Words change worlds – just ask Jason Reynolds, the poet and New York Times best-selling author of over a dozen young adult and middle-grade books, including Ghost, a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature. I had the incredible opportunity to listen to Reynolds address independent school educators yesterday at the National Association of Independent Schools virtual annual conference (NAISAC). Despite the fact that I was sitting alone in my office, I was moved to tears and goosebumps as if I was listening in a room filled with educators from across the country, nestled alongside my dearest colleagues.
Reynold’s story is empowering, inspiring, and authentic, and he is on a mission to touch the lives of black teenagers by letting them know that he sees them. “I can talk directly to them in a way that I know they’re going to relate to because I am them,” he told the New York Times in 2019, “and I still feel like them.”
To the crowd of educators at #NAISAC this week, Reynolds told us that he did not pick up a book until he was 17. “The books that were given to me in school, there was never a connection for me,” he said. Finally, an African American literature teacher gave him a book and asked him to read 5 pages – if he was not hooked he did not have to finish. He finally had a character he could relate to. The rest, as we say, is history. The book “chemically changed me,” said Reynolds, because it gave him permission to draw from the stories of his family and friends and write the way they speak. It is our job as educators to make sure that our students read books that offer windows and mirrors to the diverse lives they live. Reynolds’ journey affirms this.
“Language, this thing has freed me,” he passionately explained. I was enthralled by his every word and facial expression. Especially when he spoke about rap music. “Rap music saved my life – it shifted the way I thought about myself and shifted the way I thought about possibility. It was telling truths.” I remember when James was in high school listening to rap music. He also told us it was poetry, and it inspired his own writing and his love of words in a way that nothing else could.
I hope one day to bring Jason Reynolds, a Maryland native, to Kent School as our endowed Kudner Leyon Visiting Writer. His words are so important for all of us to hear. He left us yesterday at NAISAC with an important charge to reflect upon. An essential question that is so important now in this global pandemic. How are we keeping our children whole? I have thought about this since he formed the words and said them to us out loud yesterday. I am convinced that along with heath and wellness initiatives, it must also involve reading and discussing books. Books that represent each and every student. Classics and new novels carefully curated to offer relevant glimpses into history and the complicated world we live in today.
Grateful to Jason Reynolds for his words that change worlds.