“Can you dab?”
A fourth grade boy sitting twenty-some rows back from the front of the auditorium asks. Eyes sparkling, face beaming, perched on the edge of his seat, he waits.
“Can I dab?!” grins award-winning author Jason Reynolds, wearing a knowing expression that humorously reads ‘how-old-do-you-think-I-am?’
“Yeah! Can you dab?!” the young boy repeats.
Jason walks up the aisle, dragging the microphone cord, as middle school heads whip around to follow his every move. He is dressed head to toe in black, his dreads tumbling over each other. Reaching the boy’s row, Jason looks over to him. This fourth grade boy, now standing, is
This fourth grade boy, who is black, gazes up at this adult black man who says:
“Yeah, I can dab.”
One heartbeat flutters. One breath exhales. One boy wonders…
He need not ask for proof. Jason bows his head into his elbow. He dabs. The crowd goes wild. Clapping. Smiling. Cheering. Dabbing back. It’s a response, a conversation, between 450 middle school students and a man who, through one seemingly simple question, let them know that they were
* * * * *
For several months, I had been co-organizing an author visit to our school district with Jason Reynolds. We were lucky beyond measure to get the opportunity to host him. If you’re not familiar with Jason, visit his website, read his poetry, hear his story. His literary accolades and honors are stickered across the covers of his books for young people:
Coretta Scott King
National Book Award
NAACP Image Award
Schneider Family Award
Jason’s good fortune as an author of children’s literature was a long time coming before it was finally realized. Way before the awards, the book tours, and the bestselling novels, there was his childhood in Washington, D.C. A childhood that drives him to create authentic characters, stories, and voices for his books, putting the “real” in realistic fiction. He stood in front of our students and told them stories, his true stories about
eating ramen noodles and generic peanut butter
dying hair with kool-aid
popping cassette tapes into Walkmans
And then there were stories that made us gasp, laugh, sigh…think.
He told them that he didn’t read until he was 18 years old. Our reading workshop trained, book loving kids were horrified. This was unthinkable. Why, they asked. WHY didn’t you read?! Because the only books that were available to kids like me were “classics” like Moby Dick…and I couldn’t relate, because there weren’t any whales living in my neighborhood, he explained.
He told them that one of the first cassette tapes he ever bought was a rap album by Queen Latifah, and it changed his life. The more he listened to her, the closer he grew to realizing that her words, her raps, were poetry. This epiphany began a daily practice of writing poetry, as he told himself, “I’m going to be Queen Latifah when I grow up!”
He told them that he moved to New York to pursue his writing dreams.
He told them that he was living in his car a handful of years ago.
He told them that he was working in a clothing store a couple of years ago.
He told them that through all of this, he was writing. Two pages a day. Squeezing in time to write in the edges of his days.
He told them that he was on the verge of giving up his writerly dreams, but was prompted to start writing stories and characters who
looked like him
talked like him
acted like him
lived like him
He wrote through a lens of “everyday diversity”, showcasing characters with authentic
creating books to read about black people outside the oeuvre of “boycotts, bondage, and basketball”, because “black kids do more than play basketball”, Jason told them. He knew children of all kinds needed to be able to hold up a book as a mirror and see themselves in it. And he was determined to tell those stories.
* * * * *
“Curry or Jordan?” another black student asks Jason, challenging him to name the greatest basketball player of all time.
“Ooooh, you’re asking me difficult questions,” Jason plays along.
After a long pause…
And the crowd goes wild.
* * * * *
While Jason was presenting, I was kid watching. Scanning the faces of our very diverse district, I saw one face after another light up, engage, and connect. That was when I realized the profound impact this author visit was having on our children.
When our student raised his hand to ask if Jason could dab, he wasn’t really asking “Can you dab?” He was wondering
Do you see me?
Do you hear me?
Do you know that I have stories, too?
And Jason, a man who mirrors him in many ways, wordlessly responded, in one gesture
I see you.
I hear you.
I am writing my stories for you.
(Jason Reynolds is the author of When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in The Black Suit, All American Boys, As Brave As You, The Track Series (Ghost, Patina), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and forthcoming Long Way Down.)