After a week, the rejection was getting to me. I
spent time reading about the area, trying to understand where my students were coming from and
what their backgrounds were. East Palo Alto, I
learned, is considered the “servants’ quarters” to the
affluent city of Palo Alto, where Stanford University
is based. Palo Alto is home to distinguished faculty,
professionals, and wealthy businesspeople; East
Palo Alto is where their “help”—the maids, cooks,
gardeners, and laborers—live, often in run-down
tenements and substandard housing, surrounded by
rampant crime and violence.
My students were the children of this community,
growing up silent, resentful, angry, and often
violent. In the 1990s, youth-on-youth murder was at
an all-time high, leading to East Palo Alto’s notoriety
as the murder capital of the United States. By the
time I got there in 2006, things had improved only
A Promise Made
When I went back to school on Monday, I had a
better understanding of why my students were
disengaged, but I still had no clear idea of how to
break the silence and engage them. As a last resort,
I pulled out my copy of Drown (Riverhead, 1997), a
collection of short stories by Junot Díaz that never
failed to engage my former students in both East
Side San Jose and the South Bronx. Because my
students chose to remain silent, I reasoned, I would
read them a story and let them listen instead. The
story I chose was “How to Date a Black Girl, Brown
Girl, White Girl, Halfie.” It’s a brilliant story written
in the voice of a young Dominican boy living in New
Jersey. He talks about government cheese, goats
in the campo, and his nemesis, a Puerto Rican kid
named Howie who likes to kill cats.
The story took a good 10 minutes to read aloud
and when I finished, I was afraid to look up. There
had been no murmurs while I read, no laughter at
the funny parts, no response whatsoever. Disappointed that my final ploy to get my students interested had failed miserably, I finally lifted my gaze.
To my utter shock, the young men who sat in the
back row, usually sprawled in their seats, were now
on their feet. I wasn’t sure what to think, wondering
in a panic if my storytelling had finally pushed them
over the edge and they were getting up to leave.
Instead, Angel, a student with a knife scar zigzagging
across his face from his forehead to his chin, stepped
forward and with a broad motion began to clap
his hands. The others joined him in resounding
applause, and I stood there amazed at their response.
Afraid to break the spell, I ventured to ask,” You
like that, Angel?” He nodded his head vigorously,
emboldening me to ask a follow-up question. “What
do you like about it?”
Angel took a step forward, pointed at the book,
and said emphatically, “That is for real,
Miss!” The others immediately broke out in a
chorus of approval, the boys as well as the girls.
Pleased beyond belief that I had finally made some
headway, I was eager to keep the momentum going.
I explained that the author was Junot Díaz, who
was a professor at MIT, and that the book was a big
The students had a difficult time believing this.
They were sure that the author was someone like
them and that no one else could possibly be interested in his work. Angel then turned to me and
asked, “Who reads this @#$%?” I said that many
people read it because they enjoyed learning about
how other people experience the world and about
circumstances that differ from their own.
This was hard for the students to comprehend.
Although they were clearly moved by the story, they
failed to see why anyone else would be interested in
what to them was commonplace. Their firm disbelief
made clear to me the sad truth of how many of our
students’ lives are completely marginalized in most
of the literature that schools provide. Seldom, if ever,
“Loud, I could handle. Rebellious, I could handle.
But this silence, this
passive refusal to interact,
was shocking and painful.