On the afternoon before her lecture at the Schnitz, the 2012 Everybody Reads author Heidi Durrow returned to her alma mater for the first time since she graduated from Jefferson High School. “I have so many memories here,” she said as we walked through the auditorium.
In the sunlit band room, Durrow met with nearly 60 students who had read her book, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and were prepared with questions. She answered each of them with an openness and warmth that quickly won over her audience, until there were raised hands throughout the room. Often she turned the questions back to the students, and when three students shared three different insights, she smiled and said, “Yes! Those are three correct answers!”
Durrow spoke of her own experiences growing up in North Portland and feeling awkward, bookish, and “not pretty” in high school. She said she wanted to write a coming of age story for anyone who didn’t fit in, saying that each of us have something to offer.
When one student asked, “What message about race relations were you trying to convey?” she replied that there was no message, except that things are more complicated than they first appear. She said her job as a novelist and artist is to ask questions. “I don’t believe in labels anymore,” she said. “Sometimes I call myself Danish and African-American. Or I tell people I’m Afro-Viking.” The audience laughed. “I want a T-shirt for that,” she said.
Another student asked how Durrow knew when her book was done. “It was finished multiple times,” she replied, and then explained how it took 12 years and 48 rejections before she won the Bellwether Prize and was published.
At Reynolds, when several of the students in a classroom of 25 claimed that they weren’t writers, Durrow pointed out that many of them probably consider themselves storytellers, even if they don’t write them down. “And the beauty of writing fiction is that we get to make it up as we go,” she said.
In both schools, Durrow spoke of the confusion and insecurities that plague most young people, no matter what their background. She cautioned against looking to labels to feel worthwhile. “You have to assign yourself the value you want in the world,” she said. “Don’t leave it up to other people.”