Friday, November 11, 2016

Checked Out a Human Book @FairfieldU and Was Lucky to Learn From Margaret. @WritingProject @NCTE

Margaret, Fairfield University Sophomore and Write
During my student teaching days, and later in my first year as an English educator in Louisville, Kentucky, I had the distinct pleasure of working in a K-12 public school that celebrated diversity, inclusivity, high standards for all students, respect, democracy and equity. At the time, new to a teaching career and wide-eyed to learn from the young people in my classrooms, I met a young man named Corey Nett, who most recently ran for the Louisville Metro Council, District 8. In my English course, Corey began writing a novel and had an ambition to study journalism at Western Kentucky, famous for its photojournalism program. Corey had a fantastic mind and was a favorite amongst his peers.

I am thinking of Corey this morning, because last night I participated in a phenomenal opportunity at Fairfield University inspired by the Human Library Project.
The Human Library is designed to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue. The Human Library is a a place where real people are on loan to readers - a place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered.
The "Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover" event was hosted by Fairfield's DiMenna-Nyselius Library and provided opportunity to check out any number of human books who were willing to share their lives: a straight edge kid, an adopted kid, twins, a survivor from Syria, a Jesuit Priest, an adult learner, a Muslim immigrant, a man in the military, a video gamer, etc. Students and faculty lined up to await for a book to be available, and when one was ready to be "checked out," readers and human books were relocated to hear/read/experience the story.

My undergraduate Philosophy in Education course was assigned to read John Dewey and Jane Addams this week, and the educational philosophies for embracing diversity, democracy, listening to the stories of others, and an emphasis on human experience seemed to fit perfectly with the evening's agenda. After processing some of the philosophical writing, my class and I meandered to check out a human book at the library event.

Fortunate for me, one of my students, a graduate student in another of my courses, and a stranger who           joined our group, were able to check out Margaret, a sophomore creative writing major whose description read as follows,
I was born with a physical disability called Cerebral Palsy. I have experienced many stereotypes throughout my life but my family has led me down "the road less traveled by" through encouraging me to follow my dreams despite any obstacles that may come my way."
Margaret shared her experiences on a college campus, including tales of people calling the Department of Public Security on her when she ventured, unchaperoned, from her dorm to the campus bookstore. She described how people on and off campus look at her with assumptions that she is disabled and not capable of academic work, even though she proves again and again to be extremely ABLE. Margaret shared her accomplishments of making the Dean's list, being named to honor societies, winning awards, and her overall desire and ambition to be a writer. When one of the readers asked her what kind of writing she enjoyed most, she responded "comedy." The saddest part of the experience was when a docent came to our table and said, "I'm afraid you're going to have to return your book back to the shelf. Margaret is in high demand."

By the time I arrived home from class, I students had already responding about the books they "checked out" and learned from. Melissa, one of my undergraduates who was part of "reading Margaret, wrote,
Tonight’s class was, as you said approximately 15 minutes ago, one of the best experiences I have ever had at Fairfield University. Honestly, I would add it to my list of “Top 10 Experiences that made me Who I Am.” It was an experience that was not only eye opening, but also that taught me more than any class could....I have always been fascinated with empowering stories such as the one that she was about to tell. However, I have never really been given the opportunity to sit with a “disabled” individual and be able to listen to the story in person and to be able to ask questions.
Melissa also reflected on the technology that Margaret used to communicate her story, and the impressive way the storyteller shared her world through modern technologies. Margaret's expressions and enthusiasm for sharing her world were contagious. Melissa, like me, was inspired and empowered from the book Margaret graciously shared with us - the book of her life.

Corey, who I began this post with, used to write essays and reports through assistive technologies that seem antiquated compared to the one Margaret proficiently used. I remember while teaching Corey that colleagues at other schools scoffed at the materials he composed saying, "There's no way he could write that. He must be getting help."

Um, no.

Corey, like Margaret, simply has amazing talents and with the right assistance and with enough human respect, is always able to put the human he is before the disABILITY people scribe upon him. I shared with Margaret the incredible education I received at Syracuse University through the influence of a disABILITY studies program. In fact, under the leadership of Dr. Beth Ferri, I penned an article that was even accepted for publication, "Adding a Disability Perspective When Reading Adolescent Literature; Sherman Alexie's The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."

Clever. Witty. Sharp. Focused.

In twenty minutes of checking out "Margaret" I realized I wanted to read more of her world and I grew super excited that she hopes to write books some day to inspire others in the way John Green penned The Fault in our Stars, her favorite book. Yet, perhaps the most beneficial part of the evening were the ground rules placed before every reader before they could check out a book.
  • Borrowing is based on mutual respect. 
  • The Reader should return the Book in the same mental and physical condition in which it was borrowed.
  • The Book or the Reader can decide to be returned early. 
Listening is a talent our nation desperately needs right now. Differences should be viewed as bridges, not barriers. Anyone who makes broad claims about any one group or type of person should step back and check their humanity. It's as I Tweeted out yesterday, "For every minute we spend living in fear and with hate in our hearts, we lose 60 seconds of making the world a better place."

We're all human books. We must read each other. We must turn to the first page and begin to explore and learn. Period.

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