#vted Reads: On The Come Up
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Hoo boy, we have a CORKER of an episode for you today, with On The Come Up, by Angie Thomas. We’re going to be talking about some of the continual and heartbreaking trauma students of color face in our schools, as well as the incredible resilience of mothers.
I’m joined today by Marley Evans, a Vermont educator originally from the same Mississippi town as author Angie Thomas, and someone who originally appeared on our 21st Century Classroom podcast as a brand new educator. She’ll be talking a little about her experience of school in Mississippi and Vermont, and how some experiences are universal.
A quick content note: we’re going to be mentioning a couple of episodes of physical, emotional and familial trauma that occur in On The Come Up, so we want you to be forewarned if that would be helpful.
Now, pull up a seat. This is VTed Reads! Books for, with and by Vermont educators. Let’s chat.
Jeanie: Thanks for joining me. Marley, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Marley: I’m a seventh and eighth-grade humanities teacher at Charlotte Central School. But I am originally from Jackson, Mississippi, which is where Angie Thomas is from! I like to imagine in my head that we’re best friends, even though we have never met, and I only stalk her on Instagram. I love to read! And I’ve always been a reader. I used to get my books confiscated before I went to lunch, because I would just read the whole time. I would read under my desk at school. Plus I’m also a member of Green Mountain Book Award Committee. So I read a ton of YA every year. I usually read over 100 books. And I think this year is going to be about 120. I love to read.
Jeanie: What are you reading right now?
Marley: I read the new Louise Penny, which was amazing. I always get her books. I’m reading Echo North. I finished Patron Saints of Nothing a couple of weeks ago, that was amazing. I’m rereading Emily Starr: Emily of New Moon, the Ellen Montgomery series.
Jeanie: Wow. You read a lot!
Marley: I read a lot.
Jeanie: You read more than me.
Marley: I do read a lot.
Jeanie: What’s your favorite YA of the year so far?
Marley: That is such a tough question! I really loved On the Come Up. I really loved With the Fire on High.
Jeanie: Me too! Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, is one of my favorite books of all time, and With the Fire on High is a great follow up.
Marley: I’m going to say I liked it more than Poet X! And I *loved* Poet X. That’s not a judgment on Poet X, but I loved With the Fire on High.
Jeanie: I’m going to read everything Acevedo ever writes! Just like Angie Thomas. But let’s move on to On the Come Up. Angie Thomas was the author of The Hate U Give , which everyone is reading and talking about, but On the Come Up is an amazing novel on its own right. Could you introduce us to the main character Bri?
Marley: Yeah. So: Bri. I have trouble sometimes in my mind, separating Bri from Starr; Starr’s the main character in The Hate U Give, and in my mind it’s almost like they’re sisters and I’m constantly comparing them.
Bri’s in high school, and she’s from the same neighborhood as Starr, Garden Heights. Which is a made-up neighborhood, a fictionalized neighborhood. She’s feisty. She doesn’t fit in this perfect box. It seems like she’s always getting in like little bits of trouble, little scrapes. She’s still trying to figure out who she is. I think what’s very apparent throughout the whole book, is she has all these different ways she could go, these sort of paths she could go and she’s trying to figure out which path to take and who to be, throughout the whole book.
Jeanie: That sounds like your average high school kid.
Jeanie: Her childhood, unlike Starr’s, it’s been really challenging. I wondered if you could read a section from page 43 of the book just to give our listeners an idea of the challenges of Bri’s young years?
Marley: Yes, definitely. In this section, Bri is dreaming this nightmare from her childhood. Bri is describing a nightmare she’s had throughout her life. When she was four, her father was an up and coming rapper named Law. And he was shot and killed. And in this nightmare, she’s five years old. A year after that.
At this point, in the real world Bri goes to live with her grandparents, her dad’s parents, and she lives there for several years. Her mom ends up going to treatment and breaking that addiction, even though it’s something that she definitely still struggles with the temptation of. Bri eventually gets to go back and live with her mom, but she still is dealing with the consequences of feeling abandoned as a child. And of losing her dad. She’s stuck in between her grandparents and her mom.
Jeanie: There’s a lot of trauma in Bri’s really early childhood, that continues to show up when she’s in high school.
