This is one of those stories that proves when you give love you get it back. That amazing things can happen from the smallest transactions. That teaching can blow your mind apart. I am still awash in shock, awe, and happiness that it all transpired.
I posted months ago about a young man reading our Composition I book in two nights here. This novel, Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, was beloved by my students. It was one of those rare moments when reluctant readers ALL read an assigned class text and ENJOYED it. Many students confessed that it was the first novel they had read in years. Many said it was the only novel they have ever liked. One girl wrote me this touching email:
“Professor U. , I finished the book. I don’t read much. The last book I read was No Impact Man. The last book I read and enjoyed was Rule Of The Bone 4 years ago. I love this book so much, she inspires me to write my own book. She had so many struggles and she even had a baby and was a MED student and she was broke, if she can make it I know I can be a nurse even with a baby. Thank you for making me read this book now I feel like I have no excuse to not do what I want no matter how tired I am. I love this book I don’t mind reading it again for notes for my paper. Thank you.”
I was thrilled with the student response, but their writing about the book was even better.
For their first essay, the students had to interview someone who had immigrated and compare/contrast their immigration story to the protagonist of the novel, Kim. Ever the procrastinator, I put off grading until I HAD to, but when I started to read their essays I was so moved by their words that I found myself teary at times. Many, many students interviewed their own parents and their stories were painful, amazing, and terrifying. I felt the author should know what the students were writing. I thought, “If I ever write a book and students like it, I’d hope the teachers would tell me…” Like many authors, Jean Kwok had a Facebook profile so I liked her and messaged her this:
Teaching Girl in Translation again for a Freshman Composition class at a CUNY community college. They LOVE this book. One essay began with: “The book, Girl in Translation was one I did not look forward to reading. It is about a girl and her mother. Really, I was not interested. My mother took the book and began to read it. I found her in bed crying as she read one night and I was startled. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me how much she understood Ah-Kim and Mrs. Chang. I soon realized that something that could move my mother to tears had to be something for me to read!” Just wanted to share. Thanks for writing such a great novel!
And Jean Kwok immediately wrote back! One, I was surprised that she even wrote, but two, she was coming to NYC for other business and volunteered to come meet our students! I was ecstatic.
Logistics aside, the day came for her to visit. I taught both of my classes before her visit at 5pm, and we discussed what it meant to host an author and what it meant that she was coming to meet them because of the power of their words. We decorated the entire room with the students’ favorite quotes from her novel. They looked up “Welcome” in Chinese (I have no idea of it was in Mandarin or Cantonese…I just let them run with it) and tried to write it. We rearranged furniture, cleaned up the room, and brainstormed questions for her. It was an informal lesson on hosting and presentation of self.
And when she arrived, it was like God himself had landed. From the moment she walked into the room she was friendly, vivacious, and genuine. She immediately tossed her bags down, approached the students, and showed them a dance video on her phone. She asked girls about fashion. She talked with guys about smart phones. It was like we had all known her our whole lives.
I have worked with urban youth for my entire career, and I took them on field trips all the time. There are museums/theaters/spaces that know how to work with this student population (The Museum of the Moving Image is fabulous) and others who are a little *scared* of the student population I teach. Students can sense that quickly. Jean’s warmth–well, it warmed them all up. She had them at her entrance. When she began her official talk, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. When she took out her book to read, they all turned to that page eagerly. When she talked about her own struggles, you could sense the students leaning in. Oh my god. It was just beautiful to witness.
And her presentation seemed to have been perfectly written for our students. She spoke of her own immigration experience from Hong Kong, her family, and their struggles. She talked about what it means to be an author and a writer as a career. She then read certain passages from her book and talked about why she included them and what they meant to her as the author. She got personal. She was real. Lastly, she gave a quick pep talk on what she had learned from her own experiences in terms of school, work, and a life well lived.
Afterwards she took questions and laughed heartily when the students asked about her old boyfriends, and then she signed books and took photos with the group and each individual student so graciously. And she wasn’t faking it–again, you can tell that stuff.
She told me later, as we stood outside waiting for her car service, that there are two types of audiences she has spoken to after writing this book: the audience for whom her book revealed a side of the world they had no idea existed and the audience who totally gets what she wrote about because their own lived experience is similar. She said that as she looked out into the faces of our students, she knew they got her because their lives–like a Venn Diagram–had a large quantity of overlap. She knew them, and they knew her. She was right.
Thank you so so much Jean. None of us will forget your kindness.
God, I love teaching.
Jean Kwok talks about her own family and her immigration experience.
I mean, seriously, don’t they look like BFFs?