Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


We have enjoyed a couple of Jacqueline Woodson books previously: her autobiographical and poetical Brown Girl Dreaming and Feathers, a story about ordinary kids navigating the world. 

Harbor Me is similar to Feathers in that it is about kids about age 11 or 12, in an ordinary school situation, dealing with the world. However, it has a rather different twist. 


In this book, a group of six kids end up in a small class together due to their non-typical learning styles. The sort that are often described as “special needs.” But, as the author (see below) noted, her intent was to portray them as fully ordinary kids - which is how kids with, say, ADHD, autism, learning divergence, and other issues often are. They just learn differently, and struggle with the typical classroom environment. 


As part of the creative learning environment, the teacher has the kids spend the last period on Fridays in a room by themselves to just talk about whatever they want. While they are initially skeptical, they soon open up to each other, and talk about the issues, personal and societal, that affect them. 


Central to this is Esteban’s situation. His parents are undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and his dad has just been arrested by ICE, and may be deported. 


Tiago is from Puerto Rico - which, as he keeps having to point out to ignorant people, is part of the United States. While he doesn’t have to worry about his parents being deported, he has been harassed for speaking Spanish with his mother. 


Amari is African American (like two of the other kids), but comes from a fairly poor family. He has just gotten the lecture in the wake of the police murder of Tamir Rice about how he can never play with water guns in public. 


Ashton, the sole white kid in the group, struggles to understand the racial dynamics at play here. However, he is a good kid, and has been friends with Amari ever since coming to the school when his dad lost his job in Connecticut and had to move to NYC to work for a relative. Also, Ashton gets bullied by some older kids, which nobody really knows. 


Holly is also African American, but she comes from an upper-middle-class family. Rich by the standards of the group. Her mom has taken the narrator, Haley, under her wing after her….well, I should explain about Haley separately. Holly hates being called “rich girl” by Amari, and points out that she didn’t choose her circumstances any more than he did. The best she can do is be generous - which she and her parents are. 


And then there is Haley, the narrator of the book. Nicknamed “Red” because of her hair, she is biracial. And she has a traumatic history. Her parents fell in love in college, married, and had her. However, when she was age three, her parents were out at a party, had a bit too much to drink, which led to her father crashing their car, killing her mother, and sending him to prison for eight years. Her father’s younger brother stepped up and raised Haley. He is a genuinely kind and decent person, even if he never can figure out Haley’s hair. (Which is where Holly’s mom steps in.) 


So, that is the group. Everyone has a story, everyone has issues that affect them. As they grow closer, they find themselves having real conversations about political and social issues - how could they not, because these things are hardly abstract? They literally are part of the fabric of their lives.


This is the central premise of the book: children do not exist in some childhood bubble, and are not stupid and ignorant. 


This, in my experience, is spot on. My kids have had conversations with their classmates and friends - and each other - that are surprisingly deep and thoughtful and very political. 


Some of the Fundie parents of my kids’ friends would be shocked at how many of them identify as LGBTQ, socialist, and even communist. All the sheltering in the world cannot ultimately insulate children from reality - god knows my parents’ generation tried that, and failed spectacularly. 


The thing is, the kids are alright. They are often a lot more thoughtful and informed than their parents. I have learned a lot from listening to mine. (Hey, my goal is to be less “cringe” and more “based.” It’s…not easy.) While the direction my kids have gone wasn’t exactly what I have expected, the thing that makes me the happiest is to see that they have grown into empathic and thoughtful people. 


The title evolved over time, but Woodson settled on Harbor Me because of the idea that these kids would be shelters - harbors - for each other. They have each others’ back. 


“If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?” 


The audiobook version of this is read by an ensemble cast. N’Jameh Camara does the heavy lifting as the narrator, Haley. The author reads the handful of lines spoken by the teacher, Ms. Laverne. The other kids are read by young(ish) people, including the author’s daughter Toshi. (Holly) 


Also interesting is the Q and A session after the story itself, featuring the author and her son Jackson. The two of them discuss the themes of the book, favorite characters, and diversity in literature. Woodson enrolled her kids in a school similar to the one described in the book - one that intentionally cultivates diversity - both racial and economic. Woodson and her wife made that decision based on the common dilemma of upwardly mobile minorities: should the kids be raised in a predominantly white school? Or some other option. NYC has the option for greater diversity, although overall it remains a largely de facto segregated city. (This is one of the reasons why Critical Race Theory is actually a very helpful set of ideas and lenses to understand our society. Despite Brown v. Board of Education, our schools remain largely segregated. Why is that? How do our institutions continue to perpetuate racial inequality despite being “race neutral” on their face?) 


Young Jackson sounds like a thoughtful young man, which is not surprising coming from a thoughtful mother who writes wonderfully nuanced and compelling books. 


Something else I might note: Jackson specifically mentions LGBTQ diversity, which is unsurprising since he has two moms. I think the Fundies of my parents’ generation - and mine too - have been somewhat blindsided by the spectacular failure of their attempts to keep their kids from knowledge about LGBTQ people. I mean, this has been the big theological issue they have rallied around, and, rather than preserve their theopolitical ideology for the next generation, they have created a wedge that continues to drive their children and grandchildren from any desire to be a part of their religion. Just like their embrace (indeed, worship) of Trump is driving the kids away. Our kids have grown up around people of all colors, religions, and sexual/gender identities. And, honestly, their future will require them to live in a diverse world, so maybe all of us should just get used to that and practice being decent people. 


And, to be decent people, we need to harbor others. Not just those like us, but the most vulnerable among us. The kids in this book decide to do just that, and it is a beautiful and inspiring thing. 


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