Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dear Ruta

Dear Ruta,

Days later, we are still struggling to come up with words. On February 17 the two women who never stop talking were brought to a tear-filled, head-shaking halt. It was a day filled with nothing but good and we aren't sure how to thank you. We don't feel like we can adequately express what happened that day and how grateful we are, but we're going to try.

Let’s start with the story of the T-shirts. 

Every year we order T-shirts for our readers.  They like them because they’re middle school kids and, hey, free shirt!  We like them because it gives them an external way of identifying themselves as readers.  It helps them find each other.  It shows that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. 

We always choose colors carefully.  Our first year of t-shirts we chose blue and yellow because they are our school colors.  The year after we ordered shirts in five different colors to align with the factions of Divergent.  For Unbroken we ordered camouflage green, for The Finest Hours – stormy sky blue.  Of course this year, everyone just assumed the shirts would be gray.

But that was something that we knew we couldn’t do.  The idea of putting this book, full of life and love and strength, into the hands of kids and then swathing them in gray?  It just didn’t feel right. 

See, we Crazy Reading Ladies do a lot by feel.  For example, we knew Between Shades of Gray was “the book” for this year without ever actually speaking about it.  Most years we do exhaustive research, compile lists, divide reading duties, and talk endlessly.  This year, we found ourselves planning activities and timelines without ever having the “Are you saying ‘yes to this dress?’” conversation.  We just felt it.

So we wracked our brains for colors that would make sense…variations of blue and white and black and other colors that could fall “between shades of gray?”  It still painted such a dreary image.  White?  Too boring.  Mary’s preference – slate (or gray, if you must) blue – was too close to last years’ color.  That’s when Erin suggested the colors that felt right. 

As much as gray felt wrong, these colors felt right.  Our feelings were validated when we logged into our t-shirt vendor of choice and saw that they carried colors that were exactly right.  We made mock-up shirts and stared at the proofs on Mary’s computer screen.  That feeling...

Please don’t think us too sappy (or crazy), but it reminded us of a certain July evening in the basement of a Boston restaurant.  After gathering ourselves outside and ineffectively trying to calm each other with “We’re calm.  Stay calm.  You’re calm, right?  Me too.” we walked into your open arms.  You embraced us before you even spoke to us.  It was as if we’d known you for years.  And it felt right. 

Our kids felt it, too.  Without realizing they would meet you that day, our kids were honored to understand the meaning behind the colors. We told them we were gathering to take a picture to send to you.  Picking up their shirts that morning, 8th grade boys - who are too cool for anything - gasped when we explained the color choices and said, "Ohhhh, that's awesome!"

Our kids feel connected to you.  From the beginning you’ve been tweeting at them, emailing them, smiling at them from the selfie we both have framed in our offices.  But more than that, they love your book.  Not only is it accessible and engaging, but it’s beautifully written and tells an incredible story.  Our kids simply devoured it.  Never before have we gotten the student feedback that we got this year.  “I want to know more.  I NEED to know more!”  “Do you have Salt to the Sea?  Please tell me you have Salt to the Sea.  I NEED TO READ SALT TO THE SEA!” 

Teachers aren’t supposed to use the word love.  We’re supposed to say that we “care deeply” and use euphemisms like “respect” as if “love” itself is a dirty word.  But we CRL do now, and we have for quite sometime , feel that eliminating love from the vocabulary of the classroom does a disservice to our students. 

When students read something that speaks to them and makes them want to learn more about their own heritage and the world they live in, it’s appropriate to use the word love.

When self-proclaimed “non-readers” finish one book and rapidly move on to its partner, it’s important to use the word love.

When a students’ eyes light up because their name has just been spoken aloud by the woman they hold at the same level of esteem as Harper Lee or Tom Brady, the only appropriate word to use is love. 

And without using the word love, we can’t explain Friday, February 17th.  We can’t explain the feeling that transcended the miles, pouring in like sunshine from where you sat in your office a thousand miles away.  Without love we don’t know how to describe the auditorium packed with 332 rapt adolescents who got to meet the woman who wrote the book that changed their lives.  Without love, we don’t know how to explain how every single one of those students silently defied their Assistant Principal’s directive to begin dismissal. 
Without love, how do you explain how 332 students knew to stand, en masse, without direction, to show you the shirts that came together to create the Lithuanian flag? 

And this brings us back to the t-shirts.  Besides being driven by instinct and what felt right, there was something else motivating the t-shirt color choice.  We kept thinking about that Skype visit - what you would see on your computer screen when the call connected.  We couldn’t let you see 330 seats filled with gray.  Instead, we wanted to honor you and your story; to at least try to convey what you mean to us and our students. We wanted to show you what you had done. We made sure you logged in to see an auditorium full of love.  

With Love and gratitude for everything, 
Mary and Erin

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Good Things

#ALLIN17 was revealed! December 13, 2016
The Crazy Reading Ladies don't have classrooms next door to each other anymore. More than Mary's administrator status, our reduced proximity has proven to be the most difficult adjustment we CRLs have had to make.

Over the years, some of our favorite moments occurred in doorways. In the hall between classes we'd share sweet anecdotes, vocabulary lists, student work samples, and the occasional eye-roll. During All In!, we'd be in and out of each other's rooms constantly, talking to students about the book and hearing the insightful, passionate reactions of our readers.

This time around we hear the comments individually, only able to share with the other on the rare occasion we (wo)man a mutual lunch duty or indulge in a Saturday pedicure.

And, so - as the finish line to All In! 2017 draws near - we have come to a conclusion: our kids love this book.

They seemed surprised somehow; delighted really, at how much they're enjoying this journey. They love the historical accuracy and the intrigue of a forgotten story. They love the human struggle and the relationships explored. They talk about its powerful, earth-shattering punch - how upsetting and unbelievable that something like this could really happen. They love the brisk pace and the short chapters. Dormant readers who approach books cautiously with side-eyes and a ten-foot pole take a copy when we tell them to try it. "Read the first three chapters and if you don't like it, bring it back." That's the CRL's deal and so far no one has returned a copy. No one.

Everyone loves Ruta Sepetys. And we don't know how it happened that we were so lucky; lucky enough to cross paths with this incredible writer and beautiful person, lucky enough that she's reaching out to our readers and following us every step of the way. Lucky enough that we get to share how her book is changing lives. Lucky enough that we get to thank her. It's just too much lovely.

It's gonna be a good year.

Here's one of the videos we created for our kiddos featuring the official #ALLIN17 theme song: Stand in the Light.