A disclaimer: I'm operating on about four hours of sleep because my flight from home was delayed three hours, which means I had to get a new itinerary and instead of getting back to Boston around 10-something last night, I got in around 12-something last night and couldn't get to sleep until an hour later. So, if this post has a tendency to ramble, I apologize.
But, yesterday. It went well. Really well. I probably got as much from it as the kids did, maybe more.
The one downside, the original teacher who was supposed to do my discussion had back surgery, and he was among my favorite teachers while in high school. So instead, I had a chemistry teacher whom I'd never had, but she'd taught my sister (whom she loved, obvs!), and she was great. I'm glad I got to meet her and talk with her.
The one surprise, I had to speak in front of the entire student population--all 2K kids. I was not prepared. I knew I would be talking to a smaller discussion group, but when the one of the student body officers introduced me, a brief moment of panic filled me, but I kept it short and sweet and hopefully coherent!
All right, now to the discussion. There were only six students in my group, but the members were four boys and two girls; two freshmen, two sophomores, two seniors; one biracial girl, one black boy with a Puerto Rican mother, one white boy, and the other three were black; one had transferred from Jacksonville, FL, one had been in SC from Chicago for a year, and one had come from Hawaii (military kid). And there was the chemistry teacher who was a white woman, and me.
My book was under the theme of diversity. I think my group represented that very well.
So, as you know, it was really quiet when the discussion started. None of the kids wanted to say anything, and one boy hadn't even read it (the transfer from Jacksonville) because he'd already had a book from his old school that was on the Summer Reading List. Made no never mind to me, because it was A Raisin in the Sun, and that's a fantastic play. He chose well. Anyway, it was pretty much me and the teacher at the beginning. She asked if anyone had ever experienced discrimination, and the kids said no. I nodded and shared my story of a shopkeeper "reminding" me and another friend of mine, also a black young woman, to not leave the store without purchasing our items; after which, my friend and I made sure to grab all manners of clothing and walk around the store with them, and then put them not where we'd gotten them before leaving the store. After that, some students shared their own instances of discrimination and the ball got rolling somewhat.
Then the teacher asked what was their favorite scene. Again, not much willingness to speak up, but then one of the freshmen (they were both boys) said the beginning when their in Professor Carmichael's office and Benny and his football coach are waiting for the tutor, and in walks Coralee, and the fact the tutor was completely against it but Benny was excited to see his childhood friend. And then more scenes, most of them in the beginning, but then a senior (the transfer from Hawaii and one of the two girls) said she didn't have a favorite scene because she enjoyed the entire book.
Did my jaw drop or did it drop?
She also confessed she wasn't trying to do any Summer Reading because she didn't feel like it and she didn't think she'd be interested. Her mother had chosen Being Plumville to read and this young woman was determined not to crack open the book; but then she turned it over and read the back, and then she finished reading the book in a day.
I was blown away.
Furthermore, one of the young men, the transfer from Chicago, said Coralee reminded him of his mother, and I really had to cheer. Not because my character reminded him of his mother, but because he unconsciously/subconsciously recognized a point I was trying to make in the story, about how many black women are socialized to put themselves either last or their happiness on the backburner for "the betterment" of the community, and then from there I started talking about my own experiences as a black woman, and the teacher related that to her experience as a white woman--but the operative word was woman. And then, the other sophomore (the other young woman) said she enjoyed the book, especially so because her father is white, and she knows about the looks she gets when she's with her parents and how they'd dealt with it and she appreciated it.
By the time we had to break for lunch, they were wondering if I were going to be around for the second part. Um, of course! Yes, I'd been nervous up until I walked into the gym and saw the whole of my alma mater looking at me, but then that feeling of "I got this!" came over me, so even when I had to give my impromptu little speech, I felt very confident about it.
I had lunch with various literacy coaches and other teachers/administrators in the district. Some asked me what my book was about and I told them, but when I addressed the overall group, I didn't even really talk about the theme of my book but rather how to get students to read. I told them very honestly I didn't do my summer reading because very often what I had to read didn't interest me in the slightest. I said the reason why all the kids had done their reading--a fact that had surprised all the teachers--was because they had a choice about what to read, and they could choose something they thought would be relevant to them. I even talked up Ms. Beverly Jenkins because even though I went to college and concentrated in African-American Studies, I still learned from her books, which are primarily African-American Historical Romances. I said think about putting nontraditional books on the list--including romances. You can have them for junior/senior classes or have parents sign off if you think there might be some issues. But really, look around the school--you have evidence in your face that whatever their going to read in a romance . . . they probably already know!
I also told them about my journey thus far to being published, and someone asked about "which house" had released my work. That tiny prick of shame that had come before, since I'm not with any traditional publisher and have a block of e-mail space of rejection letters, didn't come this time. I said proudly I self-published, and I don't regret it. Yes, I'm still trying to get a major publisher, but that doesn't mean I should wait for one, either, especially when I know there's an audience for my work.