And this book really helped me think through how trauma plays out for kids later in life when they’ve experienced it in their early years.
Because like you said, her mother, in dealing with the death of her husband, becomes an addict. And while she gets clean Bri is abandoned by her for a while, and there’s a lot of pain in that. Plus the pain of losing her father, which happened right outside her home. She heard the shots that killed him. I don’t know that– it felt heavy. It was a heavy start. I have to admit this book slowed me down. In fact I read it slowly because it felt heavy and hard at times. I don’t know if you had that experience?
Marley: Yeah, it’s interesting because The Hate U Give starts out with a shooting. You would think that that would be a tougher start. But you’re right. There’s a way we can really empathize rather than judge when we see what Bri has gone through and what her family has gone through. In fact reading about her mom, I never felt judgy. I never felt like her mom wasn’t a good mom because of her addiction. I realized that that addiction came from so much pain, and that her mom didn’t come from a good family.
Jeanie: Yeah. I love Bri’s mom, Jayda. Bri calls her “Jay” most of the time but her name is Jayda. I have so much love for her and her struggle to be the mom she wants to be for her children. Yeah, I want to come back to that a little bit later because the struggle is real for Jayda, not with just addiction but with economics, with making ends meet for her little family. I want to come back to that a little bit later on in the story because Angie Thomas writes Jayda was such empathy and understanding. As a mother myself, I just felt such kinship with Jayda, even though my life has been nothing like hers.
Another challenge for Bri is school. She lives in Garden Heights, but she’s bused to a much wealthier neighborhood.
This is an imaginary Chicago, but she’s bused to an arts magnet school outside of her neighborhood, which should be an opportunity for Bri in many ways. She doesn’t have to worry about the violence at her local school, for instance. But… it’s also not an opportunity. Let’s find out a little more about that school on page 49.
I’m going to go ahead and read.
A short yellow bus waits out front. Midtown the school is in Midtown the neighborhood where people live in nice condos and expensive historic houses. I live in Garden High Zone, but Jay says there’s too much BS and not enough people who care there. Private school is not in our budget. Midtown School of Arts is the next best thing. A few years ago they started bussing students in from all over the city. They called it their diversity initiative. You’ve got rich kids from the north side, middle-class kids from downtown in Midtown and hood kids like me.
There’s only 15 of us from the Garden at Midtown, so they said the short bus for us. Mr. Watson wears his Santa hat and hums along with the temptations version of Silent Night that plays on his phone. Christmas is less than two weeks away, but Mr. Watson has been in the holiday spirit for months. “Hey, Mr. Watson.” I say, “Hey, Briana cold enough for you?” “Too cold.” “No such thing. This is the perfect weather.” “For what? Freezing your –”
I think I’ll stop there. Do you want to talk a little bit about Bri’s experience of the magnet school that she goes to?
Marley: Yes, it’s funny that you think of Chicago because in my mind, this is Atlanta and it’s always been. I have no idea why! We talked about the school as an opportunity and it is… on paper. It is an opportunity for her to be at that school. But we can already see that there’s such a challenge because Bri feels like she’s just filling a quota the school needs: to have a certain amount of students of color. And that she’s just the student that was placed there. She talks about that on page 63, she talks about how the security guards at the school, when they don’t think she’s listening? Are complaining about “those kids” in this school.
Jeanie: Would you read a little bit of that? I think that’s a really powerful passage.
Marley: Sure. Let me flip to it.
In this part of the book, Bri is in the principal’s office, and the principal’s there talking to her. She didn’t say there would be a security guard ranting in her office about those kids bringing that stuff into this school. The door was closed, but I heard him, those kids this school, like one doesn’t belong with the other, and Bri is just as much a student at that school as every other white kid.
The sense she gets — and it’s pretty apparent through the book that she’s not making it up — is that she doesn’t fit in. That she’s almost like, an outreach project that’s been brought into the school. Nothing about her is celebrated or believed or trusted in the way that the white kids are celebrated, believed and trusted. And while it’s amazing that she gets to go there, in the sense that she’s out of her school that doesn’t have as good of academics and maybe isn’t as safe? This school has different situations going on. She just feels like a charity case almost.
