Today may be Martin Luther King Day, but I have been thinking about Dr. King a lot lately. I have read and listened to his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech time and time again, and discussed it with my students as well. But thinking about the meaning in that speech, and Dr. King’s philosophy as a whole, needs to happen more than just one day each year. As one of my students put it recently, “Miss, I think this whole country needs to reread that speech. They’ve forgotten about it.” The two other students in the room nodded their heads in agreement.
It’s so sad that today’s teenagers have to feel this way, but I am glad that they are sharing those feelings. We, as a country, have grown since the Civil Rights movement, but we are by no means where we need to be. My students think we are going backwards, but really social media and the Internet are just bringing the previously hidden news into the public eye. Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, and the tons of other unarmed black teenagers who have been gunned down by white police officers would never be known to us without social media. Now the country cannot ignore it because we, the people, are making it known. Organizations like #blacklivesmatter and books like All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely are keeping this topic present and putting it in the hands of my teenage students. It is my job to let them talk about it, and talk about it we have.
All American Boys was “the book” that got my students talking. This gem by Reynolds and Kiely is narrated by two teenage characters. Rashad, a black teen, is beaten within inches of his life by a white cop who mistakenly thinks he is stealing a bag of chips from a store. Quinn is a white teen who witnesses the beating and is best friends with the police officer’s younger brother. Reynolds and Kiely do an amazing job of showing how teens might struggle to deal with such a horrific incident. When this book came out at the end of September last year, my students didn’t really know me all that well yet. (I teach in a “first ring” district right outside of Buffalo, NY, so many of my students did not like to read and were below grade level.) They did not want their new teacher telling that what to read. I knew I needed to gain their trust. I did so by reading a lot, sharing a lot, and talking books a lot. They also were allowed to choose what they wanted to read. After reading All American Boys, I immediately created a DonorsChoose Project to get 35 copies for my classroom. After a very generous donor funded the project, I shared the book with my students. I read aloud the portion of the book where the beating happened, and I watched mouths drop. They lunged for it, and it’s been flying off my shelves ever since. In one class, I had ten students reading it at once. They discussed the racial issues that appeared, the fear both main characters struggled with, and even made connections between the book and their own lives. Some of my students who are bisexual or gay brought up having similar fears. They really had a lot to talk about. I just sat back let them.
I heard what my students were saying. They needed All American Boys, and other books like it, to make connections with. Teenagers need to be allowed to read about characters who deal with racial issues, and characters struggling with their sexuality. They need books about transgender characters, and characters that struggle with depression. When teens can make connections with books, they will read more. The more they read, the more they will start judging others, as Dr. King said, “by the content of their character.”