Author Kwame Alexander Visits East Chapel Hill High School
Kwame Alexander has been writing poetry since he was 12 years old, and his first poem was for his mother, on Mother’s Day. On Thursday, October 18, an overflow crowd at East Chapel Hill High School, plus an online audience from other middle and high schools, listened to Alexander recite that first poem as part of his Public School Foundation-funded reading and talk. The stop in Chapel Hill was Day 19 on a 30-day book tour, in celebration of the publication of “Swing,” Alexander’s twenty-eighth book, and the lucky listeners at East experienced a vibrant and humorous literary event for more than an hour.
Most of Alexander’s books are targeted for a middle grade audience, but his remarkable talent for narrative and language, and his easy style of connection to readers and listeners create a wide and deep loyalty among fans of all ages. Many in the East auditorium had read multiple Alexander books, heard him as a regular contributor on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” or watched his Facebook Watch show, “Bookish.” He is already a celebrated hero and inspiration, at the relatively young age of 50.
Alexander arrived at East during lunch period, so he was able to slip inconspicuously into the auditorium, where he introduced himself to Superintendent Pam Baldwin and new Executive Director of Equity and Inclusion, Lee Williams. As students and staff began filing in, Alexander positioned himself below the upper levels of the auditorium where he could observe his audience, before they knew he was in their midst. But once he took the stage, his presence was riveting and powerful, doubly so because his friend and accompanist, Randy Preston, played guitar and sang at various parts of the program.
When reciting his poetry, and even during times when he was telling stories from his life, Alexander would suddenly stop speaking and point the mic toward the audience, inviting them to fill in a rhyming word. Robin Nucilli, CHCCS communications specialist, said, “He did this often, bringing them into his story, his work.” She noted that Alexander’s stories were self-deprecating, helping the students see themselves in his life. “He wasn’t a star athlete, but he tried and kept trying until he found a sport he could succeed in. The girl he had a crush on didn’t know who he was, but he kept trying and then was brave enough to read her a poem at her locker in the middle of the hall in front of everyone - twice - until she noticed him.”
Jaimi West, principal intern at McDougle Middle School, who helped organize the live feed into classrooms and the media center there, said, “Mr. Alexander detailed his failures as an author and how he submitted his book several times before being published. He spoke about how poetry is cool and being a poet helped get him his wife, his fame and his happiness.”
Alexander confessed to his audience that, as a teenager, he didn’t let any of his friends know that he was writing poetry. He knew it was considered “not cool,” and he really wanted to be cool. But he kept writing in secret. When he entered Virginia Tech, he found his way to classes taught by famed poet, Nikki Giovanni, who helped him shape his voice and confidence. He began to take his writing seriously.
A few years later, after he had assembled a manuscript of 100 poems, he submitted it to a publishing house. It was rejected. He added more poems and edited the book. It was rejected again. He undertook the process of revision and resubmission four more times, eventually chalking up 22 rejections. But he didn’t let that stop him; he self-published, and then a week later, a major publishing company bought the book.
Motivation and self-affirmation are concepts that illuminate Alexander’s talks. He told the audience, “The No’s are a part of life.” He said “You just need one Yes, but you have to say yes to yourself first.” He spoke the line, “Be a star in your mind, day and night let it shine,” and then he asked everyone to repeat it along with him, over and over again.
Jessie Grinnell, AVID teacher at Culbreth Middle School, brought all of her seventh and eighth grade students to East to hear Alexander. In their written reflections later, many of them remarked on the author’s message of never giving up, and understanding how to use the word No to grow. One Culbreth student wrote, “I think he wanted us to learn to never give up-- and don’t let others ruin your dreams and goals. People should always keep on dreaming and challenging themselves because if you have never challenged yourself, you have not ever made a mistake, and mistakes are things that teach you.”
After telling stories from his life, Alexander read an excerpt from the new novel, “Swing,” occasionally pausing for Preston to play guitar and sing. Another of Grinnell’s students described the impact of a musician sharing the stage with a writer. “I absolutely loved how he brought music with him, because most authors would read their book and leave. So that was AMAZING.”
At the end of the hour, Alexander thanked everyone for attending, and the stage was swarmed by students-- and adults- asking for selfies and pictures. Surrounded by students, he took the time to talk to them one-on-one and answer their questions.
Dana McCullum, McDougle Middle School literacy coach and co-chair of the Men in Black Club, viewed the feed of the presentation in the library with all of the boys in the club. Librarian Jenny Parks said, “I love hosting author visits because it allows kids to see the people behind the books they read in school. It was wonderful for them to see themselves represented in a successful and inspiring poet like Kwame Alexander.”
“I think this was an amazing field trip and a great experience for me and others,” said a Culbreth AVID student. “I hope we can do something like this again.”