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At a book club recently the usual questions as to which parts of Shades of Gray are autobiographical
ensued. I enjoy those questions as they allow me to reflect upon a wonderful time in my life filled with
learning and love. Then, thrown into the mix like peanut butter in your basic chocolate chip cookie,
someone asked the question that sounded something like, “Wouldn’t you say that Olivia is a bit too
good? Can someone really be that good?” which was, of course, preceded by questions relating me to
the main character, Olivia, in my novel.
Oddly, I didn’t get my defenses in a tizzy, but instead reverted to a deep and thoughtful mindset as I
quickly pondered, as best you can ponder with fifteen sets of eyes on you, as to whether I am actually
Olivia or better yet just that good. Is anyone really that good? We have all fallen prey to a social faux
pas or a white lie here and there. And who doesn’t hope for world peace? I imagine, anyone who took
the time to get to know my students back then, when I taught in the ACE program, the program that
Shades of Gray is based on, would have done many of the things I did to generate success throughout
the “at risk” population. Anyone with a heart that is.
My response, and I am sticking with it, is that Olivia – and I – is not unrealistically good, but instead an
idealist. By definition an idealist is someone that rejects practical consideration in search of perfection.
I would like to believe that we all, not just fictional characters, have enough optimism within to at least
keep hope alive. So, perhaps, in my haste to claim myself, and my fictional counterpart, an idealist, I
should have prefaced it with, I am a person with a big heart. I know I am not alone in this utopian vision
of the world and I was wondering if you would care to join me.
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Via Campo Marzo Design: On Sunday, December 2nd, Campo Marzio Boca Raton had the privilege of hosting Susanne Jacoby Hale, author of Shades of Gray, for a book signing in Campo Marzio Design at Town Center.
Our customers were delighted to meet and chat with Mrs, Hale, a wonderful lady and a former drop-out prevention teacher in New York City, whose autobiographical novel was a finalist for an Indie Excellence Book Award.
See more at: http://www.campomarziodesign.it/news/susanne-jacoby-hale-in-campo-marzio-design-at-town-center/
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Last weekend, I was invited by a former student of mine to appear on his radio show. It was quite the experience!
Tune into my interview with former students Ty and Rob on In The Mixx Radio! My interview starts at minute 29 talking about the dropout prevention program and inspiration for Shades of Gray:
Video streaming by Ustream
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What an adorable store in the most quaint town ever. I recently spoke and did a book signing at Words Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ. Take a look!
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Last week I was the keynote speaker at a JAFCO (Jewish Adoption and Foster Care Options) luncheon. A few years ago, I never would have envisioned myself as the keynote speaker anywhere. What might I have spoken about? More importantly who would want to listen? But Shades of Gray has taken me down some new and very cool paths and, as I always say, things happen for a reason in life. So, off to the luncheon I went; nerves entangled, hands shaking. Knowing that the cause was infinitely worthy, I prepared a speech and picked out a dress. I walked up to the podium and somehow my nerves, that moments later wouldn’t allow me to eat the lovely lunch they served, settled down. I got to talk about kids – at risk kids. My passion overtook my fear and out the words poured.
Having visited JAFCO the week before, I expected it to be a far sadder place than it was. Being that the compound houses children whose lives have been torn apart, I suppose I expected what I was more accustomed to seeing in a system that has often failed the children who ended up in dropout prevention programs like my old ACE program, which I fictionalized in Shades. It wasn’t though. JAFCO is a place that reminds us that although reprehensible problems still exist for some children, if we impart a little love and devotion into what we believe in, miracles can happen. The women I met that support JAFCO through their tireless hours of volunteering are simply remarkable. Anyone who can look into a suffering child’s eyes I will never understand and there I was in a room filled with people that shared my passion to save them all. They renewed my confidence that, as trite as it sounds, that love can save the world. I want to thank JAFCO for inviting me to speak last week, for all they do for the children and for renewing people’s faith that together we can save the world. Tikkun Olam.
