I set out to learn about my students’ lives and dreams. Through parent-teacher conferences and home visits, I witnessed a culture and economic life very different from mine. The more I connected, the more I sought and celebrated diversity in literature.
Two special memories wrap around Kevin and Charles. Kevin lived with his mom, grandma, and older brother. Dad had taken a one-way “vacation.” Mom worked day and night. Grandma was too old to hear well. The older brother took out his teenage angst on Kevin.
Charles lived with both parents, five siblings, and a cousin. Most days he greeted me with a smile that stretched across his face while his stomach growled for more breakfast. Charles wore his favorite T-shirt every day until the odor grew too strong even for him.
That first week, I didn’t know my students. I thought Kevin needed me to be his “friend,” listening, laughing, affirming. Kevin’s behavior and academics steadily improved. Then came the day Kevin taught me a lesson: these kids didn’t need more friends. They needed more adults to set rules and boundaries. Kevin threw a tantrum over a book that both he and a classmate wanted. I pulled the boys apart and began my lecture. Kevin’s eyes sized me up. He flung his anger and pain at me. “You be my frien. You cain’t tell me.” Kevin didn’t respect me since I didn’t act like the adults in his life.
Then there was Charles. He opened my eyes to diversity in language. When a teacher Miss Kelly got the flu, we made cards. Charles asked me, “How you spell whale, Miz Jurca?”
“Do you mean like a big whale in the ocean?” I asked.
Charles nodded and smiled big time. “W-H-A-L-E,” I said.
I collected the cards and read Charles’ note first: “I sure how you get whale.”
Diversity lived in my classroom! How could a white woman from Detroit be so blind? I’ll be ever thankful to these students. They gave me new lenses to see the world. I embraced diversity. I’d come a long way from Dick, Jane, and their dog Flip. I cared about finding stories that reflected these kids. I wanted these kids to see themselves in the books they read and loved. I grabbed every Erza Jack Keats’ book I could, but found few authors who took on the challenge.
Praise to authors and illustrators who rise to this challenge today. A powerful article in NCTE’s September 2017 issue of Council Chronicle interviews Jacqueline Woodson, a best-selling author who wants to empower kids of color. She believes in the “power of the pen and how it has been used to change the world….”
Then there’s the talented, passionate illustrator and author Vanessa Brantley Newton. On September 26, I attended a webinar hosted byNorthTexas SCBWI. Newton presented. She inspired us by her art, writing, and singing! Diversity for Newton isn’t just a buzz word. Diversity is her “heart’s cry.” She knows “children are not colorblind.”
Words and art let every child know he is valuable. If stories are mirrors and reflections to help us see ourselves and others in the world, then literature needs diversity.