In late May, two classes of 10th graders from Agawam, Mass., boarded a charter bus for New York City at 6:30 a.m. This wasn’t your average class trip to the Big Apple. The students and their English teacher, Heather Taglieri, weren’t bound for Broadway, the Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero, or the Empire State Building. No, they were coming to my house, or more aptly, my neighborhood in Queens.
Heather and her students had read my novel Black and White, about two best friends – Marcus, who is black, and Eddie, who is white – who despite pending basketball scholarships pull a string of robberies for spending money, and experience the justice system in different ways because of their skin color. The novel is full of real locations and real people, and the students wanted to walk the same streets as the characters and put themselves in their places.
We gathered outside the bridge to Rikers Island, which is more than one mile long, and begins just two blocks from my house. At any one time, there are about 15,000 people in this immense lock-up facility, more than half of the population of Agawam. As we stood outside, correction officers and armored busses full of inmates (including teens) rolled past us. There are several high schools on Rikers Island, including the one where I taught for six years and which is featured in my novel Rikers High. Our next stop was Steinway Street – the PC Richards & Son electronics store parking lot and Kauffman Studios Cinema – where Marcus and Eddie commit some of their robberies. I watched the students as they walked in the characters’ footsteps, wondering aloud if they would be capable of robbing a stranger.
We traveled about a mile south to the Ravenswood Houses (Marcus’s home), a 31-building housing project. The students stood on a basketball court, called the Circle in the novel, hidden between buildings. A pair of local teens approached us, wanting to know why we were in their territory and if we were looking for a game. It was a New York City moment that most tourists don’t get to experience. A few of the students made sure to stand close by my side as I used a lifetime of experience to keep the right tone in my voice and look in my eyes, diffusing any potential problem. We then visited nearby Long Island City High School and I told the story of the novel’s Jason Taylor, a pseudonym for a teen I’d met in real life several weeks before he was stabbed in the back with a chair leg and killed during a basketball tournament in upstate N.Y. Afterward, we boarded the charter bus for the Hell Gate Bridge, where in the novel Eddie ditches his gun into the East River. The students stared wide-eyed at the raging currents and whirlpool they had read about in the novel, and several tossed stones into the water, the same way Eddie had thrown his gun.
I think our most meaningful stop was at the basketball court alongside the Department of Sanitation Truck Depot. It’s the court where Marcus and Eddie first meet and where the novel ends. I’d played there many times myself and had always been stuck by two things – that the court was not level, and that a huge crack ran through the center of it. Those things both became symbols in the book. The slanted ground became the uneven playing field in the NYC justice system, and the crack became the line that separates black and white (eventually snaking its way into Marcus and Eddie’s friendship). Well, since I’d written the novel that court had been repaved. But guess what: that old crack was still busting up through the new cement. And when a student took his hand off of a basketball on the ground, it still rolled away. I was as proud as Heather was of her students when one of them said, “It must be because those problems still exist.”
A few of the 10th graders mentioned that they were writers too. By the end of our trip, several of them had told me that they were now planning on including some of their local people and places in their own stories. I thought that was pretty cool. It has always meant a lot to me to have my neighborhood and past included in my fiction. I hope that sense of realism adds to their passion for writing as well.