Jeanie: Absolutely. I think that there’s this feeling she gets of like, “We’re doing you this big favor, you don’t really belong here, you should be grateful because we’re doing you this great favor”. There’s also this sense that the school gets to pat themselves on the back because they’ve successfully completed their diversity initiative, right? And that’s one of the hazards of diversity initiatives. Frankly, it helps white people at the expense of black and brown people who have to feel like I don’t really belong here.
Marley: That makes me think about what Rebecca Haslam said. This summer she told a story about being on a walk with a friend and how she called herself an ally and her friend said, ”Being an ally isn’t a badge you get to wear, you have to do that every single day.”
The same is true when we talk about fighting racism and fighting against white privilege. And all of that is not like a quota we fill, and then we’re done. Like: “We have some people of color in our school, and we did a training on it, so we’re diverse”. It’s something that we daily, and weekly and yearly, are putting into our curriculum and the things we do with our students and the way we treat our students.
Jeanie: Right. It doesn’t just mean, “You’re here so act like us.” Right? Inclusivity has to embrace all the ways there are of being and knowing in the world. It can’t just be “Look, we’ve got some black and brown students here now and look, they’re poor too. Aren’t we doing such great work?”
I think too, about what you just said about Rebecca Haslam. I was talking to somebody recently about anti-racism. We were talking about this book, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and this idea that being anti-racist and fighting racism isn’t a destination. It’s about the journey. And it’s that daily actions you take to be an ally or to fight racism.
Oluo said it’s like dental hygiene: you don’t just brush your teeth once. Twice a day minimum is what we’re supposed to be doing. And anti-racism, fighting racism is just like that. You don’t just get to say, “Oh, look, we have a certain percentage.” Or “there’s no acts of racism here” because nobody’s saying the n-word in your school. There’s more to it than that.
Yeah, this book makes that crystal clear in Bri’s experience, and I just need to turn to page 7. The very start of the book. Bri has this experience that just says so much about her whole experience in the entire school.
Marley: YES. Yes to all of that. I feel like that’s the assumption we make often. And I speak as someone who has to fight those assumptions in myself. I don’t speak as someone who’s an expert or wonderful at this, but just making assumptions, because of the neighborhood someone comes from, or because of who their parents are, that their life is a certain way, or that they’re only capable of a certain level in school because of that. That happens to Bri all throughout this book. Instead of all of her positives being praised and focused on? It’s always about her home life. Or what’s going on, is she smuggling in drugs, is she experiencing violence at home. Etc etc etc.
Jeanie: Corey Smith and I just recently had an episode where we talked about The Benefits of Being an Octopus. One of the things I found in researching for that episode was some mentor texts, from young adult and middle grades literature, and school is written about in those books. This is a great mentor text. For those of us with privilege — and if we’re working in schools, we have privilege — to check our privilege and think about where are we using deficit-based thinking with our students because of their social class. Because of how they dress, because of their race, because of gender. Where do we need to be aware of that? Where can we use a more appreciative lens and connect with them as humans as opposed to as statistics? As opposed to archetypes or stereotypes.
Marley: I grew up in Mississippi and the high school I went to was about 50% black, and 50% white. I just always think it’s interesting because I remember when I read The Hate U Give, was some people, they mentioned being surprised that this family that in Starr’s family, her mom got pregnant in high school, and they stayed together. They were so surprised by that. I just was shocked. Like, why is that so surprising? I mean, is that abnormal?
I think that there is when the danger of living in Vermont, when you have so little diversity, is it’s really easy to make those assumptions because all you see is one thing.
Whether it be intentionally what you’re saying or what the media is putting out there to you, you’re not seeing the whole span of the African American Community and culture. And what their lives are really like. Just like you’re also in Vermont seeing only one span of white culture too. It’s really important for books like this, that can break some of those stereotypes in your head.
Jeanie: Right. Old listeners, you may have heard this before, but I made a commitment six or seven years ago to read half of my books written by people of color to expand my horizons. What was a challenge at first has now become so easy, and it’s changed my worldview. Because for me? Books are a way to walk around in somebody else’s shoes to have empathy for somebody else’s experience of the world that’s different than me. It’s really changed my perspective on the world.
