Nan Forler, author of Bird Child, was invited to participate in gritLIT 2010. Here, she recaps her adventures in Hamilton for the festival and a reading at a school she used to teach in. Sounds like she had a busy (but fun) week! Photos courtesy of Nan Forler.
Nan Forler: I have recently returned from two days of readings at inner-city schools: the first two as part of the Hamilton GritLit Literary Festival, and the second at a school Read-a-thon in Kitchener.
You can feel the spirit when you walk into these inner-city schools. There is a joy among the kids, a sense of belonging in a place where they are free to be themselves. The teachers seem to have a palpable love of the school and the sense of humour needed to get through each day.
I drive through the fog and rain to Earl Kitchener School, where Lindsay Hodder, the children’s event coordinator for GritLit, welcomes me at the door. She has everything meticulously arranged and ready to go. We wander up and down stairs and through old brick corridors, with a history and character you don’t find in the “leafy green schools,” as those of us who teach in poorer neighbourhoods refer to the fancy new buildings in suburbia. The audience is much larger than planned, but the students are wonderfully attentive and eager to participate, the teachers supportive and welcoming. Sincere thank yous as we pack up to leave.
That afternoon, I drive past Hess Street School twice, questioning my GPS that insists I have arrived at my destination. The school is tucked between factories and row houses, with no parking for me, my guitar, and my gear in the pouring rain.
Hess Street School is 75% ESL students, the literacy teacher tells us. “You’ll love these kids,” she adds. And who wouldn’t? The students file in, a United Nations of faces, the future of Canada in front of me. With every question, a hundred hands of varying shades shoot up, some students so eager to answer, they can barely hold it in. During the reading, there is complete silence, until the oohs and awes of the final image, the huge snow castle filling the wall of their gymnasium, then appreciative applause.
Afterwards, the students run towards me, wanting to strum my guitar, page through the book, talk to me. A little boy picks up a tiny feather left behind and looks up at me. “You can have that if you’d like,” I tell him. He clutches it in his hand and smiles. I sit down for a photo and the students fight to sit close to me, to hold the book, to put their arms around me. In the hall afterwards, they hug me as they pass, then continue walking. They shout thank you and clap and cheer from the school yard as we leave. One boy bolts towards us and says in careful English, “Thank you for reading your book, Bird Child, to our school, Nan Forler.”
The following morning I am off to my beloved St. Bernadette, a school close to downtown Kitchener, where I taught for 3 years. I am exhausted and fighting off a migraine and a cold but it feels like I am coming home. I know this school, these kids, this staff. I know the challenges that come from teaching here, that go far beyond curriculum, that have to do with helping to raise up children in spite of the life they have been handed. I understand when the principal tells me, her eyes filled with tears, that yesterday was a heart-breaking day.
Again, I feel the love of appreciative kids. “You the best story, Ms Forler,” one girl tells me, pointedly.
I hope these experiences pass on the love of literacy to these kids. I am thankful that the Hamilton GritLit Festival chose these schools as the audience for this story, that the teachers and parents at St. Bernadette chose a Read-a-thon for the school fundraiser.
Standing up for kids like these, being a voice for those who are voiceless, passing on a love of literacy, bringing about justice – this is the message of Bird Child. This is what it’s all about.