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Gita Varadarajan Meets Us at The Lamp-Post 

By now, the school year has kicked off and kids have settled back into the classroom.   

To celebrate the new year of learning fun, we are meeting at The Lamp-Post to discuss some soon-to-be classic school stories – Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord, Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan, and The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin.   

To hear more about Save Me a Seat, check out our interview with Sarah Weeks.  

We invited Gita Varadarajan, the co-author of Save Me a Seat, to meet us at The Lamp-Post this month. Gita shared insights about how her real life experiences shaped Ravi’s character, how important it is for teachers to adapt to individual students, and the continued impact Save Me a Seat has had on students and families six years after publication.  

Save Me A Seat

We sometimes think of schools, or school stories, as kind of like a crucible.  For characters in school stories, school is a place to become yourself, to test yourself, to bounce yourself off of other people – peers, teachers, friends, parents, expectations, yourself. Can you tell us about your decision to tell Ravi’s story at school? Your story is very effectively focused on school (and home) and not, say, the neighborhood or a sports team or summer camp. Why did school work so well for you to present Ravi’s challenges and tell his story? 

I moved with my family to the US in 2010 and our priority was to find a house in a town that had good schools for our sons. We spent nearly 2 months looking for a home in the town we wanted to send our kids to school at. Afterall, we had moved to America so our boys could get a good education and so school was front and center on our minds. My boys were very excited to go to a new school here. But they were very anxious and nervous, too. Would they make new friends? How would their teachers be? Would schoolwork be easy or hard? Would there be other kids like them at school? These were questions that crowded their heads. School is a pivotal part of a child’s life, but for an immigrant child it becomes the place where one’s social and emotional life revolves. So, when I began writing Save Me a Seat in 2012, I brought all these memories and experiences to bear. I knew that the setting of school would be the best place to present Ravi’s challenges and tell his story as well as the place for him to explore his social and emotional self.   

Ravi’s American school is clearly, intentionally very different from his school in India. Could you tell us about your inspiration to make the different school environments distinct to serve the purpose of your story – your character’s needs, arc, growth, trajectory? Is there information from your own school experience that informs some aspects of Ravi’s story? Or later experiences in your own life in education – as a student, parent, or teacher? 

Well, I grew up in India and went to school there. My sons were in school in India before moving to America and I was a teacher there for many years too. So, while I do feel that classrooms everywhere have so many things in common and that kids everywhere bring the same joy and go through very similar challenges irrespective of where they go to school, there are some differences in how school buildings look, how schedules are organized and culturally how the social interaction takes place between teachers and students in the classroom. So, the picture I painted in Save Me a Seat definitely reflects the kind of school experience I had, as well as some experiences that my sons had. For instance, most schools require kids to wear uniforms and the teachers are addressed as Maám or Sir. When I was in school, we had to wear clean white canvas shoes on days we had PE, our uniforms had to be ironed, and being neat and tidy was very much valued. We had to stand up when called on by the teacher to answer a question. Now too it is quite the same in some schools in India. By highlighting the differences, I wanted to show how challenging it was for Ravi to fit into this new school environment in America. This struggle to fit in, is what the story is really about and showing the big differences in the way things were done in India versus America served that purpose very well.  

You very intentionally made Dillon Samreen – the ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) – the catalyst for your story.  (And you were just as intentional that the bully would be another Indian or South Asian boy.) Tell us how you realized that Dillon so obviously made sense as a catalyst for Ravi? 

This is such a great question. I am so proud that there are two brown characters who play a pivotal role in the story and making Dillon Samreen the bully was the surprising element in the story. It is often assumed that all people of Indian ethnicity are the same, but India is a very diverse country, with people who speak different languages, follow different customs and traditions, practice different religions, eat different kinds of food, dress differently, etc. Also, Dillon is Indian American, unlike Ravi who is an Indian immigrant. Culturally, there are differences there, too, which leads to tension between the two of them. So, while there are some similarities between the people of Indian ethnicity, putting them in one box does not consider the diversity of the Indian diaspora. My hope was to portray this diversity through Dillon and Ravi.  

Ravi has to learn how to adapt to two very different new teachers in Save Me a Seat – his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Beam, and the resource teacher, Miss Frost – teachers who understand (or don’t understand!) him very differently. Is this an American thing – or a universal education thing – that kids have to learn how to adapt to their teachers?  Is there anything else you want to tell us about your inspiration for creating these different personalities for Ravi to react and adapt to? Do you have any advice for teachers on how to be more perceptive, like Miss Frost? 

