Author reads with D.C. students, then writes about them


Shakwia Charles, 16, listens as author, Jim Grady does a short story reading during a book club meeting in the library at McKinley Technology High School in Washington on Thursday afternoon. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

Nobody knew the truth about the first dead kid that Thursday noon as uniform-shirted 11th and 12th graders straggled into McKinley Tech High School’s third floor library for book club. The sun shone through the library’s tall windows of blue sky with a linear purity uncommon there in Washington, D.C., where all light normally bounces off white marble monuments to America’s hopes and history.

As he entered the library and saw only their group, Marcus who’d never said anything to that gone guy now said to everyone: “Did you hear Bleu’s dead?”

— From James Grady’s “The Giggler”

It was last Dec. 6th, a chilly but sunny morning. Author James Grady sat with the McKinley Tech High School book club in the school library talking about one of his works. It wasn’t the book that made Grady famous — “Six Days of the Condor,” which became a major motion picture — but his short story included in the anthology “D.C. Noir.” Set on Capitol Hill, featuring a senator, aides and lobbyists, it is a quintessential Washington tale. The students liked it.

While munching on pizza and cupcakes, a 16-year-old sophomore named Shakwia Charles, who had just heard Grady talk about how easily stories popped into his head, asked him: “Would you write a story about us?”

Her request, he said, “blew me away.”

Grady was at the Northeast Washington school as part of Writers in Schools, a 24-year-old literary arts outreach program run by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. It sends nationally known authors, along with free books, into D.C. public schools to talk about their writings.

This year there have been some 140 visits in a few dozen D.C. schools, most from greater Washington’s rich collection of writers, but also others. Authors who have recently participated include Terry McMillan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ben Fountain, Susan Coll and Susan Richards Shreve.

In October, best-selling crime novelist George Pelecanos visited Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest and read a passage from his 2011 novel, “The Cut,” in which the main character visits an English class at Cardozo.

But in the history of the program, the request for Grady to write an entire story about the students was a first, executive director Emma Snyder said.

“Here was a kid in a D.C. public high school who’d just spent an hour discussing a story about the kind of people who work a mile away from [McKinley] in geography and a thousand miles away in power, influence, potential, wealth, fame,” Grady said. “And all she wanted was for ‘our’ story to be told, too, for them to be part of the culture they were learning.”

He said he almost cried. He blinked and said yes.

Grady then worked with the students and librarian Sarah Elwell, who sponsors the book club.

Every week at McKinley, the District’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) high school, Elwell leads a few dozen students at lunch period in a book discussion; once a month, the author joins them.

“I like the book club because in English class we take quotes from essays and analyze them to get us ready for the AP English test,” said senior James White, 17. “Here, the conversation is more casual.”

Grady said he knew almost instantly that he would write “a Stephen King kind” of story called “The Giggler.” Why? Because, he said, “What do we fear in high school perhaps the most? Being bullied, laughed at, mocked, teased.”

He asked the students to provide character names and, through Elwell, to answer questions: What are you afraid of? What do you want to be?

Their responses allowed him to wrap his story around very real teen problems: violence, depression, crime, teen pregnancy, broken homes, family tragedies. One student was “afraid of being judged,” and others feared they wouldn’t go to college or find a good job.

Grady returned to McKinley in April to read “The Giggler” at book club.

“It had a really creepy feeling, mystery and horror at the same time,” said Chidima Onuoha, 16, a junior who writes her own fiction. “I loved it.”

“I could see how each of us had something that was in the story that brought it all together,” said Shakwia. “I could picture it happening.”

You can read “The Giggler” on The Answer Sheet at washingtonpost.com.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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