Code Switch
9:45 am
Mon November 11, 2013

Sometimes The 'Tough Teen' Is Quietly Writing Stories

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 3:56 pm

A few years ago I did an author visit at an overcrowded junior high school in a rougher part of San Antonio. I write young adult novels that feature working-class, "multicultural" characters, so I'm frequently invited to speak at urban schools like this.

As is often the case, the principal and I talked as the kids filed into the auditorium. The student body was mostly Hispanic, he told me, and over 90 percent qualified for free and reduced lunch. It was an underprivileged school, a traditionally low-achieving school, but they were working hard to raise performance.

The principal then pointed out a particular student, seated near the back. "That one's a real instigator," he told me. "But don't worry, we'll remove him if he starts acting up. It wouldn't be the first time Joshua blew an opportunity like this."

As the librarian introduced me to the school, I studied this kid. Joshua. He was bigger than everyone else. He had neck tattoos and a shaved head. He kept smacking the kid next to him in the back of the head and laughing. A nearby teacher shushed him.

I started my talk by describing my own early struggles in school. I was nearly held back in second grade because I "couldn't read," which shattered my confidence. For a long time after that experience I viewed myself as unintelligent — and the most difficult definition to break free from, I told the students, is self-definition.

Joshua began to pay attention.

Even though I was a reluctant reader in junior high and high school, I found myself writing poems in the back of class. Secret spoken-word-style poems I never shared. They were about girls, mostly. And my neighborhood. And the confusion I sometimes felt about growing up racially mixed. I wasn't able to express myself the way I truly wanted to, though, until I was introduced to multicultural literature in college that led to me falling in love with books.

After the session, Joshua came to the front of the stage and asked to speak with me in private. He told me he was born in a prison and that he'd been held back in school. Twice. He didn't belong in junior high anymore. It made him feel like a loser. But he wanted me to know that he wrote stories sometimes. About San Antonio gangs. When he asked if I'd be willing to read the one he'd just finished, I told him I'd love to. "But you'll have to get it to me quick," I said. "They're about to shuttle me to the next school."

He sprinted off toward his locker on the other side of campus.

The librarian told me she was stunned as we both watched Joshua disappear into the halls. It was the first time she'd seen him engage in anything school related.

A few minutes later he was back with thirty typed pages. He was sweating and out of breath. He handed me his story and told me I was the first person he'd ever let read his writing. I gave him one of my books in return, and we shook hands. He called me "sir."

That night I read Joshua's words. They were beautiful. And ugly. And sad. They were full of heart. This Mexican kid, who was a thug, who was not pretty and felt like he was too big for his grade, too old — he had all these feelings he didn't know what to do with. So he wrote them into stories.

Owning One's Creativity

This is not an isolated case. A surprising number of teens I meet in rougher schools around the country find refuge in novels and creative writing. It's not always the usual suspects either, the high achievers. Sometimes it's the second-string point guard on the basketball squad. Or the girl bused in from a group home. Or the kid who's twice been suspended for fighting. The one constant I find? Many of these teens — especially the ones from working-class families — do their reading and creating in secret.

Young-adult author John Green has done an amazing job mobilizing a generation of readers and writers through his "nerdfighter" campaign. Kids from all around the country shout from the rooftops that they love to read and learn and make art. One day Mr. Green will undoubtedly win a MacArthur Fellowship, or something similar, for the groundbreaking online community he's created (as well as for his fiction). But not every kid is able to own his or her creativity in this way. In many working-class neighborhoods, the "nerdfighter" label just isn't gonna fly. Self preservation won't allow for it. I'm sensitive to this because it's the way I grew up, too.

I'm ashamed to admit this, but I didn't read a novel all the way through until after high school. Blasphemy, I know. I'm an author now. Books and words are my world. But back then I was too caught up in playing ball and running with the fellas. Guys who read books — especially for pleasure — were soft. Sensitive. And if there was one thing a guy couldn't be in my machista, Mexican family, it was sensitive. My old man didn't play that. Neither did my uncles or cousins or basketball teammates. And I did a good job fitting myself into the formula.

But there was something missing.

Becoming Whole

My world changed the day professor Heather Mayne sought me out in the middle of campus during my sophomore year in college. "I was rereading this last night," she said, holding out a book for me, "and I thought of you."

"Me?" I took the book and studied the cover.

"You." She made me promise to read it before I graduated. "And when you finish," she said, "come talk to me. That's all I ask. Deal?"

That gave me 2 1/2 years. "Deal," I told her.

I took the book with me on our next basketball road trip, to New Mexico State. The night before the game I cracked it open and read the first 10 or 15 pages. Why'd she give me this book? I wondered. It wasn't any good. The narrator couldn't even speak that good of English. This was usually when I'd toss a book aside, telling myself it just wasn't my thing. But that wasn't an option in this case. I needed to find out why my professor had connected me to this one specific book.

By Page 50 or so, I started caring about the character. She had a really tough life, far tougher than anything I'd experienced, and I tried to put myself in her shoes. The broken English which seemed awkward at first, became poetic. I read a third of the novel that night and went to sleep.

After our game the next day, which we won on a buzzer-beater, I hustled back to my hotel room to continue reading my book. I finished at 4 in the morning.

