Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Thoughts on the Provost's Distinguished Lecture: Featuring Matt de la Peña

Recently, Matt de la Peña came to SDSU to talk about his book Last Stop on Market Street. You can find the full video here on YouTube. Within what seemed like a very short time, those of us in the audience were given a brief history of what led him to write this story and what exactly this book means for children. Last Stop on Market Street is a picture book filled with pages of beautiful illustrations by Christian Robinson and a story that carries with it the weight of many large social issues presented in a way that allows children the opportunity to explore their own perception of what is beautiful within their daily life.

Listening to Matt talk about where he came from, his family, the journey from machismo to literacy, the challenges he faced, what inspired him, and how all of those things created a space for him to become a Newberry Medal winner and Caldecott Honored author, was an experience I won’t soon forget.

Matt and I come from very different sides of San Diego; while he was raised in National City, I was raised an hour east in the mountains of Pine Valley. In Pine Valley, there was only one mode of public transportation, a small bus that only a few people rode with one stop forty-five minutes to the nearest town. Even though country living is much different than city living, there is much to be said about what The Last Stop on Market Street gives readers—it transcends space and place: finding the beauty in the things around you.

While I might not have been raised around tall buildings or busy streets filled with people, I was still raised in a place that was hard to see as beautiful sometimes. One might think that beauty in the mountains must always exist, but it is a life lived far away from people, in the dirt and wilderness, with a single high school for a hundred miles, a side of the mountain that cannot be seen while driving by exists. Many families live well below the poverty line, are often the first in their families to go to high school, learn English as a second language, and the feeling of otherness extends through these mountains and is absolutely undeniable within the classroom. It has been a long time since I left my hometown, but after Matt’s speech, I was left remembering my childhood in a very different way.

As Matt spoke of his father, I thought of mine. A white male from the Midwest, with an affluent family that offered him job security for the rest of his life, he chose to leave the suburbs of Illinois and head for California. His first job in 1980 was teaching at a public elementary school less than ten miles from the border of Mexico in the small town of Jacumba. He taught there for his entire career. He didn’t know Spanish initially. There was no ESL program, the students he served were almost exclusively Hispanic and spoke only Spanish, and despite the barriers that existed between them, my father was determined to teach and his students wanted to learn. He didn’t have a budget; there was no funding. He used his paychecks to buy books, pencils, paper, and provide lunches for his students. He was never taught standard practices for this population, proven ways to increase literacy and improve graduation rates. His degrees were in history and the rigorous teaching curriculum that exist now for those in college to become teachers did not exist then—he would have to work harder and get creative. One year, they didn’t even have a classroom, so he taught outside and under the shade of the trees. He wanted to give his students every chance at success, so he fought an endless fight for funding, for books, but most of all he fought to give them an opportunity to see the worth in themselves and those around them. When he would talk about his days teaching in the mountains, he would swell with pride. He didn’t resent the district for ignoring his students, for leaving them outside in 100-degree weather, in the rain, in the wind, in the cold of the mountains. He knew that learning about the trees and the mountains, the geology and meteorology of the place that they lived, was a gift rather than a curse. I can only imagine what he’d say about Last Stop on Market Street; he’d probably tell me he wished he’d had this book when he was teaching; he’d probably remind me to stop and smell the roses, to revel in the beauty that surrounds us all. I wish he could read this book to my children. His students still remember him. When he died in 2013, my inbox was filled with condolences and memories from students he taught twenty years ago.
Me reading Last Stop on Market Street to my twins.
One of the things that truly hit home for me was the idea that regardless of where you are, there is beauty to be found. During his lecture Matt said that one of his goals as a writer has been to create books with storylines that “had nothing to do, at least overtly, with race or class,” so that young people can see themselves within his books, so they can have empathy for those around them, so that regardless of what they look like or where they come from, the people on the page are not so different from the person in the mirror. Students who feel that his stories are their stories and identify with his characters are given a chance to feel represented, empowered, and this becomes something important, a tool for children to feel proud of their experiences. These experiences provide groundwork for the future. If we give young people an opportunity to see the beauty in their daily life, a beauty that they can identify with, they have the potential to internalize their surroundings with appreciation and acceptance rather than comparison and shame. Last Stop on Market Street is filled with images of the city, the places that carry with them the weight of judgment, while many picture books for children take place in traditionally, aesthetically pleasing places (think: forests, pretty homes, suburban America, etc.). Last Stop on Market Street highlights the beauty in what is right in front of us. The words on the page move beyond the illustrations, beyond any one place, to the place of every child who struggles to see the good and beautiful life happening right in front of them.

Matt de la Peña’s lecture gave me an opportunity to think about the world around me, the world around my children, the world my father experienced and how different and yet equally beautiful each place really is. It is easy to forget to stop and smell the roses, not the roses in your neighbor’s yard or the roses down the street, but the roses, the life, that surrounds you—here and now.

When I think of ways that we can impact those around us, I think of my dad in the same way that I think of Matt de la Peña: They are the bright spots for kids in an otherwise dark and scary world. They raise questions in the minds of all those they reach; they ask us to look around and figure out exactly how we can share our light with anyone willing to listen. What tools do you have accessible to you? How can you take those tools and make them accessible to others? How can you share your experience, the things you are a witness to, in order to provide others with a sense of empathy, identity, empowerment? How can you show people that beauty is not only found in the perfectly clean, well-funded and tended classroom or the ethereal forest but anywhere we are learning or living, even the classroom in the dirt under a tree on a hot day? How do YOU use the gifts you have been given to make the world better? I think CJ’s Nana said it best, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

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