I began We Were Here earlier this summer, but the Connecticut Writing Project work kept getting in the way and my reading time was spent preparing for labs and institutes. Even so, every day the teachers and students heard me saying, "I can't get Mong out of my mind."
The intention for this post was to quote favorite parts and to highlight the moments that resonated with me. Yet, when I sat down this morning to write, I realized - true to my nature - that I already loaned my only copy of the book to an adolescent reader. It's typical to have 'Miguels,' 'Rondels,' and 'Mongs' stopping by my house for advice and, so it was, last night. I ended up sending We Were Here home with a kid who is currently searching for his next steps. Matt de la Peña's book offers a profound context for the larger conversations many teachers like me have with students.
The result? No quotes from the book (read it yourself...it's worth it).
Instead, a little reflection.
Mong's character fascinated me because I've had many kids like him in my classroom. What I love about de la Peña's writing, though, is that he didn't write these individuals as two-dimensional. Rather, he developed their story, their mystery, and their intrigue. He dug deeper to explain the complicated characters they were. Three-fourths of the way through the novel, in fact, I realized Mong reminded me a lot of Bao Lanh, a student I wrote about in The Pressures of Teaching. Bao was a Vietnamese immigrant who succumbed to the streets and I've always wondered about him.
The nature of assessment and common cores keep teachers from building the necessary relationships for students like Miguel, Rondell, and Mong. For young men and women who have lived through trauma, it is the mentorship of adults that can help them to stand a fighting chance (Ubuntu). Actually, it is the mentorship of adults and their peers. The fine line between right and wrong is, after all, the edginess of adolescence that hooks me every time. I love YA novels for the way youth wrestle with morality and ethics, especially when I worry that most adults are too far gone to ever do what is right (how sad is that?). As Gene Wilder said when Charlie returns the gobstopper, "So shines a good deed in a weary world."
We Were Here showcases good deeds: the loyalty of Rondell, the gift of luck from Mong, and the choice of Miguel to heal himself. The interwoven friendship of the three makes this read spectacular. I have told friends who have watched me diving into its pages that it was written like a mix of On The Road, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, and In The Wild. Three young men, two of them with a bit of cynicism and one of them with a simpler way of knowing the world, live off the land as they flee to the Mexican border. Yet, We Were Here surpasses those stories by the extent it captures the minds of young men who are on a journey to make sense of the tragedies they've experienced. Although hardened to protect the inner child, the layers for each are unraveled while de la Peña explores the interconnectivity of their narratives. It's wonderfully done.
I'm anxious now for the kid who stopped by last night to read it. We hiked for a long time in the evening trying to unravel the complexities of his current situation and I listened to him talk as he sought to find answers that would best work for him. Something told me, though, he'd find what he was looking for in the pages of We Were Here. I handed him my only copy.
This will be a go-to text for me and my work in urban schools in 2014-2015. Bring on the grants.