Of the many excellent speeches and workshops at the National Association of Independent School’s annual conference last week, one stood out for me: the Friday keynote from Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give and On the Come Up. I had heard Thomas speak in 2018 to a rapt audience at First Parish Church in Cambridge, MA, about her bestselling YA novel, The Hate You Give. Sitting next to her interviewer before a room full of packed pews, Thomas connected instantly and electrically with her young readers. I remember thinking that the glow in her readers’ eyes was exactly the glow teachers live to see — and sometimes don’t — when we look out at our students.
At the NAIS conference in Philadelphia last Friday, I listened to Thomas for the second time, and my awe amplified as she connected instantly and electrically with thousands of the very people responsible for decisions impacting students on a daily basis: educators. As readers around the world agree, Thomas is a talented storyteller — but when addressing an audience in person, she is somehow even more engaging, using a combination of humor and clarity to tightly fasten the attention of her listeners.
Speaking to teachers and administrators from all over the country and even the world, she shared some of the things that inspired her story about Starr Carter. Thomas talked about the legacies of Emmett Till, Tupac, and Oscar Grant, and she talked about her own experience as the only Black student in her creative writing program in Alabama. She also talked about two white teachers she had as a child. One — “Ms. First Grade” — gave her and her Black classmates the feeling that they were less than, that they were other. In contrast, “Ms. Third Grade” told Thomas and her peers that there was nothing they couldn’t do.
Thomas didn’t forget either of the messages from Ms. First or Ms. Third grade; in fact, it seems, Thomas has lived and written in the interstice of both. Carrying with her a message of “no,” she also heard – and believed — a message of “yes,” and in her words, “it only takes one yes to change everything.” She then shared a personal anecdote about the power of a single yes: she received over 100 rejections before The Hate U Give manuscript was picked up, published, and rocketed to the top of bestseller lists everywhere.
All it took was one yes in a sea of no, and from there a story that needed to be told was able to skip along the minds and hearts of millions upon millions of readers. My almost-twelve-year-old daughter was one such reader just last month. I lost her for days as she plowed through both The Hate U Give and On the Come Up in all of her discretionary time. When she emerged, her whole face was glowing — just like the faces of the young readers I saw at First Parish Church in 2018 and the faces of educators crowding around me in the massive presentation room in the Philadelphia Convention Center last week.
All it takes is one yes – one person to see us, believe in us, push us, carry us, and be a buoy for us when we find ourselves swimming in what feels like a sea of no.