Friday, December 11, 2015

MTN in TN…again

For the third time this fall, I had the pleasure of going to Tennessee to talk books.

This time, over three days, I spoke once each at nine schools in the Blountville area of northeast Tennessee, not far from the Virginia border. At home in Maryland, I’m also not far from the Virginia border, but on the other end.

This trip was a model example of teamwork. Individually, many of these schools did not have the budget for an enrichment program, but there’s affordability in numbers. The inexhaustible Donna Hatcher organized all this, and in record time. For most of these schools, it was the first time a non-local author visited, so further props to Donna for convincing them of the value of such an activity. Bringing in an author can be nerve-racking for the host, especially the first time. I can’t praise the students enough; they were so respectful, as if they have assemblies weekly. Also so attentive and responsive.

During one talk, in front of an auditorium of kids, a middle schooler named Adam (who is on the spectrum) walked calmly up to me, kissed his palm, and touched it to my cheek, then silently walked to the back of the room. I love that he was struck with the feeling to do this, and I love that the teachers let him. It rendered me speechless for longer than a dramatic pause.

Toward the end of my talk for older kids, I say that Bill Finger’s son Fred was gay. My presentation is an exercise in economy—every word is there to drive the drama of the story—and this detail is no different. In an area as conservative as rural Tennessee, however, the risk of this causing concern is considerable.

At a couple of schools, my kind hosts raised this issue with me privately—and professionally. One host apologized that students asked multiple questions about Fred’s sexuality (“How could he have a child if he was gay?”; “What is AIDS?”). I assured her that this was nothing to apologize for—quite the opposite. The questions were perfectly valid—and I commend the students who felt comfortable to ask them, especially in a room packed with peers of varying levels of understanding/tolerance. Perhaps some kids have no other open channel to pose such questions. Perhaps some are already coming to terms with their own sexuality and are petrified that it is not in line with the expectation of many people they know. If a school staff, however enlightened, can’t touch on this vital topic without fear of complaints (or even disciplinary action), I say let a guest take it on.

My hosts were not expressing their personal opinion or judging mine. They were simply trying to be sensitive to their community. If any parent (or fellow educator) is displeased with a guest speaker broaching a particular subject, the person who will bear the brunt of any pushback is the host. Of course I do not want to put any of my hosts in a difficult situation. At the same time, I do not want to disrespect the truth or compromise my beliefs. The solution, to me, is plainspoken compassion.

I especially applaud the librarians who had seen my talk at TASL, knew I would mention this, and still invited me; that took courage, and it was in the best interest of your young people.

In short, I feel my time in Blountville was a growth experience for all involved. I am looking forward to going back.


This larger-than-me banner was designed by the sixth grade
of Blountville Middle School.

The Mary Hughes School library is in the process of incorporating a snazzy 
 Hardy Boys theme, complete with 1970s dolls and games snagged off ebay 
(next three photos):


Morning and afternoon trespassing, however, is fine.

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