Vernon Reads

for PN and Sherman Alexie

There’s this student,
in my classroom,
quiet, observant,
too cool for school.
Vernon reads because The Absolutely
True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
circles hoops around his adolescent brain
toppling his first weeks of school
I don’t “read”itude.

Gathering his ancestors,
words channel compassion,
weaving threads into familiarity,
weaving familiarity into a yearning to read more words.

Forgiveness hovers beneath
broken promises,
trails of tears, and treaties.

Every sign points toward his schooling’s demise,
when Vernon opens books to causes
beyond the intentional negligence of an educational system
that stripped his grandparents
of everything they’d never be again.

His eyes rise from Junior’s story
when RJ, this toppled white kid ,
enters late. Broken by years of hallway ridicule,
broken by a family that you do not want to know,
RJ’s eyes scan the classroom,
it’s a “free seating” day
and a pretty seventh grade girl occupies
his eighth grade seat.
With palpable anxiety he stops and
drops his eyes to his feet.
I move to get up,
when Vernon’s voice rises
deep and gentle, above his book,
“Hey, buddy, sit here,”
he pulls back the chair next to his own.

Blinking tears down into the shallows
of my lower lids, my eyes return
to the book I am reading in class,
thinking of the power of story,
thinking of the power of connection,
thinking of the power Vernon gave RJ,
shouldering his angst,
offering him a Friday home.

Vernon is a hero.
He eats up The Absolutely
True Diary of a Part Time Indian,
deepening his understanding
of what it means to not fit in.
Like Junior, no matter which direction
RJ turns, bolts of misunderstanding
burst in other people’s eyes.
Vernon watches.
He knows it is true.

RJ draws bold dark lines through the pages
of his classroom journal,
while Vernon keeps Junior’s story
quietly to himself.

Chuckling every now and then,
Vernon’s dark eyes shine.

Brenda Warren 2011
Process Notes:
I pulled the words for this week’s wordle from The Powwow at the End of the World, by Sherman Alexie. Visit The Sunday Whirl for more pieces that integrate Alexie’s words.

Process Notes:
One of my students who claimed to never read, is reading Sherman Alexie’sThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. We discussed the book’s mature content, and my expectation that he not point out inappropriate parts to other kids during his reading. I also phoned home to get parental permission for him to read it, because the content is mature. It is a story that Native American kids “get.” They love it. Many of my Blackfoot, Chippewa, and Cree students move back and forth between the reservation schools, and our school. The book’s narrator, Arnold Spirit aka Junior moves to an all white school, so the connection is strong, and Alexie is hilarious.

I wrote the first draft of this piece last night, and then watched Smoke Signals. Alexie wrote the screenplay for Smoke Signals. He based it on stories in his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The movie is on Netflix. It is hysterical, heartbreaking, and liberating, and the soundtrack is memorable. One of the main characters, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, reminds me of Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. I woke up this morning, and read The Powwow at the End of the World aloud, trying to channel the lilt of Thomas’s incessant storytelling in my reading. After reading it, I revised this piece, and added to it to tackle that wordle list. Finally I changed the names to protect my students’ identities.

Mr. Alexie, if you happen across these words, thank you.  Your writer’s voice turns young people into readers.  Face keeps me returning to its pages again and again, I love volcano and its mosquito armageddon.  🙂

27 thoughts on “Vernon Reads

  1. I love it! Every word! It just flowed, and I could imagine it all so easily. And it moved me; I teared up at the end. I’m such a softy for teacher/student poems like this. Vernon reads, indeed. And he reads more than just words. They way he read the situation with RJ – brilliant!

    And I will definitely be learning more about Sherman Alexie and what he has written. Thank you.



  2. Beautifully told, Brenda, and your back story notes are amazing. I stand in awe of all good teachers. Thank you for the positive impact you have on your students. There is so much more to being a teacher than teaching! You guide, show by example, instruct, explain, coach, demonstrate, and on and on!


  3. I read Alexie’s book aloud (censoring it as I read!) to my 8th-grade Navajo boys last year. They loved it, just as Vernon does in your poem. Native kids really do connect with the stuff that goes on in that book, particularly the painful stuff. They laugh at it the beatings and the drunkenness and other forms of violence, but they laugh to keep from crying…

    Thank you so much for reminding me (and I do need reminding) why I teach…


  4. Brenda – this is beautiful. I believe you do your students and Mr. Alexie a great honor with this heartfelt and vivid storytelling. You say Vernon is the hero, but I believe the hero is really you for believing in him and for sharing your love of reading with him.


  5. Fantastic poem. I really like how the thrust of the Alexie poem runs threads through this one, and vice versa… your poem illustrates threads of the Alexie poem.

    Very interesting process!! For me, I found it curious that I wrote my poem before reading the Alexie poem, and the word that was strongest for me was “forgive” – even without the context of the original poem. I chose to end with it — even though my subject matter is incredibly trivial, by comparison, with regard to “forgiveness”


  6. Write what you know, write from the heart. What an example you are. I’m in and out of the library all the time, I’m going to see if it has The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, I’m fascinated by anything that makes children read. I wondering if Part Time Indian is a cultural attraction or if others (bearing in mind the adult content) would enjoy it.


    • Thank you, Mike. I’m sure your library has it, check the young adult section, and yes it is something adults love, too. After you finish that one, see if they have Alexie’s book, Flight. It’s incredible. If you follow the author link on The Powwow at the End of the World’s page (above), it gives a teaser for Flight. The poetry in Alexie’s book, Face, keeps me reading it again and again.


  7. What a lovely read and back story to go with it too. Education is everything to kids. Without it they stay right where they are. I love how the one boy .. disadvantaged and somewhat an outcast helps the other boy because he ‘knows’ and can empathise with it.
    A lovely and most enjoyable read on my Sunday morning.


  8. Oh I read the Alexie poem and I am moved, moved by the laughter at the end.

    And I see the same quality in the shining dark eyes you chose to end your poem with.

    Brenda, Thanks for writing about real life and I think the word, “forgive” is powerful.


  9. Your poem was very touching. and the explanation that followed makes me want to read the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. We need more “Vernons” in this world, those who really translate what they are reading into reallity and offer “RJs” a seat next to theirs. At times we have all been Vernons, all been RJs, I think…and grateful for the happy endings in our lives, when they happen. I can understand why this is a favorite poem of yours.


  10. Brenda this is a wonderful story poem that I found very touching. It certainly never entered my head that this was your Wordle – those difficult words were invisible, so smoothly were they integrated. I wrote a nonsense poem with them last night, but now it’s back to the drawing board/


    • Thank you, Viv. I like it, too. The words drove the poem’s length. I was ready to stop at “offering him a Friday home,” but I hadn’t used them all yet. It was fun to write this week’s piece, especially as an avenue to demonstrate kindness in the hearts of young people, who are so often seen as disrepectful.


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