Marley: Yes, I’m going to give my credit for that to Jessica DeMink-Carthew. When I took her class in grad school, on teaching English literature, she had us just start listing some of our favorite books that we would want to use with middle schoolers, just like an online digital library. Halfway through, we had to go through and say, “What are we not representing?” That was so helpful for me to think, what am I not representing in my own reading life? What would that mean for me as a teacher, if this was all I was putting out there? So kind of a similar mindset. Shift and say, “I cannot just teach white female authors or white female heroines.”
Jeanie: Right. Could you say more about how that shows up in your classroom now, Marley? Then we’ll get back to Bri.
Marley: Yes. I really intentional seek out books and I have an amazing co-teacher Matt Lutz, who does the same. We just really try to seek out books that have a range of narrators, so that we’re showing heroines and heroes that are similar to our students, but also really different. We will make a list of our books. We’ll have a lot of mini book groups going at the same time so that we can offer differentiation within levels of reading, but all centered around central themes. Right now, we’re about to do historical fiction.
We’ll look at that list and say, “Okay, what do we not have represented? Where can we pull that in?”
In fact, we’re going to use On the Come Up in the spring for a social justice book group. Every book will center around– maybe it’ll be civil rights, maybe it will be the Holocaust, maybe it’ll be the Japanese internment during World War II, and it might be even more current like On the Come Up. We’ll use Dear Martin, we’ll use All American Boys. Books around police brutality and current things.
Our hope would be that there are students reading all those different books with diverse authors and diverse main characters, and that they’ll see the central theme. Injustice and what that looks like, and how we can actively fight against it. It’s really just like an intentional, make the list, step back from it and say, “What am I missing? What am I not representing?”
Jeanie: Yeah. What resources do you use when you do that? Are there any recommendations you might have for listeners?
Marley: Yes. One thing I would say is use people like me, who have to read a lot for Green Mountain Book Award or anything else because I’m doing all that reading. There are other people in my committee doing all the reading of the current books. Ask us. We would love to talk about books.
I love We Need Diverse Books. It’s both a website and a hashtag. You can look it up on Instagram. Just the whole bookstagram world out there. I know most educators love Twitter. I’m really scared of Twitter! I don’t know why. I live on Instagram.
You can always follow great teachers and educators who are posting diverse books. That’s always helpful. In fact, I use that with my own children to make sure that I’m bringing books into their lives that aren’t just all white main characters. I’ll get a lot of picture books for them, for my five-year-old.
Jeanie: Those are all excellent strategies. I’m going to add one: talk to your librarians, folks. Your school librarians know so much and can access so many great titles and help you fill those holes in the viewpoints that are represented in your books.
Marley: Yes, I have the world’s best librarian, Heidi Eustace. We usually have a read-off, and we’re within one or two books of each other each year. She knows all the amazing books. That’s her job, right? Like, let’s use that resource.
Jeanie: Absolutely! Well said, you do have a fabulous librarian here in Heidi Eustace. Let’s get back to Bri. (Even though I could talk about this with you for ages.)
Bri is often in trouble. Something happens at school that really– that changes the course for her. I wondered if you could tell us. Listeners, I don’t think we’re spoiling it because it happens on page 59. It’s really central to the story. Something happens with the security guards Tate and Long, and I’m wondering if you could just talk about that?
Marley: Yes, so there are security guards at the front of our school, which is not that uncommon. That happens sadly, more and more in schools. As Bri’s going through with her friends, her friends go through first, and the guards stop her. She doesn’t beep the alarm off. There’s no reason she should be stopped. They ask her for her bag and, Bri is running a little side business in which she buys bulk candy and then sells it at school. She doesn’t want them to see her bag. Again: they have no right to see her bag, and nothing has gone off.
Bri says no, and the security guards put their hands on her; they push her to the ground. Her friend Malik actually records it. It ends up being a big situation where she’s actually suspended, even though she did nothing wrong except for bringing the candy. And it doesn’t seem like the guards face any consequences.
Jeanie: We should say that one of the guards is Black. There’s a white guard and a Black guard. And not just Bri, but the other kids from the projects, from Garden Heights, feel like they get treated differently than the kids from the wealthier neighborhoods. There’s a real sense of implicit bias in this book.
