Last Fall I reviewed Percy Carey’s Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm thinking that nobody would likely bother to read my thoughts. A few days later, I drove to a close friend’s funeral after he killed himself. I mention it only to point out the ups and downs that I can only refer to as reality, I suppose. As I ate lunch and planned to catch up on some reading before the funeral, I checked my phone and noticed that someone had finally commented on my blog: the author himself, Percy Carey. At roughly the same time, he visited North Lawndale College Prep in Chicago, IL to speak to a book club. The visit was sponsored by HUB International. Seeing that an actual author engaged with my writing was a small piece of satisfaction for an obviously dismal day that I will never forget. I still can’t find the right words to sum up my thoughts and feelings on the matter, and I wonder if forming coherent sentences will ever occur.
Several weeks later, I found myself in an IEP (individualized education plan, for the non-educated in the world of education alphabet soup) meeting for a student who was likely to be placed in an alternative setting for the remainder of the semester. Though he was making strides academically and socially, he still managed to gain enough negative attention to warrant a meeting with his lawyer present. Even the lawyer admitted that this student was not succeeding in the current environment. I advocated for the student, but I told the truth. On most days, he showed the potential necessary to grow as a learner, reader, and writer during his high school career and beyond. Every now and then, he arrived at my door carrying anger that prevented him from remembering the better parts of his personality. He was no different than many of my students, but he thrived on negative attention too much and too fast. As a result, he was forced into an alternative setting. Several days later, he was arrested for criminal activity outside of school. I should probably find out what his sentence was.
Before I continue, I’d like to emphasize that I truly believe that students should hear a variety of messages from a variety of people. One teacher’s lecture about behavior might not have an effect one one kid, but it probably resonates with at least a few. But as I sat in this meeting and observed how the adults around me spoke of this student (rarely to him), I could not help but think that he must have incredibly low self-esteem and negative self-image. Even his lawyer had to admit that he was performing poorly (both academically and socially). One adult asked the student several questions concerning why he chooses to act the way he does. The student just shrugged every time. The only time I saw him engage with us was when his lawyer asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. “I still want to be a lawyer,” he said. “I did mock trial in middle school. I thought it was cool.” I felt bad for never finding this out myself, and simultaneously, I felt even worse knowing that the outcome of the meeting was going to make that goal even harder to achieve. Before the student left, I ran to my room and gave him my only remaining copy of Sentences because he was enjoying it during independent reading time. I told him that if he ever returned to our school, I’d like to get the book back, but that if he wasn’t coming back again, well, at least he’d have a good book to read. Honestly, he didn’t seem to care that much, but I tried. His last sentence to me was “Thanks.”
I don’t share this tale because I feel that I’m any better than my colleagues or that I think everyone deserves a trophy. Again, every adult in the room cared for the student in different ways, and this student was not doing much to earn the respect of my colleagues. I share this story because I really do believe that this text is powerful enough to engage adolescent readers of all varieties in deep thought about their own lives, mistakes and regrets, purpose, the consequences of their actions, and the sheer power of literacy itself. For proof, watch the video featuring Carey’s visit to NLCPHS below …
The school’s president does not preach in this video. He doesn’t say that the book changed lives, and he doesn’t say that everyone should read this book. He says that the trajectory of some of the lives of some of the students who were making bad decisions changed. I have no idea whether or not this is true. I do know that reading can and will only promote more reading. It might prevent people from making bad decisions, too. It might help a friend communicate a few sentences of frustration to another friend before making a bad decision. At the same time, it might help someone be smarter and wiser: wise enough to ask more questions and seek more information from a friend experiencing difficulties. It might help a student communicate a few sentences of anger to an adult before seeking negative attention from peers. It might help adults communicate a few more positive sentences about people who piss them off. Or it might not do anything at all. Still, I don’t think the time spent reading Sentences would be wasted.