I have amazing abilities. Being in two places simultaneously, however, is not one. With the start of my graduate summer class, I found myself having to choose (or, as it were, having it decided for me): the big kids won out.
That meant that after talking up Chimimanda Adichie’s visit to Harvard Square as our next big event, my younger kids would have to go on their own. She’s become something of our own celebrity: we watch her Ted Talk about the danger of a single story and use it as a guiding question throughout the year as we interrogate single stories about colonialism, and that then trickles into everything else as we check ourselves and our own single stories (when kids dip into stereotypes, someone will suggest they stop buying into the single story…it’s awesome).
I managed to make it to the reading early into the Q & A. The place was jammed, so I stood in the back, way past being able to see or hear anything, but there’s something comforting and powerful about spaces where we are all gathered to hear, read and think about books.
Because I am a compulsive reader, too, it was only because I was looking over the selection of new books that I saw one of my students, propped up between the bookshelves, watching the reading via remote screen. When I made my way over to her, she smiled, said she’d been there for the whole thing, that she was having a hard time hearing the reading given her location, but she was happy she’d come.
As the reading ended and people began streaming out, I heard several students joyfully calling to me: they’d arrived early and were front row (!), were a bit breathless about being in the same room with Adichie (who was lovely combinations of funny, thoughtful, brilliant), and as many waited to meet her, we had an informal confab, there in the aisles of the bookstore and talked about the experience, about asking her questions about Half a Yellow Sun, about being out late on a school night to attend a reading.
This is what it means to be a Literary Citizen of the World.
When I taught in the city, I would take kids with me everywhere: readings, plays, events that helped them broaden their understanding of what it means to be a person who thinks and reads broadly in this world. Often the events were free, and other times I managed to get us comp tickets, but those adventures around this city were some of the more memorable ones for how it helped kids think of themselves and the spaces where they could be in, while helping me love them even more.
During my sabbatical, though, it was simply too hard to devote any time other than to learning what was up, so the LCOTW was temporarily disbanded.
I resurrected it this year because I’m in the city again, and I have kids who like showing up for stuff: they’ve attended documentary screenings, conferences, plays, readings and other performances, and now they talk about those events with a confidence and nonchalance that is admirable: as a person who is in the world, you just go to stuff that is interesting and you open yourself up to learning something new, and you almost always do leave with some new perspective. I incentivize the program by requiring a thought letter (a reflection about one big idea they were left thinking about after attending the event), which is always a delight to read because they’re reflecting on what they’ve learned or are still thinking about. I tend to savor those letters because those are moments where, if they’re written well (and most usually are), I can hear their voices, their delights, their joys.
I don’t go to half the things I tell them about, but that’s okay. The movement just needs to be started and they take it from there. Once it is up and running, kids start submitting events for approval and go on their own with their friends. Every now and then, if my schedule permits and if it’s not past my bedtime, I might join them. Or, if I can even make an event for the last few minutes of time, just to be able to chat with them about moments when an author says something so profound that you write it down and carry it with you and want to tell others about it?! Yeah, in those moments, I’m just happy to be in the same space with them so we can all say were there when literacy really mattered (of course they won’t say it like that, because they are children and they’re not so meta, but this moment will be important for them, though, in ways big and small).
As two other students waved goodbye on their way to get ice cream (because one should get ice cream after such events, yes? I completely agreed), they said they were coming back next week for another reading, some author that I didn’t know, but they said it sounded interesting. Literary Citizens of the World now has a life of its own, which is my hope whenever I roll it out: students will understand that all of this wonderfulness is for all of us, and they can go, too.
As the year rushes to its end and I have to make peace with what is done and undone, I’ll carry this time, of the night we went to see Chimimanda Adichie give a reading of her new book and then we went looking for Frankenstein (a different story, but a great one, nonetheless), and we loved reading and all the commensurate delights opened to us.