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On Facebook I read about a teacher from my junior high school that passed away recently. I was never fortunate enough to have her, but her reputation was such that I remember her well. In one of the posted photos, Ms. Morell is on a field trip with Mr, Byrnes. Mr. Byrnes, on the other hand, I did have as my teacher and boy, did I love his class. All the girls thought he was adorable, an important trait when in middle school, and hung onto his every word. More importantly though; his class was fun and his stories were interesting. Somehow, he managed to make history intriguing for me; something that never happened before. I looked forward to his class and so did most of my friends, boys and girls alike.
Many heartfelt condolences appeared on Facebook for the late Ms. Morell. People wrote all sorts of things about how they loved her class; how she made learning Spanish fun; how she understood kids. The point is, thirty-five (or so) years later, people remember Ms. Morell. They may not have thought about her often in the last years, but when they heard of her passing, warmth filled their hearts as they recalled the joy she brought to their edification. We remember the teachers that leave impressions on us. How many of us can say we are surely going to leave an imprint in this world? A good teacher does. We hope, as we send our children off to school each day, that they will be blessed with teachers that they too will remember in thirty-five years; teachers that made a difference; teachers that will fill the screen on Facebook (although by then I am quite sure there will be something far more sophisticated that I will struggle to have my grandchildren teach me). The excitement for learning that a good teacher, a funny teacher, a warm teacher, can evoke is priceless.
Here’s to the Ms. Morells’, the Mr. Byrnes’, Kohuts’ and Edelsteins’, Mrs. Wells’, who managed to make a mark on my life. Here’s to the millions of teachers that get kids, make classes interesting, and have changed someone’s path or brought light to a subject. Here’s to the teachers that make a difference.
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For months since the publication of Shades of Gray I have searched for the principal and assistant principal that had the gumption to push towards creating a dropout prevention program at the NYC high school at which I taught twenty plus years ago. Who knew that one small leap of faith would be enough to not only change the lives of some of my past students, but also alter my own path – and all for the better? I wanted to send them my novel and a big, fat thank you for saving my job that winter when the dropout rate had been so exorbitant that many new teachers lost their jobs mid-year. It wasn’t just the fact that I remained employed, but moreover that, because they saw something in me that I didn’t even know existed yet, I (and two other lucky teachers) co-founded the original ACE program that my book is based on. Without their faith, Shades of Gray wouldn’t have been written, I wouldn’t be going around encouraging further programs for at risk students and I wouldn’t be able to proudly say that some of my old students are remarkable adults with children of their own; some of which actually attend college now.
I hadn’t had any luck finding either of them….until the other night. I walked into a book club prepared to discuss Shades of Gray, as usual. The reviews from the group were positive. I was excited, simply because I love book clubs. They are intimate enough to have lively conversation that generally leads to the real issues, the reason I wrote Shades in the first place. And then the oddest and most wonderful thing happened. In walked Ms. Medina. Ms. Medina, a member of that same book club, was the assistant principal who invited me back to create Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first dropout prevention program. She was the administrator who reprimanded a young and naïve me how to remove a weapon from a student’s possession. She was the supervisor who always had a smile in her eyes and a sure way about definitively overseeing a program that allowed us to use slightly atypical methods to teach and keep our kids coming to school.
I began my usual schpeel and looked out at the women gathered to talk about Shades and there sat Ms. Medina. At the risk of embarrassing her, I had to express how meaningful it was to me that she appeared that night; that in truth, if not for Ms. Medina’s vision and insight for a young(er) and greener me, I wouldn’t today be parading my own visions about; hoping to encourage other untried teachers to not be afraid to put the love into their teaching and push their kids however they have to. Make a difference; I scream daily as I hope to inspire others to take that same leap of faith that sent me on my way…and what a pleasant trip it has been. And it is not yet over. Thank you, Ms. Medina. Thank you.
