February 17


Don’t Give Up on the Anthonys by Kevin Emerson

The truth is, I gave up on the Anthonys. Almost every time. We’d get to the middle of the school year and I’d think, fine, you don’t want to make the effort? I’ll focus on the kids who actually care.


Maybe you’ve been there. I’d bet that everyone who’s worked in education has felt this way at least a time or ten.


So I was pretty surprised, after having a particularly challenging group of eighth grade boys, to hear Anthony Castillo’s voice in my head, narrating the start of my new novel BREAKOUT. I was like, come on, I really have to spend more time with you?


But I knew to run with it. A similar thing had happened with my first novel CARLOS IS GONNA GET IT. That narrator, Trina, was exactly the kind of fast-talking, conflict-magnet girl who’d made every seventh grade class a harrowing drama.


In CARLOS, Trina has to decide whether she will stand up to her band of so-called friends, and whether those friendships are right for her. In BREAKOUT, Anthony has to decide whether or not to defy school rules and perform his viral hit song, one that includes some choice f-bomb lyrics. For the first time, Anthony is being seen as he truly wants to be seen… but is it for the right reasons? If this really is his big chance, will he take it? Can he afford not to?


While writing each of these novels I realized that I had a ton of empathy for both the Trinas and Anthonys of the middle school world (really I have sympathy for any organism that has to spend time in a middle school). But figuring out that Anthony was actually a bright, sensitive kid was the easy part. The thing I still didn’t understand was how this Anthony in my head related to the pain in my class. Why couldn’t I muster the patience and strength to help him? And on the flip side, why couldn’t he just get it together?


I found the answer in my house. Enter my daughter. She’s bright, talented, but drifting further and further behind in reading and math. Standardized tests are a slaughter. Worst of all, she comes home most days after 4th grade and rages about how much homework she has. How she hates it. We hate it, too. Everything about it sucks.


As school progresses, we worry: how will my daughter have success and feel confident at school?  Is this homework frustration already coming from some knowledge, like a poisonous seed inside her, that the reason it’s hard is because she’s wrong somehow?


My daughter’s struggle pretty quickly exposed the assumption I’d been making about Anthony. This wasn’t a case of her simple needing to get it together. I started to understand that our measures, whether a learning strand, a standardized test, or the kind of classroom participation I expected in my creative writing class, might not just be unattainable for certain kids, but irrelevant.


Something I should say here: my daughter is on a special-ed plan, but most of the Anthonys weren’t. They were usually boys ebbing somewhere in the middle. Boys who had checked out, who had put up a wall of too-cool as a defense, who probably sensed their predicament, and were maybe even terrified by it.


I realize now that when Anthony lashes out at his teachers in BREAKOUT, this is his real frustration: the sense that he is treated differently, and the fear (not that he even totally perceives it) that he is less important than the smart kids and the athletes. Less valued.


It’s too late for me to do anything about the Anthonys I gave up on. And I can’t say for sure that in the depths of a long winter, around day 120 when the radiators inevitably start breaking right along with our patience, that I won’t do it again. I guess I just hope that when that moment comes I’ll do what I do at home. Step back and ask: where are we trying to get to, and does that place even make sense?


The mission in our house is to find a way for my daughter to be comfortable moving along at her pace, and feeling positive. That she emerges from school still loving herself, understanding others, and feeling that this world has a place for her.


At the end of BREAKOUT, Anthony has learned that in some ways, the best thing about writing a song, or playing a show, is that it means you get to write the next one, rock the next stage. He’s had enough experience—some successes, some failures, the biggest one a perplexing mix of both—to see a path forward for himself, to feel confident in who he dreams of being. To know it’s possible.


This is what matters. Not as much that we get there. But that we see how we could.


That all of us, including the Anthonys, can envision the journey. And believe.


Emerson-Headshot MidBreakout_REVKevin Emerson has won a spelling bee, lost a beauty pageant, and appeared in a Swedish TV commercial that also aired in select Baltic states. He is the author of thirteen novels for teens and children, including BREAKOUT, EXILE, The ATLANTEANS trilogy, and CARLOS IS GONNA GET IT. A former elementary school science teacher, Kevin teaches writing workshops to teen through Seattle’s Writers in the Schools program, Richard Hugo House, and at schools nationwide. Kevin is also a drummer and singer. His first band in high school was a Rush tribute band. You can find Kevin online at www.kevinemerson.net, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kevinemersonauthor, and on Twitter as @kcemerson.