Marley: Let me read a little section from page 64. At this point Bri’s mom has come in and is speaking to the principal.
Dr. Rhodes points to the two chairs in front of her, “Please have a seat.” We do. “Are you going to tell me why my daughter was handcuffed?” Jay asked. “There was an incident, obviously. I will be the first to admit that the guards use excessive force. They put Brianna on the floor.” “Threw” I mumble, “They threw me on the floor.” Jays’ eyes widen, “Excuse me. We’ve had issues with students bringing Illegal Drugs.” “That doesn’t explain why they manhandled my child.” Says Jay, “Brianna was not cooperative at first.” “It still does not explain it,” Jay says. Dr. Rhodes takes a deep breath. “It will not happen again, Mrs. Jackson, I assure you they’ll be an investigation and disciplinary action will take place if the administration sees fit. However, Bri may have to face disciplinary action at first.”
And one of the words that really sticks out to me there is that Idea of Brianna not being cooperative.
It seems like when you read the book, that Bri just was protecting her rights. Bri didn’t set off the alarm. She said, “You can’t touch my bag.” She wasn’t overly, a word we’ll use later, aggressive. Bri just was doing what she knew she was allowed to do. The bias against her is that by refusing to give up her rights, she wasn’t being cooperative. And therefore it was okay that the security guards threw her to the ground. That seems to be what the principal is saying. He’s defending their use of violence against her.
Jeanie: There’s great research out there that says that Black and brown children are more likely to be treated as if they’re older, in any disciplinary situation. We’ve seen recently news stories about children being taken to jail for school offenses.
These are *children*.
The word for me is when Jay says, “That does not explain why they manhandled my child.” This is a kid. Was there any reason to throw her to the ground? No. No matter how uncooperative she was being, there’s something about that: the unquestioning of the implicit bias that’s happening based on where Bri’s from, and the color of her skin. That really ticks me off. That made me really angry when I read this book.
Marley: Yeah. One thing that also stuck out to me is during this whole process, Bri reflects on how her mom has taught her to respond to police and security guards. I’m always really struck by that. I have two little boys, and I haven’t had to sit them down and say, “At night, you can’t wear a hood. We’re not playing with toy guns because what could happen, or when the police stops you, this is what you do.” I don’t have to have those conversations.
African American moms have to have those conversations with their kids, if they want their kids to be safe. If they want their kids to not get killed, honestly. That really stood out to me. And Bri is little. She’s not a tall girl. And she’s not large; she’s a tiny little teenage girl, and there’s no reason they should have thrown her to the ground.
Jeanie: I am a grown woman. I gotta say if I had to learn in an environment where I might possibly be thrown on the ground, where my very presence was suspect, I couldn’t. That would get in the way of my learning. I wonder about Bri, who kind of struggles as a student, who’s not always the most disciplined of students, but still deserves an education. How is she supposed to get one in a place where she doesn’t always feel safe in her body? It’s heavy.
Marley: It is. This is a really heavy book.
Jeanie: I found myself crying when reading this book. What Bri has to face as a human in this world? I have never experienced before the kind of microaggression she faces on a daily.
Marley: One thing is that they talk about her as being aggressive. She’s called aggressive. Let me flip to the page real quick, page 66.
His pale cheeks reddened, “Because we’re following a lesson plan, Brianna.” He said, “Yeah, but don’t you come up with the lesson plans?” I asked. “I will not tolerate outbursts in my class.” “I’m just saying don’t act like black people didn’t exist before.” He told me to go to the office, wrote me up as being aggressive.
Bri goes on and talks about several other incidents with teachers who say similar things. I know that’s a big topic. Out there is this reality that Black women are seen often as aggressive if they’re outspoken, if they’re speaking the truth about things. They’re being called aggressive a lot, which is, to me, again that implicit bias. Because I feel like as a white mom, if I were to be a big advocate for my child, if I were to go to a school and talk to teachers and say, “No, we need to make this happen.” I would not be called aggressive. It might be like, “Well, she’s a strong mom.” If a person of color, if a woman of color, were to do the same thing and go to school, they would be seen differently by white people.
Jeanie: Yeah, absolutely. I can’t help but think about the way in which Bri can’t win. Bri is really doing critical thinking. She’s asking these really hard questions, something we should be celebrating in school.
