It's no small challenge to select a book for hundreds of people that will appeal to students as well as adults, teachers, coaches, artists, mathematicians, grounds crew and dining hall staff alike.
A committee of students and employees, led by Dean of Community Life Ashley Johnston on behalf of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team, did just that in choosing Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah as Brooks School's sixth All-Community Read.
The memoir of comedian Noah's youth in apartheid-era South Africa and afterward was announced as the All Community Read (ACR) this spring, in order to provide the hundreds of members of Brooks' community time to read it during the summer, and is now being incorporated into the curriculum of classes in all disciplines this fall, giving students myriad ways of considering the work and its powerful messages.
"The rawness of Trevor's coming of age story against the backdrop of a troubling time in South African history hooked students and adults," said Johnson, who, with the ACR committee, considered nearly 30 different books before narrowing their choice down to Born a Crime.
This fall in classes on campus, Noah's reflections and inspiration have already been discussed in Pre-Modern World History class — as a comparison between the teaching of the Holocaust to German students and the teaching of apartheid to South African students and "importance of an emotional or moral dimension in recounting historical events."
Art classes are focusing on topics raised by the book, as well. Students in Visual Arts are "engaging in a portfolio review using the prompts 'I was born a/from/in/on/at ______' to provide imaginative feedback to their peers, which ended up sounding very much like poetry!'" wrote Associate Head of School for Academic Affairs Susanna Waters in her Deans' Den Blog.
Nearby, ceramics students recently worked with clay to create pieces inspired by an artistic tradition from their own ancestry. "Among the students, Germany, Ghana, Ireland, Nigeria, Peru, Puerto Rico, Turkey and the West Indies were represented," Waters reports.
Acting class, meanwhile, has been preparing their own "I am . . ." slam poetry with text references from Born a Crime incorporated.
But of all the reasons that Born a Crime has been a fitting selection for the entire Brooks community to read together this year, Waters calls out three in particular. "First, it introduces readers to the unique history of South Africa, and provides a millennial perspective on growing up before and after the fall of apartheid," she said. "Second, whether listened to on Audible or read in hard copy, Trevor Noah's special blend of humor and storytelling talents make it a lively and entertaining experience, albeit one that tackles some sensitive and challenging topics."
The third reason? "Noah himself is a controversial figure to some — whether for his sexist or anti-semitic jokes in years past, or because his societal views related to coming of age in South Africa differ significantly from the opinions of others," Waters said. "Considering the author's mistakes and lived experiences makes for thought-provoking discourse."
Take Dean Johnston's recent conversation with students about historical memory and how it impacts the way history is preserved through generations: "The students were able to research apartheid themselves and then compare their historical findings to the experience they read in Born a Crime," she said. "It was a way for the students to actively use some of the language and vocabulary around point of view and unconscious bias that we have been discussing this year."
Then there's the enjoyment of simply learning more about Noah. "I appreciated the fact that Noah discussed mistakes and missteps that he made during his coming-of-age years and what he learned from them," Johnston shared. "In a time when cancel culture is more prevalent than ever, I think he does a good job discussing the importance of calling in and how context matters."
The author, she adds, "makes room for grace and forgiveness in even the most challenging of times."
Learn about a couple of prior year's All Community Reads:
- The math department's selection: journalist Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success
- The English department's choice: Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go.
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Creating a New Admission Building
Brooks bids farewell to three beloved buildings and looks forward to a fresh facility that will provide opportunities for admission and everyone on campus.