Monday, September 10, 2018

Harmonic Convergence: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

"Do you have late pass for me, Esteban?" Mrs. Laverne asked. "Is everything okay?"

Esteban shook his head. "I don't have a pass," he said, his voice breaking. "We think they took my papi. Nobody knows where he's at."

While Ms. Laverne talked to Esteban, I thought about mine. I thought about handcuffs. I thought about fathers being taken way and uncles coming to the rescue and mothers gone.

Then that Friday afternoon Ms. Laverne does something unexpected. She takes the six kids in her special fifth-sixth grade class down the hall to an deserted old art room and gives them a strange assignment: they're to spend the last hour of class on every Friday there--talking.

"But I don't know what we're even supposed to talk about," Tiago said. "And to who?"

"Schoolwork, toys, TV, me, yourselves--anything. To each other. And it's 'to whom,' Tiago."

Amari said, "You trying to change the art room into the A.R.T.T. room--A Room to Talk."

Mrs. Laverne pointed to Amari. "You. Are. Brilliant."

Haley brings a recorder so they can remember what they talk about. And talk they do, little by little, about ordinary pre-adolescent feelings--Holly's embarrassment after she shows off her new sneakers--shoes the others point out are way too expensive for anyone else in the group to even think about wanting. But then Esteben talks about fears no child should face--his fears that his mother will also disappear and both parents will be deported back to the Dominican Republic. Amari talks about his sadness that he and his friends can't play with their Nerf guns outside because he's black and could be killed by police who think he's a shooter. Ashton is shocked but sad when he realizes that he can do things because he's white that Amari can't do. And it is only on the last Friday that Haley can talk about her memory, about how as the driver, her father was jailed when her mother was killed in an auto accident.

So much can change in a minute, an hour, a year.

And change they do. Esteben leaves with his whole family, and the remaining five realize how much they learned about each other and about themselves. The A.R.T.T. has been what Haley's uncle calls a harmonic convergence. And they will never be the same.

In her latest, Jacqueline Woodson's Harbor Me (Nancy Paulsen/Random House Books, 2018) plumbs the story of six young people who are given the time to bridge the distance between them in the gift of time and privacy to share their lives with each other. The multi-award-winning Woodson's easy, colloquial, but poetic prose shines here, as always, in a story that is both personal and global in its portrayal of young lives shared--and the strength they learn from each other. In their starred review, Kirkus summarizes, "This story, told with exquisite language and clarity of narrative, is both heartbreaking and hopeful. An extraordinary and timely piece of writing."

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