But because she’s Black, because of her neighborhood, because the way she’s taken, she ends up in the office.
Don’t we want kids in a history class to be thinking about these things, about why history is told the way it’s told? Don’t we want them challenging and thinking about, hey, how come it’s just this story and not that story? That’s part of what being a historian is about. The fact that the one time she’s really engaging, she gets thrown out of class. It’s no wonder she doesn’t engage.
Marley: Definitely. What if one of her white classmates had asked a similar question? Bri’s trying to probe in differently, probing into what they’re talking about and find out more. But it just makes her teachers angry.
Jeanie: It further disenfranchises her from school. She feels like her voice isn’t valuable. She’s constantly feeling like she doesn’t belong, in the sense that her thinking is unwelcome. Her perspective is unwelcome in the building and in the school. And she checks out a little bit, as you would if you felt unwelcome and lacked a sense of belonging.
Marley: One thing that you were saying earlier before we started, is that she’s in art school and it’s really ironic that she’s a rapper, which isn’t art as far as the school is concerned. Yet that part of her, who she is and that she’s really talented? We’ll see throughout the book. It’s what a lot of the book actually focuses on. That part of her is not praised at school. It is not seen as an asset because it doesn’t fit in with the schools’ idea of what is art.
Jeanie: We did talk a little bit earlier before we started recording, about how Angie Thomas is also a rapper. She writes these amazing raps, these amazing poetic forms in the book. Marley and I were like, how do we put that in this podcast, and we decided we can’t. Two white women trying to rap, two white women who don’t rap, trying to rap Bri’s amazing lines, it’s just not going work. I do want to set up what it’s like for Bri to rap.
I want to find when Bri first enters this rap competition, and just what’s happening. You can get a sense of how miraculous her skill is ,how talented she is as a young woman.
Marley: Alright, so Bri is now in the ring and doing a rap battle. This is her thinking to herself.
Rule numero uno battling, know your opponent’s weaknesses. Nothing he spit this round is directed at me. That may not seem like a red flag but right now it’s a huge one. I blinked. A real MC would go for the kill because of that, heck I go for it, he’s not even mentioning it. That means there’s a 98% chance this is pre-written. Pre-written as a no-no in the ring. A bigger no-no, pre-written by someone else.
But since my dad isn’t off-limits, not a thing is off-limits. Rule number two of battling, use the circumstances to your advantage. Supreme doesn’t look too worried, but trust he should be. That goes in my arsenal. Rule number three, if there’s a beat, make sure your flow fits it like a glove. Flow is the rhythm of the rhymes and every word, every syllable affects it. Even the way a word is pronounced can change the flow. Well, most people know Snoop and Dre for Deep Cover. One time I found a remake of it by this rapper named Big Pine on YouTube. His flow on the song was one of the best I’ve ever heard in my life.
Jeanie: There is so much that goes into the rapping that Bri does so well and in fact, the title On the Come Up is based on a rap that she’s written. That becomes a really big deal, not just in her neighborhood in Garden Heights, but also in Midtown where she’s going to school, right?
Marley: Yeah. She ends up recording the song and it’s kind of what a lot of the book later on focuses on. We have this first event with the security guards. But a lot of the book is on her rap song that’s becoming big, and if it portrays what she wants to portray about herself. And just the idea of putting it out there, what that song says about who she is. Like I said earlier, the whole book is about Bri figuring out who she is. She wants to be a rapper, and she’s an amazing rapper. She wants to make sure that the image she’s putting off is who she really is.
Jeanie: It’s a real tension, right? Because Jayda wants her to do well at school for a good reason. Jayda wants her to be a success in the world. Jayda wants her to have a happy, healthy life, and she wants her to focus on school more. For the reasons we’ve already recounted, Bri is pretty alienated from school. Also, this arts magnet school doesn’t realize that she’s making this profoundly complex poetry. She’s creating these rhythms and rhymes with music that have great meaning. That she’s using metaphor. That she’s telling stories in these really interesting ways. It’s all art. It’s *so* creative, and she has no path forward for it at school. All of her talent is outside of school in a way that completely alienates her.
