“Don’t Exceptionalize Me” by Amy Watkins
“JASON REYNOLDS! is coming to NErDcamp! JASON REYNOLDS! is coming to NErDcamp, and I’m going!” is what I was hollering back in February when I registered for what I knew would be an amazing, teacher-soul sustaining, book laden professional development experience. For those of you who are not familiar with nErDcamp, it’s a two-day conference held at Western High School in Parma, Michigan during which authors and other educators lead sessions supporting literacy practices punctuated with great nerd talks, raffles, book purchasing, mingling with friends, and the making of new ones. It is an amazing experience.
So, when I saw JASON REYNOLDS! sitting quietly in the bleachers during the session in which the amazing Daniel José Older, Alan Gratz, and Deborah Wiles were sharing their processes for writing historical fiction with us and answering our questions, I couldn’t help but whisper to my friend, “JASON REYNOLDS! is here!” My heart beat a little faster and I kept casting less than nonchalant glances back at him, but what struck me was this feeling that it would be wrong to bother him.
I knew that later he would be delivering the closing talk and that he would be in the auditorium signing books and smiling for endless pictures. Then he’d have to be on, but in that one minute, it just felt like he could use a little time to settle in after traveling, so when the session was over, I just walked away.
And it got me thinking. Coming to NErDcamp must be a rewarding yet exhausting time for the authors. They spend two full days walking the halls with us, leading sessions for us, and sharing the excitement we all feel for reading and books. They are energetic, hilarious, good-natured, and sincerely invested in us. But dang, 1800 teachers are intense. Although there are formal signing sessions set up with amazing volunteers and staff from the Jackson ISD managing the lines, authors are asked to sign books and pose for pictures as they try to eat a salad, get to their next session, and have personal conversations with each other. As I watched these interactions, all of the authors were kind and smiled and signed, and I never questioned their sincerity or that they were glad to be there. They know our admiration comes from good places, and they are honored by our attention, but they’re human and I wonder if we could do a better job of giving them their space.
This all came home to me when JASON REYNOLDS! was giving the closing talk on the relationship between children’s literature and go-go music and answering our questions. When he told us that Long Way Down was inspired by his desire for revenge after his close friend was shot, we “awwed.” He told us not to be sad, but to be angry that it’s still happening. He told us not to exceptionalize him or his experience. He told us that we had our own JASON REYNOLDSES! sitting right in our classrooms every day and we need to recognize them.
He went on to explain that in the middle of a go-go song, the lead talker would tell the orchestra to put it in the pocket and only the beat would remain. That’s when he would call to the audience and they would respond with the names of their neighborhoods and their crew, and everyone would know who they were. They could get the mix tapes of the night at the go-go and they would have a record that the whole city heard, “Little J from Oxon Hill.” We need to put our star-struckedness and JASON REYNOLDS! in the pocket so the Jason Reynoldses in our classrooms can be heard, so they can share where they’re from and who they’re here with. Our focus shouldn’t necessarily be on the ones who “made it” but on the ones have yet to.
As I reflect on the powerful experience of spending two wonderful days with amazing like-minded educators, I think back to all of the easy conversations I had with new friends, the valuable resources I can integrate into my instruction, and the stack of signed books I waited in lines for amazingly generous authors to sign, and there is nothing bad I can say about the experience or people. Like Donalyn Miller suggested, I sang with the choir and celebrated, learned, and healed. I feel blessed to have been a part of it and now I’m looking forward to taking Jason Reynolds’ advice in September and maintaining a similar star-struck energy when meeting all the JASON REYNOLDSES! I will have the privilege to teach.
Amy Watkins has been teaching English for 20 years in Belleville, Michigan and keeps saying she’s going to listen to her writer’s heart and write. Being the lucky mom of three gorgeous boys (ages 13, 11, and 9) keeps her busy, but she just needs to stop making excuses and do it. Thankfully, she has an amazingly supportive husband Chris and a slew of friends who continue to encourage her.