AB4T reviewer Connie Williams has been an enthusiastic supporter of Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us ever since she reviewed it here on AB4T last year. Recently, Connie hosted the author at her high school for what was a transformative experience for many of the teens in her community. I thought it would be inspiring to read about the experience. Thank you, Connie, for sharing the event with us!
It started in late summer when I read Reyna Grande’s memoir, The Distance Between Us. It is the story of her life as a child in Mexico, her travels to the United States, and her ultimate success as a college graduate and renowned author (Dancing with Butterflies). What makes her story different from the many books out there about the immigrant passage across the border is her enduring optimism in the face of incredible poverty, neglect and abuse, which allowed her to see possibilities in spite of her abysmal reality and then, more importantly, work hard to create a better future.
As soon as I finished the book I called Reyna to see if she spoke to students – she does. I also contacted my colleague Anna Koval, teacher librarian at Casa Grande, the high school across town, to see if she’d like to have Reyna come there. She absolutely did, so we set up for Reyna to speak at both schools plus one evening presentation for parents and community members.
In the meantime, I contacted our ELD English teacher, Christina Lee, with a brief outline of Reyna’s book. After reading it herself, she was enthusiastic to have her students hear her speak. I gave her copies of the first three chapters of the book for her students to read so that they would be prepared for her visit. Ms. Lee discovered immediately that this book spoke to her students. They asked to read the whole book – something that is rare in an English Language Learner classroom. Principal David Stirrat was able to locate funds to purchase a class set and when he wheeled them into the classroom, students universally jumped up to get a copy and asked if they could stop what they were doing so that they could start reading it.
On the day Reyna visited, students from several classrooms came to the library and listened to her presentation. A reporter from our local paper came and posted the story that evening.
The students from Ms. Lee’s class, in particular, listened with rapt attention and their questions were compelling. They knew that they were in the presence of someone who knew and could understand their stories. To others, she opened the door to a way of life different from that in which they grew up. She spoke about her life, and her quest to find out about her family and her place in her parents affections. She spoke about her journey not just across the border, but her academic journey, her quest to find “herself” in literature. When she discovered Latino authors, she began to see that she had a place in this world and that she too could make a difference through her writing. A teacher became her mentor and through hard work and persistence, she wrote and published several books.
Even now, several weeks later, students come into the library to ask not only for copies of her books, but for books written by other Latino authors.
Sometimes the best library resources are found in the adventures we bring to our students in the form of experiences with adults who have accomplished great things despite all the odds. Reyna Grande’s visit helped our students see that they, too can persevere towards their goals.