Hijacked by Hamilton by Joanne Kelleher
School is back in session, and we are in full swing; summer is a distant memory. I am sad to see summer go because with it goes the lazy days of endless reading. It a reading season that starts in the middle of June with the preparation. I review the Newbery contenders, I revisit the books we considered for my book club but never read, I look at recommendations from friends and colleagues, I scan twitter for trending titles and authors. I stack up my TBR pile and tweet it out. I imagine the eloquence of the Goodreads reviews that I will write.
But this summer, my routine was derailed. No TBR tweet, no new want-to-reads on Goodreads, and I guiltily ignored my mock Newbery group. What happened? I was hijacked by Hamilton. Yes, Alexander Hamilton, the Broadway megahit, the music, the raps, the YouTube videos, the person, and the biography by Ron Chernow. It was easy to love the score of the musical. I memorized lyrics, and rapped Hamilton in the cafeteria with the students. I spouted facts gleaned from the lyrics to anyone who would listen. I bought Hamilton CDs for friends, family, and colleagues. I bought a ticket to the show on Stubhub for a ridiculous amount of money. I contracted the “disease” that Youtube calls “Hamilaria” – the incessant (and annoying) quoting of lines from the show.
My obsession with Hamilton: An American Musical then extended to Hamilton the Founding Father. On a trip to New York City, I visited the gravesites of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton at Trinity Church downtown and found myself welling up for these strangers who now felt like family. We have a social studies teacher, Mr. Holmes, who is ALWAYS carrying a nonfiction book with him. (What a great reading model for the kids!) My exposure to Hamilton through the CD piqued my interest in the Federalist Papers (51 of the 81 essays were authored by Hamilton), and Mr. Holmes recommended that I start with #10 and #51. Seeing my interest, he lent me his copy of Founding Brothers, describing it as a well-written and less dense option to the Hamilton biography. I quickly read the chapters that involved Hamilton, and I didn’t return the book, keeping it so I could re-read those chapters. And finally, after he built up my confidence, I was ready tackle the 700-page tome that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write Hamilton: An American Musical.
So this summer, instead of swimming through books, floating easily towards my 20 book summer book goal, I dog-paddled through the Hamilton biography. And I loved it! By the end of summer, I had made it 2/3 of the way through. I have been a self-proclaimed fiction-only reader (with the exception of narrative nonfiction like Seabiscuit, nonfiction that reads like fiction), and I could hardly believe this new facet of my reading self. Being an educator, I shifted into major metacognition mode, studying myself as a reader and observing the ways that I adjusted my reading style when reading nonfiction: Do I keep going until I’m done? Do I take breaks from Alexander Hamilton and read kids’ books to feel like I’m moving forward? Do I read it only at the beach, or carry it with me (it’s very heavy!) to read in stolen moments? Do I look up every word I don’t know (there are several unknown words on most pages!)? Seriously, how many times will I have to look up despotism until I own it? In becoming a better reader of nonfiction, I learned how to be a better teacher of reading nonfiction.
This one book changed forever the way I think of myself as a reader. It made me remember that I have enjoyed nonfiction in past – gems like Chinese Cinderella, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia, and My Beloved World. Reading Alexander Hamilton made me feel that I have developed the reading chops (or just plain old confidence) to read the Ben Franklin biography that’s been sitting on my shelf for years.
I remember that in college, a good friend accidentally registered for a nonfiction reading course thinking that it was a fiction course. She very quickly realized her mistake, but she stuck with it and became a convert. She has been enjoying nonfiction for 40 years, and she didn’t even know that she liked it.
What I learned from my Hamilton experience is that it’s not “genre” that enthralls, calls to us; it’s the book. What a reminder for us! Can we recreate my Hamilton epiphany with kids? We can start with a high interest introduction, follow-up with accessible bait, dangle a book out there, and see if they bite. For the kids whose self-imposed reading limits restrict their growth as readers, maybe we can help them not to pigeonhole their reading selves, not to be intimidated by their perceptions, to take risks, to re-brand their reader profile.
So, thank you Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ron Chernow for lessons taught, and lessons still to be learned. To paraphrase Hamilton, my world will never be the same.
Epilogue: I finally got to see the show in July, thanks to the generosity of a friend who won the daily Hamilton lottery and invited me as his guest.
Joanne Kelleher is a middle school assistant principal. She is frequently heard asking students, teachers, parents, “What are you reading?” and also quoting from Hamilton, of course.