Even if I'm constantly surprised by how large that audience actually is.
One of the teachers asked the coordinator of the literacy program at my school if she had any extra copies of Being Plumville. I assumed she did because there were only six people in my group. Heh. Apparently, she'd ordered 40 and all of them had been sold, just many of the students had chosen/been assigned to other discussion groups in which to participate.
Not gonna lie, I had a bit of pep in my step after hearing that, and I went back to my group on even firmer ground than when I'd left it.
My group was also more talkative. The teacher, who'd been at the lunch with me, asked what Being Plumville meant, because I'd explained the title at the lunch--being who your community wants you to be instead of being who you're supposed to be. And then the discussion really got started. I told them about how the South gets a bad wrap in many ways; that the North isn't the racial harmony utopia you read about in history books. I told them, based on my experiences, don't be afraid to know something; don't be afraid to be yourself, because you try to be who someone else wants you to be, you're going to be miserable. One of the students agreed and said how he'd fallen into the wrong crowd briefly trying to "fit in", but he started talking to people who he never thought he'd talk to, and now they were his best friends, and he felt happier. The senior girl started talking about her own experiences moving from school to school; the freshman from Jacksonville even started opening up.
Of course, I was asked about black men/white women v. white men/black women and if I'd gotten more grief about writing the latter when the former was so prevalent. I admitted feeling that sting of rejection whenever I saw a black man with a white woman, but I also spoke about how women are usually "the bearers of the culture" so women tend to have less flexibility in general about being allowed to outmarry. I also touched on the "self-hating" charge, and about black women especially who outdate/marry and are accused of "hating black men". The senior boy spoke about a friend who'd dated interracially, but that they'd not had any problems, but the relationship had also been bm/ww. I said for me, it's not even about that; it's about why should I limit my pool of eligible partners to like 2% of the population? That makes no sense! Black people are 12-13%, half of that is women, which means that's 6% that gets cut down because of the 18>x group, so let's say it goes down to 4%, and then black men who are already married (or too old for me), gets down to 2%, and then I have to weed only through 2% more? Not hardly. If white women have 50% of the population, I want 50% of the population! But more than that, I'm not going to limit myself to make other people feel better, and I'm not going to put other people down just to make myself feel up.
They had to do a book review during this second part of the group, but we were so busy talking they could hardly write! I tried to keep quiet so they could do their assignment, but they kept asking me questions! I also tried to remember they were in high school, and I have college under my belt--college at an Ivy League School at that--and I didn't want to sound inaccessible or use too big words (because when even kids at Harvard are clowning you for your vocabulary choices, then . . . that's something!). I didn't want to turn it into a lecture with concepts that might be out there, but I also realized I couldn't help it because part of why I was writing was to meld all those things together in the story, and I was writing Being Plumville at the same time as my thesis, so sometimes it couldn't be helped.
By the time it was over, I think everyone was disappointed! I know I was. What surprised me the most, however, was everyone liked this book! Remember the demographics--2 freshmen, two sophomores, two seniors--FOUR BOYS! Even the one who didn't read it (from Jacksonville, and he's the white boy) said he had to go get my book! I smiled on the outside but I was actin' a straight foo' on the inside! The sophomore boy said he was sad he didn't have a book for him to sign because he'd checked it out from the library. I gave him the copy I'd brought and signed it for him. Everyone who had a book asked me to sign it; I also gave the senior girl the copy of AJ's Serendipity that I'd brought and showed them the copy of The Beauty Within that will be released at the end of the month. I gave them my business cards and told them if they had any questions or wanted any advice to e-mail me. I meant it.
I'd stayed longer than I'd anticipated so I could talk to my soccer coach. He was like, "when are you coming back?" and I said I didn't know because of work, etc, and he just stared at me. Then I realized he meant permanently! I laughed and I said I don't know what I could do down here because SC isn't a mecca of publishing, let me tell you! But he said, "You don't understand how much of an impact you'd make"--(keep in mind, my coach is white)--"How many black, female, Harvard graduates from SC do you know? He got me. I know of two, not counting my sis because she hadn't graduated yet. But I remember also going into the career lab. There were pennants of various colleges on the walls. One pennant was of Harvard. When I'd gone there, there was no such pennant. But I was reminded of just how big of a deal what I'd done is . . . I was the first person from my school to go to Harvard (and, actually, I believe Ivy League in general)--my sis, the second.
I told this all to my sis and she said, "Savannah, I don't think you realize how good your book is." She's right, but instead of getting all big-headed about it, I just let that fact settle inside me. I actually tried to read a bit before I went to the school yesterday, but I couldn't. You know how some actors can't watch movies they've been in? I think I might be an author who can't read what she's written after it's published. I don't know. But what I do know, I'm so glad I went back to school. It's funny, because when I'd left high school I couldn't wait to leave. Now, I can't wait to go back.