First of all, I'd never read a book in two days, and it made me feel smart (an important piece of the puzzle). Even more surprisingly, though, when I turned the last page I found myself on the verge of tears. I was shocked. How could black and white on a page make me feel so emotional? I was a tough kid from a tougher family. I hadn't shed a tear since elementary school. And here I was, choked up. From a book.

Before I reveal the title, I want all the guys reading this to know I didn't cry that night. I fought it off. Not everyone knows this, but it's not an official cry unless a tear exits the eye. And when I felt it coming on that night, I used an age-old trick. I looked up, allowing everything to soak back in. And it was all good.

The book I read that night was Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

My professor said something I will never forget when I went and talked to her the following week. Even in the harshest and ugliest of circumstances, she explained, there's still hope. That's what she loved most about The Color Purple.

It's what I loved most, too, I decided.

That hope.

I immediately went in search of other stories that might move me, too. I read all the novels I'd skipped in high school. I read novels by black female authors like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. I read Ruth Forman's first poetry collection so many times I had every line memorized. And when I discovered Hispanic writers like Sandra Cisneros and Junot Díaz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it was over. I was hooked. Novels became my secret place to "feel." My dad and uncles didn't need to know about it. Neither did my teammates. But I could sense something happening inside of me: reading was making me whole.

Today when I write my own novels, I try to craft the best possible stories, and I certainly aim to be entertaining, but I'm also conscious of the powerful function literature can serve — especially in the lives of kids growing up the way I did. My goal as a writer is to recede into the background, allowing readers to fully participate. I want them to be able to watch the characters and listen to conversations and be free to form judgments of their own. I believe it's in this space that young readers acquire experience with complex emotions like empathy and sensitivity, which makes them more likely to be in tune with emotional nuance out in the real world.

Happy Endings

A few weeks after I met Joshua I tried to track him down through his school librarian. I wanted to tell him what I thought about his pages and ask if he'd had a chance to check out the book I'd given him. What a great story this would make, I thought. An author and a student exchanging writing every so often, becoming long-distance creative buddies. Maybe one day he'd even publish something of his own, and I could brag to everyone that I was his mentor.

Unfortunately this story doesn't have the neat little happy ending I'd imagined. Joshua, I was told, had dropped out of school. The last the librarian had heard, he'd gotten in trouble with the police and had left San Antonio to live with his grandma in Houston. I left my contact information with her in case she heard anything, but that's pretty much where the trail went cold.

So, what happened to Joshua? Did he make good in his new city? Or did things continue to spiral downward the way they sometimes do for kids born into impossible circumstances? I'll probably never know. But even if it's the latter, I'll still never forget our brief encounter. A happy ending doesn't make something more valid. And as long as Joshua manages to stay alive, his story could change at any time.

Even late in life, the way it did for my dad.

Back in my graduate school days, I used to drop by my folks' place once a week for dinner. I'd eat at the kitchen table talking to my mom and little sister while my dad ate in the living room watching his favorite TV show, Cops. We didn't usually interact a whole lot. But one night, my old man stopped me on my way out the door. He pointed at the book tucked under my arm and asked what I was reading.

"One Hundred Years of Solitude," I said, holding it out for him to see.

He nodded.

I assumed that was the end of it so I waved to everyone and made my way through the front door. My dad followed me outside, though. "Hey, Matt," he said. "You think I could borrow that book when you're done?"

I'd never seen my dad read much of anything, and Garcia Marquez seemed like a tough jumping-off point, but I handed over the book anyway, telling him: "It's all yours. I finished it on the ride up here."

It took him over a month to read the book. When he handed it back to me I tried to get his feedback on the multiple storylines and the magical realism, but all he'd say was that he liked it. He followed me outside the house that night, too. "I was thinking," he said, looking over his shoulder to make sure we were alone. "Maybe you could let me read whatever books you finish."

"Sure," I said, trying to hide my surprise.

Over the next two years, my old man read everything I put in front of him. Fiction, nonfiction, essays, plays. He even started reading books he found on his own. My mom pulled me aside one day and told me he was becoming a completely different person. He was less angry now. He even talked about going back to school.

After my first novel came out, and I moved to New York, my dad enrolled at the local community college but kept it a secret. He struggled through a year of remedial courses but eventually got the hang of it and told his family what he was doing. He went on to earn his associate's degree, and we were all incredibly proud of him. But he didn't stop there. The following year he transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studied literature.

My dad just recently finished his bachelor's degree, and he's now a bilingual teacher at an elementary school in Watsonville, Calif. (where my mom teaches, too). He's still tough, and he doesn't show a whole lot of emotion. But you should see the guy's eyes light up when we start talking books. "You gotta read Roberto Bolaño, Matt. I'm serious. I don't know what's taking you so long."

"OK, OK," I say. "I'll read Bolaño."

"Start with The Savage Detectives and just go from there. Trust me."

Sometime when I have these kinds of conversations with my dad, I find myself thinking: Who the hell is this guy?

But it's like my dad always tells me. Reading changed his life.

Just like it changed mine.

Will anything come along and change Joshua's life? Maybe not. But I always go back to my professor's line about The Color Purple. Even in the harshest and ugliest of circumstances, there's still hope.

Matt de la Peña (@mattdelapena) is the author of many young adult novels including The Living, which will be released on Nov. 12. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.

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