I think the expectation that kids should adapt to teachers, and not the other way round is a universal education thing. As a teacher I have learned that it is important to be observant, listen and learn from children about their personalities, their cultures, their families, their interests, and passions. Like Mrs. Beam, I too have jumped to conclusions about kids based on one interaction, without really taking time to get to know them. As I learned about the impact of my own implicit bias on my opinions and actions toward those who are different from me, I realized that the conclusions I draw in the first instant are often based on stereotypes and generalizations. So now I try to catch myself from forming opinions without deeper thought and observation. It is a lot of hard work, but I think one that Miss Frost is more trained to do as a Resource room teacher. Both these personalities, Mrs. Beam and Miss Frost, show us how teachers can play such an important role in a child’s experience at school, and spotlight the work involved in making sure that every child is seen, heard, and valued at school. I’m not sure if I answered your question, but adaptation is a two way street and very often the burden of adapting is put on the child, which can be very heavy and difficult.  

Save Me a Seat has always struck me as a great book about understanding – about two boys who come to see and understand each other differently – one of the principal functions of children’s literature.  (All literature, actually.)  You have said as much in other forums, highlighting what you called “learned empathy” – the importance of windows and sliding doors, stories that can demonstrate and perhaps even teach empathy, caring, compassion, and showing how to be a citizen of the world. This strikes me as more important than ever right now – a valuable purpose of reading books (as many as possible) to help achieve this goal that never goes away. Six years after the publication of Save Me a Seat, do you have any new insights (or anecdotes) to share on this critical purpose? 

Save Me a Seat has been used to facilitate conversations around bias, bullying, styles of parenting, culture, food, and so much more. I remember vividly, a father who had accompanied his daughter to a book signing in Providence, Rhode Island. He said that he was so much more aware of what he says and does as a father, a husband, a colleague, and a citizen after reading the book. He felt Joe’s father and Mrs. Beam had taught him that sometimes our actions and words, ones we do and say unknowingly can affect others.  

During school visits, countless children talk about their names and how they feel so sad and mad when their names are mispronounced. A parent wrote to me, “You know, my child never dared to correct her peers or teachers, when they pronounced her name not in the proper way, and she even adopted the wrong pronunciation of her own name in the school setting. But your book made her feel confident to say, no, my name sounds like this. For that we are grateful.” 

The book has been used by many schools and districts as a One School, One Book read. In one such school in NJ, as a culminating activity lunchtime was organized differently. Each child was assigned a seat next to someone they didn’t know well and were given conversation starters to get to know each other. This was in line with the theme of the book; a new friend could be sitting next to you.  

I have been absolutely moved by the way the book has facilitated all this, giving courage to children, changing adults and children alike and moving entire schools to take the message to heart and act on it. In my wildest dreams I did not expect that books can have this power, the power to heal, to comfort, to provide hope and to teach people to care and be more empathetic and aware. Knowing that readers have been changed in some way makes my heart soar, for isn’t that the purpose of writing? 

It’s a pretty classic trope for kids in school stories to resent their parents asking too many questions about their life at school. (“I decided not to tell them about the chicken fingers.”) You made things awfully interesting for Ravi by giving him four people to be curious about his experience and progress and school. As it turns out, his Perippa turns out to be his most constructive ally. Can you tell us anything about how you differentiated Ravi’s home life to make him seem supported but also need to figure things out on his own? 

Ravi did have four people hovering over him all the time, with Amma and Perimma interested in his every move. While it all comes from a place of love, and is so supportive on one hand, on the other it can be suffocating, too. Ravi locks himself in the bathroom when his mother’s questions feel like the rotating end of an electric drill. He does not tell his mother or grandmother about what is going on at school, because then that would become their new project. All he wants is space to figure things out for himself, and that’s what he does with a little help from his Perippa. Sometimes the notion of support can be overbearing, especially around adults who are anxious for their children to be successful from the get-go. Children need space to make mistakes and figure things out themselves, but of course as a mother I can say firsthand, it is easier said than done. Watching your child fail is extremely painful and I am very much like Amma in the story and am still learning about what it means to be constructively supportive.  

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