Marley: There was this guy in my acting class in high school, and he was an amazing freestyler. When we would have to do these free writes, he would get up and just *go*. He would just go out there with his raps; they were amazing. It’s such a talent to figure out, because rap is not just the end rhyme. You know it’s not just the syllables; it’s the internal rhyme. In fact, if you’ve ever studied Greek and Latin epics, if you look at the internal rhyme in The Iliad and The Odyssey, there’s so much internal rhyming going on. That’s what you see happening.
And so much rap is not only the end rhyme, it’s that internal rhythm and beat that’s happening at the same time. It’s so powerful and amazing. The fact that so much of what Bri does is like instantaneous. She’s out there and she’s freestyling and her brain is working in a way that mine is not even capable of, to make these end rhymes and internal rhymes and allusions and metaphors and similes.
I mean, she’s killing it. She’s doing an amazing job with all the poetry, but then she goes to school and she’s not getting A’s in her English class, right? She’s being assessed on other things. That’s not what they’re looking at, that talent she has.
Jeanie: It’s not even remotely what they’re looking at. It’s completely ignored, right? It’s divorced from school altogether. Jamila Lyiscott has amazing this TED Talk about the art of the cipher.
She talks about how, when she’s working with pre-service teachers, she puts on some music and ask them to create a cipher, to write some verse. Just listening to this, I had such empathy for them because I knew even before she said it, that it challenges them, that they don’t know what to do. That it’s overwhelmingly hard for most of them, and they’re panicked, and they know that the art they’re creating is not up to snuff, that it’s not good, and it’s just super hard. And I could feel that in my body.
Her point is that meanwhile, the folks who can do this stuff, we label them like, they’re illiterate or incapable, when they can create this complicated art form that we cannot.
Marley: It really is amazing. In my hometown we just think, well, if your grammar doesn’t match what the Oxford English Dictionary says is the right grammar, what our grammar textbook say is the right grammar, then it’s wrong. And that’s not the case. It’s just different. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means it’s different. We need to re-look at it and say, “Okay, how is what you’re saying also grammatically correct?” Right?
Jeanie: Right. There’s not just one way, right way, right? And Bri does this all the time, she knows exactly how to code-switch, and how to talk in the standard American English. It’s not that that’s not valuable. It’s that that’s not the only thing that’s valuable, that there are other ways of talking and being in the world that are sophisticated, and that convey profound meaning and that are intelligent.
But there’s no place for that in in Bri’s school.
Marley: You see that even when Bri talks to her teachers. It’s like code-switching, but she hasn’t quite mastered it in the same way that Starr from The Hate U Give has. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I enjoy that about Bri, that she doesn’t code-switch quite so well, because why should she have to?
Jeanie: Right. Angie Thomas is really challenging us in this book to say: how do we need to change schools so that we don’t require kids like Bri to assimilate into our notion of what it means to be in school? Or what it means to talk in a scholarly way? Bri doesn’t need to act white to earn her place in school. There’s equally valued and valid ways to be in the world.
Jeanie: For me, one of the things especially towards the end that I just loved — and I don’t want to give away too much — is that Jayda is struggling as a working-class parent to make ends meet. Trey, Bri’s older brother, has graduated college and is not able to find a job in his field. And he’s taking some time off; he wants to go to graduate school but he’s helping out the family by working at a local pizza place.
They struggle, like many working families do, probably like many of our students in Vermont who are working poor do, to meet the electricity bill, to pay for food. Often their fridge is nearly empty, and part of why Bri wants to succeed as a rapper is to lessen the financial struggles they’re going through. The thing I loved about Jayda so much is that she keeps saying to Bri, “I got this, I’m the parent here. You don’t need to be the parent here. This is not your concern. Your concern right now is being a kid.
While I understand that Bri is concerned, I also just love that Jayda was like, “That’s my job.” I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?
Marley: Yeah, I felt the same way. I love Bri. I probably connected more with Jayda actually. Because of that because she just was just loving her family so well and really struggling at the same time. She’s just amazing. She fought so hard to overcome her addiction. Now she’s fighting to get an education for herself. She’s taking night classes. She’s fighting to make sure that Bri gets a good education. And she’s fighting to make sure that Trey can go to grad school or get a job working in his field. While doing all that fighting, she’s having to continue to fight off the temptation of her past addiction.
