Saturday, July 5, 2014

Harvesting p.229, BALL DON'T LIE by @mattdelapena. One page at a time, one thought at a time #importantbook

While teaching at the first ever Young Adult Literature Conference at LSU, I was introduced to the writing of Matt de la
Peña and had the short privilege of hearing him speak and to listen
to his wisdom during Dr. Alan Brown's course. I returned to 
Connecticut to purchase his books. When glimpses of time find
their way into my schedule, I've been working my way through 
his craft. Obviously, a book about basketball, adolescents, and 
overcoming obstacles is high priority on my reading list. 
What captures my attention about Peña's work, though, is that 
he finds a voice for young men who aren't always highlighted 
in the texts we share in school. For several weeks now, I've 
re-read p. 229 from Ball Don't Lie.

I received a donation from a friend and coach who wishes to
invest in the literacy of athletes in the city of Bridgeport.
I think I have the perfect audience forth is with  Matt de la
Peña's writing. I've conducted professional development thenlast two years at Bassick High School 
and I know the teachers and students this story will resonate with most. 

From the official website:
Matt de la Peña is the author of five critically-acclaimed young adult novels: Ball Don’t Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, I Will Save You and The Living. He’s also the author of the award-winning picture book A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (illustrated by Kadir Nelson). Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific where he attended school on a full basketball scholarship. de la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn NY. He teaches creative writing and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.
Yet, I'm writing today about p. 229 which has been on my mind for several weeks. I will quote the words 
from a conversation that occurs toward the end of Ball Don't Lie when Dante offers words to Sticky 
(the main character) about making it in a complicated world. I've been thinking about Dante's words 
since I read the book (and am just getting to writing them here today. In fact, I revisited the passage 
after talking with a young man last night about his future as a post-high school graduate who is looking 
to find his way into the world).
Dante reaches down and grabs a couple stones off the ground. See that wall in front of you? ... In America, life's like a race to that wall. That's the way I see it ...If you are born white and got money then you start the race up here. Ahead of everybody. These cats got nice clothes and eat at nice restaurants. Their parents send em to private high schools and expensive colleges so they can one day be in a position to get the best jobs. And when they make it they'll do far more for their kids just like their parents did of them. It's a cycle. 
The passage resonated with me and the equity walk my colleague, Alice, and I often did with juniors when I was teaching in Louisville, Kentucky. Now, post-doctorate at Syracuse and with work in Bridgeport, I see Dante's advice as parallel to what she and I used to discuss with our students (and I shared with the young man I worked with yesterday). Dante continues,
Say you poor and black. Or you Mexican. Puerto Rican. Well, guess what? You don't get to go to that nice private high school, that expensive college. In fact, you may not even have enough food to eat a balanced meal every night. You suffer from a lack of nutrition and that ain't no good for a young mind. In this case you startin the race of life way back here. He points to the second stone. Only a fool would think someone who starts here has the same opportunities as cats startin' at the same stone. (p. 229)
Sticky, a white boy who grows up in foster homes, finds meaning through life on the court and with a hodgepodge crew of homeless friends.  Dante recognizes,"If you some scrubby white boy who's been moved in and out of different foster homes since you was little, then you off the charts, boy" (p. 230).

This, to me, is the perennial conversation I've had during  two decades of working with young people in urban schools. The goal is to build equity in a complicated world of injustice and sadness. Giving in to the way the system rolls is disastrous, but fighting against the tide offers opportunities and hope. In Dante's words, however, a connection is made not just to race, but to class and how achieving for some is far from easy as it is for others (some are born on third base thinking they hit a triple).

In my opinion, Matt de la Peña's text allows teachers to have such conversations with young people, like Sticky, who grow up in environments that counter the cultural norms of economic security, safety, love, and shelter. For a man of literacy, like me, his words offer a location to have conversations with readers who often do NOT see themselves in the books shared at school.

So, p.229 for me. This is what is on my mind.

PS: I want to link to a piece written in New Haven about first generation students at Fairfield University: They Made It. There are multiple stories for those who arrive to education from non-traditional backgrounds and, to be honest, I tend to always be on their side.

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