Sequoia Gregorich, Law and Ethics Editor
On April 20, McMurray teacher Patty Gregorich’s seventh grade humanities class, along with a few other seventh graders, embarked on a field trip to hear award-winning author Kwame Alexander speak at the Admiral Theatre in Portland, Oregon. The trip was funded by Partners in Education (PIE), via a grant written by seventh grade student Maléa Dickerson.
Kwame Alexander writes poetry and children’s fiction. His book “Crossover” won a Newbery Award in 2015 and was selected for the Coretta Scott King Award. He is also the author of 25 New York Times Best Sellers. Most recently, he wrote and narrated a poem about taking a knee on ESPN.
His books are widely known for incorporating sports — often basketball — into his stories. His goal is to get children reading, and to get them loving it.
Dickerson, who was influential in making the trip happen, has read his books “Crossover,” “Rebound” and “Playbook.
Gregorich gave Maléa the idea to write an Appleford Grant to allow the class to see him speak. The grant was approved, and in the weeks leading up the event, students began frantically trading Alexander’s books around to prepare for the big day.
When they arrived, the theater was quite small, with only three rows of seating, and the McMurray students filled up the whole left side of the room. Before the event started, a line for book signing formed, winding its way from the stage to the back wall of the room.
A man, later introduced as “Randy,” stepped onto the dimly lit stage with a guitar, shades and dreads tied into a bun. If it weren’t for the guitar, he may have been mistaken as a bodyguard for the writer. Yet, he set to work tuning, as a man in a lionhead T-shirt stepped up onto the stage to introduce the author whom everyone had been waiting to see.
As he read, Randy played a melody fit to the rhythm of Alexander’s words. Every now and then he would pause, leaving space for the audience to fill in the blank. He had entirely captured the students within 5 minutes.
As he finished the passage, Alexander immediately opened up for questions, the first of which addressed how he deals with challenges and setbacks.
He explained that his Newbery Award-winning book Crossover was rejected 22 times by publishers.
“I cried every day and wanted to give up a lot,” said Alexander.
But, he explained, one of the most challenging aspects of writing, he encountered was when writing “Rebound.” He wrote the book while dealing with the death of his sick mother. The book covers topics of grief and rebounding on and off the court.
A highlight for many of the McMurray students was when he spoke with Gregorich and heard the story of the class’ long journey to see him. He took a picture with the students, and later referred to Maléa Dickerson as “the grant writer” when she asked a question.
One topic touched upon several times throughout the night was Alexander’s motivation for writing children’s books.
Books have always been a part of Alexander’s life. He loved to read as child, and thus he was slightly more advanced than some of his classmates. As he grew older, he lost the love, only rediscovering it when he read the book “The Greatest” by Muhammad Ali. As he grew older, his passion for books and writing inspired him to pursue a career as an author.
“I want to write books that would make young people want to read another book,” Alexander said. “I believe books can change the world.”
Race was also a significant factor in his childhood.
Alexander chooses to combat racism in a way which seeks to remind readers that black kids are in fact the same as any other kid.
“I choose to write books about black people where we are normal.”
In Portland, he explained how his upbringing drove him in that direction.
“My parents told me: it’s about believing that you belong in the room,” Alexander said.
Upon reflection, Dickerson decided that the long trip and grant writing was worth the payoff.
“It was important… for kids of color, kids that really like to read [and] kids who don’t have the money to go to these things on their own,” said Dickerson. “It was really important that they and everyone else got to experience someone of color who likes learning and reading speak.”
PIE has recently created a grant opportunity using money donated from islander Robin Appleford. The grant is unique in the sense that only students can apply, and the use of the money has to serve an educational purpose for students. However, Dickerson is one of only a few students who have taken the opportunity to apply.