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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The girl with quiet dreams

We all have stories, we write them with our lives. You never know what you’ll hear, if you ask.

Yesterday, for example, meeting with 25 inner-city middle schoolers in Rochester, NY at the summer-enrichment program Horizons, I asked a girl about her cap. It was an ball cap with the logo of a business, something about fluid flow, not the usual thing you see on a 13-year-old girl. She said she has a collection of hats and caps. She got them from her grandma, and she wears them. I asked, Are some of them old-fashioned?” Oh yes, she said. And I said, This could be a story. I took out my little notebook, and wrote in it, “My Grandma’s Hats.”


The summer program is based at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. It’s one of more than 40 Horizons nationwide; this one serves students K-8 who are drawn randomly from city schools, and who often stay with the program every summer through eighth grade. Each of the middle schoolers was reading one or more of my books — they’d chosen from The Revealers, True Shoes, The Prince of Denial, and Falling — and we got to spend a morning together. It was great. For the first 90 minutes or so, we sat around tables arranged in a big hollow rectangle, like a boardroom, and we talked. When we broke for a snack, I turned to the girl at my left.

Like almost everyone in the program, she is African-American; her hair, woven into tight braids, swung below her ears and she was shy. I'd been asking everyone who had a question for me, to first say something about themselves, and I asked what she liked. Music, she said. I asked for a favorite artist or band. She named a soft-rock group, and I wish I could remember which one. She said she listens to different things. “I like to really listen, again and again, so I can hear different beats in the music,” she said. She likes Bach and Beethoven.

I asked if she plays. She wants to try — she likes the saxophone — but she's a little scared to begin, because she’d be starting behind other kids. She started at a new school year, last year. I asked, How? Well, she was in a charter school, and the principal thought she had potential as a speaker, even though she is shy. The principal had her come in every day and give a short reading. She’d check off aspects of quality in delivery, like expression and diction. After some time, when a representative from one of Rochester’s top private schools paid a visit to the charter school, the principal called the girl to her office.

She started at the private school last fall. I asked, How was that? Did you feel accepted? “I looked around and found one other girl who was new," she said, "and I sat with her at lunch. We got to be friends. Then we found other friends.”

By now I think she was feeling a little less shy. “I have a lot of dreams,” she said. If I remember right, she thinks about becoming a primary-care physician, or a pediatrician. “Sometimes," she confided, "I think I’d like to be President of the United States. "Well," I said, “now you can.”

We all have stories. We write them with our lives. Someday I want more to write about the girl with the quiet dreams. And about the girl who wears her grandma’s hats.

Here's a longer, better report on my morning with the middle schoolers at the Warner School Horizons. It was written and photographed by my friend Maggie Symington, who made my visit to the program possible.

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