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The Courage and Risk of Self-Discovery 

Kayla Aldrich 

Kids are constantly adding pieces to the rose window that will define them for the rest of their lives: likes, dislikes, hobbies, personality, and so forth. A lot of times, kids are set on a path and expected to follow it, but when they look around their crowded lunchroom and find their peers sticking to the status quo, it can be hard to cut their own path in this world. To be authentic, to find a dream and follow it in spite of what others have to say, is perhaps the bravest thing one can do. 

Let’s spend a moment and explore three titles that highlight the significance of being courageous, and what it means to take risks in discovering who you truly are.

Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiography-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, offers a deeply vulnerable glimpse into the spirit of a young poet who seems predestined to become a writer. Even as a child newly moved to Brooklyn, Woodson understood that: 

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For the majority of her youth, Woodson stood in the vast shadow of Odella, her brilliant older sister. Odella excelled in her studies, described as “gifted,” “outstanding,” and “brilliant” – her bright light often dimming the inner glow of her younger sister. In contrast, Woodson found herself battling a learning challenge that twisted words on the page and left her struggling to keep up in her classes. But words proved to be kinder than Woodson could’ve ever anticipated, because when she took the time to be patient with herself, “the words come pouring out of me.” 

Trying to gain her family’s approval to become a writer proved to be a steeper challenge than Woodson anticipated. Her love for writing and story-telling may have been deeply ingrained, but that doesn’t stop naysaying relatives: 

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Does this negativity prevent Woodson from pursuing her love of writing? Nope! Woodson knows that the tales spinning through her head are too important to remain internalized and understands that she was “a long time coming.” Never doubting her gifts – though her “voice shakes” the first time she recites one of her poems to her class – Woodson comes into herself, blooming brilliantly and becoming one of the strongest literary voices of this generation.  

 For the unforgettable cast of Jason Reynolds’ Look Both Ways, students in Ms. Broome’s class have an important assignment: “to imagine ourselves as objects. Any object we want.” And that task sends kids casting about for who they are, and what they might become. We meet the Low Cuts with their hearts of gold, a boy with lips that sting thanks to an accidental VapoRub application, and a pair of maybe-maybe-not water bear boogers.  

There’s also Ty Carson, whose life has been turned upside down thanks to an exchange at the water fountain: “Ty had been kissed. By a boy… On his cheek.” He may have been surprised by such a sudden exchange, but he wasn’t mad – and that is what he found most surprising. And though Slim is the one who met Ty at the water fountain, it’s Slim who turns the rumor mill around to attack Ty. And that doesn’t sit right with Ty’s best friend, Bryson, who arrives at the lunch table to an awful scene: “They were calling Ty all kinds of names. Names that bite. Names that stick and mark. Names that catch fire and leave a burnt smell in the air.” 

Bryson doesn’t see anything wrong with boys who like other boys, and he doesn’t understand why the other kids are making such a big deal about some incidental contact while hydrating. So when Bryson smacks a kiss to Ty’s cheek to show it’s no big deal,   Bryson doesn’t consider that “attention would be paid.”  

But that attention comes in the form of a major beat-down after the last bell rings. 

Though feeling guilty that Bryson got himself hurt, Ty also finds himself touched by this display of loyalty and friendship. When Ty rushes out of school, he “jammed his hand into [a] bush and snatched a fistful of roses” and brings them to Bryson’s house under the guise of playing video games. Bryson invites Ty in, demanding nothing but companionship and some Call of Duty. 

It’s such a simple thing, this blanket acceptance from Bryson. And Bryson giving Ty the space, company, and reassurance to do just that is no small feat, either. However, it is such a monumental display of courage for Ty in the face of such viciousness from his classmates – the courage to risk his friendship to offer up a fistful of roses in thanks. There’s no telling what the future holds for Ty and his identity, but there’s no doubt he’ll always have Bryson in his corner. 

In Lesa Cline-Ransome’s gorgeous novel, Finding Langston, the risk that comes with self-discovery is more subtle. Langston has been transplanted from the home he’s known all his life and finds Chicago quite different from Alabama: there’s no red clay, there’s no Grandma, and there’s no Mama, who’s loss Langston feels constantly. It’s hard enough to discover yourself in normal circumstances, but Langston can’t even find his way home from school. While fleeing from a pack of bullies, though, Langston stumbles upon an unanticipated safe haven at the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library. He’s never seen so many books all in one place. Even better, he’s never encountered another person with his name before, especially not a famous Black poet. Falling heart first into the work of Langston Hughes is pivotal for Langston. It “feels like reading words from [his] own heart.” For a boy that’s moved to a new, strange city, something as small as “a book in the library about magnolia trees, just like the ones back home” becomes a vital crutch for Langston to lean on. 

The thing is, it’s a crutch Langston hides from his father at every turn. He even tells his father he’s playing with a non-existent group of boys rather than admit he’s frequenting the library. 

But why? 

The memories Langston has of his mother often feel slippery and fleeting, so far from him most days, it’s as if his Mama lived in a different decade. Homesickness has become so deeply ingrained in Langston, it’s like he’s gained another rib. Expressing all of this openly doesn’t feel like an option, not when Langston’s father is so loathe to express his own grief while determined to give Langston a better life in Chicago. Poetry, for Langston, is something that he wants to keep “all to [him]self.” It’s an outlet for his grief and a window back to all he was made to leave behind. As Langston tells himself: 

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Carrying such huge, heavy feelings alone is no way to live, though, and after one of the books is damaged by another student, Langston understands that he has no choice but to lay out and share this precious secret he’s spent weeks protecting. 

It takes Langston sharing a poem aloud for Langston’s father to finally reveal that Mama loved to read, as well. Learning that the very same words that have brought Langston back to himself once meant as much to his Mama is incredibly affirming for Langston. There’s an undeniable sense of security in the knowledge that, in being a reader, a thinker, and possibly even a poet in the making, Langston is his mother’s son and will carry on her memory even though she’s somewhere he can’t reach. And while we don’t get to see them together in the library’s stacks, readers can hope that while Langston’s “Mama led [him] to this library” the same higher power might move Langston’s father to better appreciate Langston and his love for poetry, too. 

As William Faulkner once said, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” Sure, taking a leap of faith can be incredibly daunting, but a mere second of courage can lend itself to a lifetime of living authentically. So what do you dream of? What is lingering on the end of your tongue that you can never quite bring yourself to say or do? There’s no need to rush or fret if you don’t have all the answers, not when you’ve got three brilliant titles to inspire you along the way. 

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