40 Minutes Well Spent: Matt de la Pena in the Middle School

Meredith deChabert, Middle School Principal

It is the rare speaker who can hold the attention of 290 middle schoolers for more than 15 minutes without one (or many) of them shifting attention to myriad other stimuli. On Tuesday, November 14, the entire Middle School heard from visiting author Matt de la Peña as part of the “One School, One Read” program spearheaded by Lower School Librarian Kimberly Love and Director of Diversity and Inclusion Ali Morgan. I do not embellish when I say that Mr. de la Peña’s presentation style and message resonated with our students and our faculty, so much so that for 40 minutes, he had all of our attention.
 
In this column, I share some of what resonated with us during Mr. de la Peña’s talk.
 
The power of teachers. Mr. de la Peña was held back and had to repeat the second grade because he was a slow reader; from that experience, he thought he was not intelligent. Our internal identity tells us who we are and who we can be, and teachers are powerful influencers of that identity. Later on in his educational career, a professor of his, this time in college, gave him the book The Color Purple, telling him that she wanted him to read it. He was curious and read the book cover to cover while traveling with his basketball team, and that’s when he fell in love with words, with books. How fortunate we are that his professor saw in him what was stifled for so many years!
 
The power of literature for teaching empathy. Mr. de la Peña brought to the fore what we English teachers are always trying to help our students understand. We are complete bystanders when reading a novel, just witnesses to the action, the drama. We also cannot do anything to help any of the characters; we have to allow the story to unfold as it has to. Yet we root for the characters, hope they end up happy, and celebrate or cry with them. That’s empathy – that ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I think it can be argued that having empathy is one of the most important skills that we can teach our young charges.
 
The power of reading and revision. Mr. de la Peña told the students that in order to be better writers, they had to read. Reading is all about words and rhythm, and students who read develop their own writer’s voice. Mr. de la Peña also shared with students that he has revised his writing hundreds of times before being finished with it. Before doing a live reading, he even made revisions to one of his texts after it had already been published! Needless to say, all of the teachers liked that message.
 
The impact of being bi-racial. Mr. de la Peña, who is biracial, spoke about code-switching and having parents who could not experience what he experienced when he was growing up. One of his parents is white, and the other is Mexican. Neither parent knew what it was like for Matt to be biracial, the tensions around not being “fully” Mexican or white. This issue is a complex one, tied to identity and voice, and it resonated with a number of our multiracial students who made comments like, “finally, it’s great to hear someone speak about my experience.”
 
The importance of love today. He wrote his most recent book, Love, for his own child, thinking about what he wanted to tell her in the midst of all of the negative messages in the world today. What did she need to hear? A poem about love! He read the book, a beautiful picture book, to us, and I can honestly say that it is stunning. The book will be available in January of 2018, and we were so fortunate to have a personal reading by the author himself.
 
He said much more, but there’s plenty to digest here. It’s incredible what we can get out of 40 minutes. I hope your children remember Mr. de la Peña’s talk. I certainly do!