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A woman from a local state university was on television yesterday and I heard a bit of what she said; enough so that I have been considering the reality of it. Surely, the impact is greater for me this year, having a son applying to colleges as I write. Her message was quite simple. Her university has already received approximately 28,000 applications (it is only early September) for a school that has approximately 30,000 students in total. “We can be more selective with numbers like these,” she boasted. And then the question came, “Isn’t it so that due to the nation’s economy the state schools are inundated with applicants and therefore able to be more choosey in their selection?” Absolutely.
Well, then, what happens to the average student or even the less than average student? Or the student who in no shape or form can ever afford anything besides an in-state education? Some kids don’t really learn to learn until they are in college and faced with the reality that getting an education is real and useful. Some actually want to go to school and not just for the parties and because it is the next step beyond high school. Yet, they may have performed to a level that some of the universities are now able to reject and they are left floundering.
Have we also considered that not all states, mine included, do not set a definitive amount of in-state students that they will accept? They actually look to outside applicants who will pay more, leaving more of our in-state kids out in the cold. There are many students who at one time should have been accepted to the in-state school of their choice, but are being rejected in place of these out-of-staters.
Finally, as I complained to my daughter, a college junior at one of our states’ better colleges; she brought to my attention that not all the professors and teachers at these schools are equipped to teach the higher levels of students that are filling the classrooms. So now we are filling our state universities with students that in some cases may be smarter than their professors. Of course, that is if you define smart in the same way that the admissions committees do? That, of course, requires a whole new blog.
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Another article about Fifty Shades found its way to the front page of my local newspaper recently. Frankly, I am numb. This one boasts that due to Ms. James infamous, erotic novels, “businesses focusing on sexuality are seeing a significant increase in sales.” Well, there is good news. I know I will sleep better tonight knowing that for sure.
I began to wonder. If my Shades of Gray were to be coveted the way Fifty Shades of Grey has, would the world suddenly take note of the desperate need our education system is in? Would people begin to get more involved in fundraising for our schools? Would teachers feel motivated to get back into their classrooms and give a little more of their hearts regardless of the impediments put on them by lack of funds, support and an excessive amount of red tape? Would the government allocate higher pay for educators or mandate parents to assure their children attend school and do homework?
I love visiting book clubs and engaging in intelligent conversation about my book, particularly when the subject diverts from which parts are non-fiction (many) to questions like, “Do you believe that we should be putting money into curriculum like the dropout prevention program described in Shades of Gray?” (At the risk of exposing my political views; yes – let’s put the money into keeping kids in school now, rather than funding prisons later!) In the next few months I am eager to meet with potential teachers and social workers at various high schools and universities and hope that they will take away from my book an enthusiasm similar to Olivia’s or mine; not unlike the fervor that ignited the real ACE program. I can’t promise the passion my book might kindle will cause the same kind of sales Fifty Shades has, but then again, if one doesn’t dream, neither story would have been told.
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A few weeks ago I spoke at an orientation for incoming high school students from Take Stock in Children. I’m not a big fan of public speaking, but somehow it came off fairly easily, because I was able to talk about something that I believe in. Writing is no different really. If my heart is in it, I can write. I can generally write better than I speak. You know how you always think of the perfect comeback after you’ve left the scene? Well, that is me – and that is why writing is a better venue for my words. It gives me time to think.
Armed with a few index cards of notes, I got up and spoke about being the real you. Easier said than done for a teenager, I realize. I know many adults who are still too self-conscious to allow themselves to follow their own hearts. But where would we all be if we worried about what others are thinking all the time? I am grateful every day that I finally had the nerve to sit down and write my book. I’m reminded of a great time in my life of which many of the stories in my book are generated. More so, I am thrilled that I was able to speak about something I believe in – being an individual.
I stood in that auditorium on Saturday morning and told a room full of teenagers and their parents to not allow other peoples odd looks deter them from getting the education they deserve. Don’t be afraid to take that next step. Ask a teacher why or how, I pleaded. Don’t worry about what the other girls are wearing or what backpacks they carry. Be an individual, I screamed….or at least I wanted to. I don’t know if I made an impression on any of them, but I do know the words came as easily as they come when I tell my own three kids the same thing. If you are true to yourself, then you will forever be the perfect you. No one else can do that.