Amid all the scary and repetitive news I heard about the corona virus while I waited in the Ambulatory Surgical Center, one story made me pop out my earbuds and pay attention.
The news team paused briefly from its virus coverage to discuss a different crisis in our country: racism. They were interviewing two authors, Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Jason Reynolds on the screen. I had seen him speak last fall at the library in the town where I work. He gave a brilliant talk about his own educational journey, his writing, and the mistakes he’d made along the way. I already owned several of his books, but I immediately bought more.
Now, as I watched him on the set of the morning news, he commanded attention. Kendi, a bit more proper and professorial, had written an academic book, Stamped From the Beginning, that won the National Book Award in 2016. Jason Reynolds won a National Book Award that same year. They met at those award ceremonies and formed a kinship. A year later, Kendi had convinced Reynolds to produce a remix of his book and gear it toward kids. Now it’s out.
Reynolds says it’s not a history book “because kids don’t like to read history books,” but he admits that’s somewhat of a cover-up. It IS a history book, but he makes the point that it’s about issues that span centuries. They definitely carry into our present. They talked about how learning history in our country means learning to handle contradictions. Kendi thinks kids can handle those contradictions. Some adults have a harder time. Kids can (and must) grapple with the idea that the fathers of our lauded democratic system, the proclaimers of new ideas about freedom and liberty were people like Washington and Jefferson, who owned slaves. Kendi notes that this is not unlike all fathers, who teach their children what they have learned from experience, including the mistakes they made. This requires honesty and humility, but it’s real. Sure, parents (and teachers) might aspire to being paragons, but their children also benefit from seeing their imperfections, their failures. (I’m editorializing here).
At the end of the interview, one of the hosts asked Reynolds what he thinks are the keys to connecting with kids. I loved his answer. He said that he believes in three tenets that lead to real communication. I would say they hold not just for a writer, but for anyone trying to connect and communicate.
First comes humility. He believes that kids need to see that adults approach them with humility, admitting when they don’t know something. Adults may have years, but that doesn’t mean they hold all the answers.
The second tenet is intimacy. He chose to write this version of Stamped like a conversation, because that’s a form of intimacy. Readers like to feel a bond with an author, a sense that he or she is speaking directly to them, not to some generalized group. I say it’s the same with kids in a classroom.
Finally, he stands on a belief in gratitude, but he’s not wagging his finger and saying, “Kids, you should show gratitude.” He may feel that everyone should try to feel gratitude, but what he explained is different. He said adults need to approach kids with a sense that we are grateful for them, because, as he says, “If it weren’t for kids, none of us would really have a purpose in the world.”
Those words stopped me in my tracks. Indeed. I should live them every day in my classroom. I have a new pledge to recite.
The interview ended with words from the end of Stamped, where Reynolds says, don’t just repost this or hashtag this. It’s more than a social media thing. It needs to be lived out in the streets.
I turned back from the TV, thinking, “Or in the classroom.” I immediately bought the book, both versions.
I’m out of school today. We’re closed for the rest of the week and for who knows how much longer because of a virus. I already miss my students, many of whom hugged each other as they left yesterday, sensing an extended separation.
The book arrives today, and I will be reading it. Then, I will begin to work on my anti-racism, with humility, intimacy, and gratitude for all.