So she surrounds herself with friends that can take care of her and protect her in that way. She’s always trying to protect Bri; she’s just a really amazing woman. Jayda has a gentleness to her that I really loved. And a kindness. And I loved seeing her relationship with Bri, because Bri really pushes against her a lot. Some of it is past issues. Bri, as we saw, is still having nightmares about being abandoned, she’s still struggling with that so much. Throughout the book she has to see over and over her mom’s love for her and really trust that.
Jeanie: Yeah, thank you for speaking to that, you spoke to that so beautifully. I can’t help but return to this other theme of: Bri has to make some really hard choices. And she makes some bad decisions in this book because she wants to be a rapper. She wants to follow her art. She wants to make a little money at it so her family doesn’t struggle so hard. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had a flexible pathway through high school that allowed her to develop this talent within the context of her education, would her choices have looked different? Would her pathway have been — I don’t know if the word is smoother — but would she have gotten in less trouble?
Marley: I talk about the way we do school here a lot when I’m down visiting my family in Mississippi. And I’ve talked about this before with my mother in law. She’s said she was someone who struggled in school, not because she isn’t bright, but because she maybe doesn’t fit in what we like categorize as how a student should be. And she said, “If I was at your school, I would have loved that.”
My goal is to have a classroom and be on a team in which someone like Bri would come in, and we would celebrate her talents. That we would find those talents and help figure out ways for her to explore that. That we would give her books that were interesting to her, projects where she could really shine, rather than saying: you need to fit in this box. Goodness gracious, she’s in art school, right? I hope that all the teachers in Vermont are doing this with fidelity. We have all of these students in our classroom and hope we’re recognizing it and noticing that.
Jeanie: How do you feel like you do that here at Charlotte Central School?
Marley: I really strive to source, through different means, the books that keep them interested. I won a Scholastic grant this year. I’ve done PTO grants. The reason I did GMBA in the beginning was to get books from my classroom and to make sure I had new books to recommend.
We also have Genius Hour, which is where kids do personal interest projects. There was a student last year, and he maybe didn’t always fit the mold for what we were looking for in class, and Genius Hour became a way in which he got to shine. It was amazing. And then a lot of it is just the relationship building. If Bri’s teachers knew her, if they really knew her and really liked her, what would that look like? How would that be different? The teacher who sent her out of class, maybe instead would have realized, “Hey, look she’s asking a question, she’s engaged. Let’s talk about this.” And I think relationships is the biggest thing to start that.
Jeanie: Well said! I love it. Do you have any other books to recommend? As a huge reader and lover of YA. Do you have any other books to recommend for our listeners?
Marley: Yes. If you’re looking for diverse books, which hopefully we all are, I thought of We Set the Dark on Fire. We Set the Dark on Fire is amazing. Patron Saints of Nothing is also amazing it’s by Randy Ribay.
He also wrote After the Shot Drops, which is on GMBA this year. It’s an amazing book. A boy goes to the Philippines. He was from there and then spends most of his life in America; his cousin dies very unexpectedly and very seriously, so he goes there. It has characters that are LGBTQ, it has themes around race and themes around addiction, themes around low socio-economic class — just really amazing.
It’s based, in real-world information. You close this kind of book and you say, I want to know more about what’s happening in the Philippines, and it draws you in and gets you engaged. I would also just put a plug in there, that if you want to read good books, you should read the Green Mountain Book Award list for this past year. I’m a little biased, but I think it’s amazing.
Jeanie: It’s a fabulous list. I have to say I love to list this year. Thank you so much. I have read none of those books. I’m so excited to check them out.
Marley: Now you have to be read list.
Jeanie: I sure do. I’m so grateful. So grateful to you for choosing this book to talk about. It required me to give it another read through and think about it differently than the first time when I read it just for pleasure and for your insights into the book and then and how you use literature in your classroom. Thank you so much.
Marley: Thank you for letting me be on it.
#vted Reads is a podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Thank you to Marley Evans for appearing on this episode, and to Angie Thomas for writing such powerful and transformative books. If you’d like to come on an upcoming episode of #vted Reads, get in touch. We’d love to chat.