Changing the World One Book at a Time
She was pretty upfront about it: she didn’t want me there.
“It’s not you personally,” Marge explained. “It’s the book.”
Marge was the moderator, researcher, engine, really, of a local reading group. She was good at what she did, I was told, and I believed it. She was pretty thorough at listing all the reasons why she didn’t want to read or recommend to the group my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my ten years teaching teenagers in adult detention.
“The title, for one. It’s all wrong. Even the third graders I used to teach would know that it wasn’t correct,” she started off. “It’s just poor grammar. And what about that cover? It put me off.”
I happened to think Beacon Press did a terrific job with the cover—the title, in hip-hop script on a blue background and, in profile, the photograph of a young African American male, sixteen at most, looking out at the reader with a somewhat challenging look yet with the inevitable vulnerability of any teenager.
But I knew where Marge was headed.
“Besides, I don’t like the topic, sounds too depressing,” she said. And then she got blunt. “What’s it got to do with me?”
I’d heard the objections before, although not quite so frankly stated. I did some mild reassuring, but I didn’t work at it. I knew that Marge had called to invite me to speak to the group despite her opposition. Two friends who were a part of the book club had read the book, liked it, and lobbied for it.
When I arrived at the community center the night of my talk I thought things might have changed.
“We don’t usually do refreshments, but I thought this time it might be nice,” Marge said, greeting me warmly at the door, then leading me to a table covered with plates of home-baked cookies and pastries, a coffee urn, and two pitchers of fresh-squeezed lemonade.
And indeed things had changed. At first when Marge introduced me, she was true to form. I winced as she laid out all her objections and doubts about the book in excruciating detail. “Oh boy, what kind of night is this going to be?” I thought.
But then, with equal clarity, Marge told the group of about thirty how the book had changed her thinking and answered all her doubts. How she understood now that the title reflected the fractured yet still human lives of many of the kids I wrote about, especially Ray, the young man who was damaged by years of abandonment and drugs, and from whom I took the quote for the title. She said how the cover itself mirrored these kids’ lives—on the one hand it showed the fragile world of childhood with the book jacket’s blue background and playful lettering, and on the other, the gritty world of the streets with that scowling, discontented-looking young man. How, yes, the stories that she expected to depress and alienate her did make her sad at times, as she learned about these children’s lives in and out of jail. Yet at the same time they made her smile and laugh and admire those same children for their resilience and generosity and willingness to forgive society for what it had done to them, although society didn’t forgive the children for their mistakes.
“It was pretty obvious to me by the end of the book that I had a lot more in common with those kids than I could ever have imagined,” Marge concluded.
Listening to Marge, I smiled to myself and began to wonder why I’d made the trip there (well, there were those delicious-looking brownies), since she was telling the group all the things I would have said.
And I wondered if Marge realized that what had happened to her is what I always hoped would happen whenever I handed one of my locked-up students a book: their perceptions of the world would shift; that places they’d never been to, were excluded from, would open up to them; that people they’d never gotten the chance to meet, or who they refused to meet because of all the protective barriers they put up, would suddenly became more like them than they could have ever realized.
I didn’t think Marge, now, after reading the book, would mind being in the company of Warren, who, finally, at the age of fifteen and reading on a fourth-grade level, had completed his “first-ever book,” as he put it, or Frankie, who made it through a long stint in solitary confinement devouring the novels (all good ones, I might add) I brought him; or Larry, who began to see that even a life like his wasn’t foreign to the pages of literature after he finished reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
Readers like Marge and Warren and Frankie and Larry and all the others out there are the reasons why writers like me write their books and why teachers like me stay in the classroom despite the struggles. We want to do nothing less than change the world (and a few hearts while we’re at it) book by book.
Originally posted on Beacon Broadside