I was born on the Upper East Side of New York City. Private schools, elite early education, dad (a lawyer) drove a spanking new Mercedes Benz.
Then my parents got divorced. Bitter, brutal, devastating. In sixth grade I suddenly found myself at a school that was more than 50% African American and even the most advanced classes were ridiculously elementary to me. I remember thinking, “I did this stuff years ago” when the teachers passed out material.
So, did I flourish into a Harvard Valedictorian? Naw, I became a screw-off.
Not just any screw-off though… a screw-off who could easily get straight A’s if he wanted to. In a way, that can be a teacher’s worst nightmare. (Side note: Of course today, as both an author and an educator, I am revisited by exactly these same type of kids. Karma has a wicked sense of humor, doesn’t it?)
Ultimately, I really started to fall in love with sports at this time of my life and I became friends with tons of black kids. For me this was especially important because, on the playing field, color quickly disappeared and ability trumped race.
I love that aspect of sports and clearly, it’s a theme that can be found in some of my books. (Who you are matters more than what you look like and character trumps skin color – things such as that.)
Back at middle school, I also saw how the entire system seemed to treat kids differently based on the color of their skin. Walk into any low-incolme, high minority population school in this country and chances are you will be struck by how overt this tenor seems to be. High expectations were, well, expected of me back in middle and high school. Not so much for the kids of color. Obviously, all of this informs my career as both a writer and a teacher today.
Looking back, it’s clear that the divorce of my parents shaped my life in many, many unpredictable ways. I doubt anyone could have ever foreseen that my firsthand discovery of the living, breathing monster that is racism in American education (today as well as then) would be have been one of them. And the manner in which their divorce still plays a role in my life, more than 30 years later, is quite remarkable.
I relate to broken home kids. Always have, always will. The pain not only cuts deep, it etches who you are.
Ultimately, however, I believe in the power of literature to heal. I think that books can be used as a tool to open eyes, create empathy, and build better understanding and deeper thinking about issues.
Therefore, when people ask me if I think that books can be used as a tool to combat the effects of racism and prejudice in society, I say “YES!”
But books can be used as a tool to combat ignorance in all forms. In a way, that’s what books are all about. Spreading knowledge through the art of story. It’s why I read them and in a way, it’s why I write them. In each of my books I am discovering things about myself in a way that I also hopes allows others to discover something about their own inner worlds… via a reading experience that genuinely fulfills them in a way that only books can do.
I teach. I write. I read. I learn. But not necessarily in that order.
by Alan Sitomer