A Bronx Teacher Asked. Tommy Orange Answered.

A Bronx Teacher Asked. Tommy Orange Answered.

Tommy Orange sat at the front of a classroom in the Bronx, listening as a group of high school students discussed his novel “There There.”

A boy wearing blue glasses raised his hand. “All the characters have some form of disconnection, even trauma,” Michael Almanzar, 19, said. “That’s the world we live in. That’s all around us. It’s not like it’s in some faraway land. That’s literally your next-door neighbor.”

The class broke into a round of finger snaps, as if we were at an old-school poetry slam on the Lower East Side and not in an English class at Millennium Art Academy, on the corner of Lafayette and Pugsley Avenues.

Orange took it all in with a mixture of gratitude and humility — the semicircle of earnest, engaged teenagers; the bulletin board decorated with words describing “There There” (“hope,” “struggle,” “mourning,” “discovery”); the shelf of well-thumbed copies wearing dust jackets in various stages of disintegration.

His eyebrows shot up when a student wearing a sweatshirt that said “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” compared the book to “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. When three consecutive students spoke about how they related to Orange’s work because of their own mental health struggles, he was on the verge of tears.

“That’s what drew me to reading in the first place,” Orange said, “The feeling of not being as alone as you thought you were.”

It’s not often that an author walks into a room full of readers, let alone teenagers, who talk about characters born in his imagination as if they’re living, breathing human beings. And it’s equally rare for students to spend time with an author whose fictional world feels like a refuge. Of all the classroom visits he’s made since “There There” came out in 2018, the one at Millennium Art Academy earlier this month was, Orange said later, “the most intense connection I’ve ever experienced.”

The catalyst for the visit was Rick Ouimet, an energetic, pony-tailed English teacher who has worked in the fortresslike building for 25 years. Ouimet is the kind of teacher students remember, whether it’s for his contributions to their literary vocabulary — synecdoche, bildungsroman, chiasmus — or for his battered flip phone.

He first learned about “There There” from a colleague whose son recommended it during the pandemic. “I knew from the first paragraph that this was a book our kids were going to connect to,” he said.

The novel follows 12 characters from Native communities in the lead-up to a powwow at a stadium in Oakland, Calif., where tragedy strikes. “Orange leads you across the drawbridge, and then the span starts going up,” a critic with The New York Times, Dwight Garner, wrote when it came out. The novel was one of The Times’s 10 Best Books of 2018 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. According to Orange’s publisher, over one million copies have been sold.

Ouimet’s hunch proved true: “Students love the book so much, they don’t realize they’re reading it for English class. That’s the rare find, the gift of gifts.”

Some relevant statistics: Attendance rates at Millennium Art are below the city average. Eighty-seven percent of students are from low-income households, which is above the city average.

In the three years since Orange’s novel became a mainstay of the Millennium Art curriculum, pass rates for students taking the Advanced Placement literature exam have more than doubled. Last year, 21 out of 26 students earned college credit, surpassing state and global averages. The majority of them, said Ouimet, wrote about “There There.”

When three students in the school’s art-bedecked hallway were randomly asked to name a favorite character from “There There,” they all answered without hesitation. It was as if Tony, Jacquie and Opal were people they might bump into at ShopRite.

Briana Reyes, 17, said, “I connected so much with the characters, especially having family members with alcohol and drug abuse.”

Last month, Ouimet learned that Orange, who lives in Oakland, was going to be in New York promoting his second novel, “Wandering Stars.” An idea started to percolate. Ouimet had never invited an author to his classroom before; such visits can be pricey and, as he pointed out, Shakespeare and Zora Neale Hurston aren’t available.

Ouimet composed a message in his head for over a week, he said, and on Monday, March 4, just after midnight, he fired it off to the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau.

“The email felt like a raw rough draft, but I didn’t agonize,” he said. “It was my midlife college essay.”

