A Leap of Faith: Worrying Needlessly About Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet – by Judy Jester

It was an offhand remark that brought Born on a Blue Day to my classroom. Our school secretary asked me how many test prep workbooks I needed. I told her none. She laughed and said, “No, really. How many?” Thinking I was just grousing with a friend, I told her I didn’t use the ones that had been ordered for me the year before. They were insultingly easy, and I knew better than a publisher what my students needed. “Well, what do they need?” They need more books. “Have you told anyone that?” Not yet.


The next thing I knew I was relaying the same information to my principal, who signed off on spending that particular funding stream on whatever books my colleagues and I wanted, provided that we do so within a month when for accounting purposes that money had to be spent. We decided on investing in nonfiction titles since the CCSS privileges them and our classroom libraries did not.


I spent a whirlwind hour in Bank Street Books, the renowned children’s bookstore just off of Columbia’s campus, with a knowledgeable bookseller the following Saturday. We then dispersed the books, some of which were written with adult audiences in mind, among our classes and asked for honest feedback. Every book got at least two reads. Those that were particularly strong got more. We’d whittled our list down to five choices and submitted our order without having read any of them ourselves. We trusted the kids to tell us if there might be issues within the books that would be problematic, and they did, but it was a bit of a leap nonetheless.


Fast-forward to this summer when we actually had the time to read the books the kids had selected. They were mostly satisfying reads, challenging in their own ways. Moneyball employed enough baseball statistics and strategy to fill a fantasy team owner’s dreams; Black Gold a mother lode of science and history behind the oil industry; the chapters in Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, and Other Female Villains left us wanting more. Those that were memoirs: Melba Pitello Beals’ Warriors Don’t Cry and Daniels Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day presented their own difficulties inherent in the genre. Are we getting the complete picture of what happened? What were others thinking who were also involved in the same situation?


Of the two I want to concentrate here on Born on a Blue Day because I thought it would be a tougher sell. Beals’ accounting of the Little Rock integration appeals to adolescents’ sense of fair play and to their curiosity about the history of race relations. Tammet is an autistic savant who once memorized and recounted more than twenty-two thousand digits in the number pi. I wasn’t sure how my students would react to his story. I needn’t have worried. It was a hit.


They found his story compelling of growing up as one of nine children in a working-class family and said they learned a great deal about autism from his experience. They appreciated his facility with language as he can speak ten different ones and learned Icelandic in one week. They also admired his bravery, taking on “adventures” that would leave most of us in awe. At one point he moved to Lithuania to teach when he’d never left his hometown, never mind taught before. As one student put it, “This book was more about his ability rather than his disability.”


They also found his synesthesia intriguing. Most knew very little about this ability to see letters and numbers in color, shapes, textures, and motions. One of my students has the same ability and was heartened to learn of someone like her. They appreciated the simple diagrams that preceded each chapter that invited them to think how each might be linked to the chapter’s contents. In fact, a student remarked that that was one of the reasons she liked the book – that it called for each reader to reach his/her own conclusions.


Nearly every student was bowled over by the amount of detail that Tammet included even about his preschool years down to the color and texture of the carpet where he played. While they skimmed over some parts, they didn’t find the amount of detail overwhelming. Instead, it made them feel like they were right there with Tammet. They also felt that in spite of his autism, early bouts of epilepsy, and the mental decline of his father, which brought on a period of homelessness for his family, that Tammet did not write this book to seek sympathy. He was merely relaying what happened to him.


In addition to worrying that the amount of math that Tammet includes might be off-putting to some students, reading the book after purchasing it made us a bit uneasier when we realized that Tammet included in his memoir when he realized that he was gay and about meeting and falling in love with his partner.  Since we’ve had parents question some  previous book choices, we wondered what pushback we would get. We heard none. The kids counted Daniel and Neal’s love story as one of the assets of the book. Cheers all around.


Most students had heard of the critically acclaimed Dustin Hoffman/Tom Cruise movie Rain Main based on the life of Kim Peek. They were delighted to see Tammet meet this gentleman and to compare how they used their “savantness” in life. Those who had seen the movie were able to guide this discussion. Several others took the initiative to seek out YouTube videos of Tammet or went to his website to find out more about his life today. Many said that had this book not been a literature circle choice that they never would have picked it up, but that they were so glad that they did. And so are we.


Purchasing over a thousand dollars worth of books without having read them was certainly a leap of faith for us. The reaction to Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant will encourage us to take others.


Judy Jester is an eighth grade English teacher at Kennett Middle School in Landenberg, PA and a co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University. She blogs with two colleagues at http://thirdandrosedale.blogspot.com and occasionally  on her own at http://jmjd@wordpress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @judyjester.