’t written at all? Consider it evidence, I told them, that writing well really can make a difference. This new group nodded politely, but between the masks and the screens, I couldn’t tell if they believed me. Too often what they hear is that the teacher’s words matter, not theirs.
This week, they’ve been working on understanding the context of their novels. How does the author’s biography influence their writing? How does understanding context help a reader understand the text in a different way? Heady stuff, but after their initial nerves, many of them got deeply involved in their research. So I shouldn’t have been surprised – though I was! – when two different students mentioned that they had emailed the author of their novel. Nevermind that Lawrence Hill and Ruth Ozeki are big names with plenty of awards and whatnot, each student had a burning question and decided it was worth asking. And then did it.
As a class, we’ll get to the essay in a week, and I’m not a bit worried about it. My students have begun to see themselves as people worthy of participating in discourse, as people whose have questions worth asking. That’s really all I need to know.
(Though, it would be fun if one of them got a response.)