The 827-word missive was written in the go-for-broke style Ouimet encourages in his students’ work, full of personality, texture and detail, without the corporate-speak that infiltrates so much Important Professional Correspondence.

Ouimet wrote: “In our 12th-grade English classroom, in our diverse corner of the South Bronx, in an under-resourced but vibrant urban neighborhood not unlike the Fruitvale, you’re our rock star. Our more than rock star. You’re our MF Doom, our Eminem, our Earl Sweatshirt, our Tribe Called Red, our Beethoven, our Bobby Big Medicine, our email to Manny, our ethnically ambiguous woman in the next stall, our camera pointing into a tunnel of darkness.”

Orange, he added, was a hero to these kids: “You’ve changed lives.” There was Tahqari Koonce, 17, who drew a parallel between the Oakland Coliseum and the Roman Colosseum; and Natalia Melendez, also 17, who noted that a white gun symbolized oppression of Native tribes. And then there was Dalvyn Urena, 18, who “said he’d never read an entire book until ‘There There,’” and was now comparing it to a Shakespearean sonnet.

He ended with: “Well, it was worth a shot. Thanks for taking the time to read this — if it ever finds its way to you. In appreciation (and awe), Rick Ouimet.”

“I took a chance,” Ouimet said. And why not? “My students take a chance every time they open a new book. There’s groaning, and they open the page. To see what they gave this book? The love was palpable.”

Within hours, the message reached Orange, who was in the midst of a 24-city tour with multiple interviews and events each day. He asked Jordan Rodman, senior director of publicity at Knopf, to do whatever she could to squeeze Ouimet’s class into the mix. There would be no fee attached. Knopf donated 30 copies of “There There” and 30 copies of “Wandering Stars.”

In a big, bustling school full of squeaky soles, walkie-talkies and young people, moments of silence can be hard to come by. But when Orange cracked open his new novel, you could hear a pin drop.

“It’s important to voice things, to sound them out, like the way we learn to spell by slowly saying words,” Orange read.

He went on: “It’s just as important for you to hear yourself speak your stories as it is for others to hear you speak them.”

The students followed along in their own copies, heads bent, necks looking vulnerable and strong at the same time. Their intentness proved that, like the spiders described in “There There,” books contain “miles of story, miles of potential home and trap.” On this nondescript gray Thursday, Orange’s work offered both.

After the 13-minute reading came the questions, fast and furious, delivered with refreshing bluntness: “What even inspired you to write these two books?” and “Did Octavio die?” and, perhaps most pressing, “Why did ‘There There’ end that way?” Not since “The Sopranos” has an ambiguous denouement caused more consternation.

“We were like whaaaat?” a student said, holding the last word in a high note.

“It was a tragic story,” Orange said. “Some people hate it, and I’m sorry.”

He admitted that he hadn’t been a reader in high school: “Nobody handed me a book and said, This book is for you. I also had a lot going on at home.” He talked about how he staves off writer’s block (by changing points of view), how he reads his drafts aloud to hear how they sound. Orange shared his Cheyenne name — Birds Singing in the Morning — and introduced a childhood friend who is traveling with him on tour.

Through it all, Ouimet stood quietly at the side of the room. He shot gentle stink eye at a gaggle of chatty girls. He used a long wooden pole to open a window. Mostly, he just beamed like a proud parent at a wedding where everyone is dancing.

The truth is, “There There” didn’t cast a spell only on his students: It also had a profound effect on Ouimet himself. When he started teaching the book, he’d just given up coaching soccer and softball after 22 years.

“I was afraid: If I don’t have coaching, am I still going to be an effective teacher? ‘There There’ was this kind of renaissance. I don’t want to get too sappy,” he said, “but it was a career-saver in some way.”

Eventually the bell sounded. The students pushed back from their desks and lined up to have their books signed by Orange, who took a moment to chat with each one.

Over the din, to anyone who was still listening, Ouimet called: “If you love a book, talk about it! If you love a story, let other people know!”

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