By Isabel Ruehl
“I never believed I could be a writer,” Jennifer De Leon told the Upper School (US) as the featured speaker during a mandatory X block assembly on October 6. “Today, I’d like to tell you a couple of stories. For me, they’re more important than statistics, than facts—they’re narratives that change the way I think about myself and my community.”
Spanish Teachers Rosario Sánchez Gómez and Molly King worked closely with Director of Multicultural Services Lewis Bryant to invite Ms. De Leon to speak to the school, an event prompted by the World Languages Department’s wish to host a meaningful Hispanic Heritage Month assembly. Ms. Sánchez Gómez and Ms. King were discussing possible candidates in the faculty lounge while flipping through The Boston Globe when they came across an article about Ms. De Leon and recognized an opportunity.
“We thought she would be a fresh perspective on the idea that no matter where you come from, if you work hard and follow your dreams—even while you are finding your own narrative—you can be successful,” Ms. Sánchez Gómez said.
Ms. De Leon garnered the attention of The Boston Globe and of National Public Radio this year when her short story, “Home Movie,” was selected as the Boston Book Festival’s One City One Story read for 2015 and when, shortly afterward, she became the Boston Public Library’s Children’s Writer-in-Residence. A junior high English teacher at Boston Teachers Union School in Jamaica Plain and part-time teacher at GrubStreet, she is also the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education—a 2014 compilation of personal essays she said she wished were available for her in college—and a working novelist, focusing primarily on her young adult novel Volar about a 14-year-old Latina girl growing up in a Boston suburb. She hopes to publish In The Country of Memory, a novel about her Guatemalan parents, this fall.
Ms. De Leon grew up in Framingham with two Guatemalan parents whose dream was to see their three daughters go to college. The value they placed on academics combined with their natural gift of storytelling characterized her childhood, Ms. De Leon said, reflecting, “I was always thinking in story.” Still, she said she never had the nerve to try to record any until she was much older. As a child, she did not know a single person who had attended college.
Students Honoring All Differences and Embracing Similarities (SHADES) Co-President Eptisam Kassim ’17 said she related to Ms. De Leon as a first-generation college-bound student.
“I went to small public schools all my life, and coming to BB&N was so different,” she said. “I had the opportunity to do things I could have never done before. I also got to experience things my parents definitely hadn’t, and I now realize I have educational privilege, as does every other student at this school. And with this privilege comes a lot of power.”
Ms. De Leon said it was precisely her goal to bring this awareness and confidence to the student body through conversation.
“If I’d grown up thinking to myself, ‘I’m the daughter of poor Hispanic parents who rarely make it to parent-teacher conferences, so why should I go to college?’ things would have been very different,” she reflected. “I thought instead, ‘If I’m the daughter of hardworking people in the U.S., the sky’s the limit.’ That made all the difference.”
Aside from ambition and the importance of taking active, vocal roles in the community, Ms. De Leon’s other main topics included self-confidence and motivation—two skills she said are essential to writing and, ultimately, to success. She recounted numerous anecdotes illustrating these themes. In one, she raised money for a trip to Zimbabwe when she was just 16.
“I knew my parents wouldn’t let me go to sleepovers, let alone travel across the globe, but I also knew this would have to turn into a story I’d be proud of, so I fundraised and paid my way,” Ms. De Leon said, adding that this single feat allowed her to discover her love of travel. When she attended Connecticut College two years later, she studied abroad in 12 different countries—among them Costa Rica, Nigeria, and Vietnam—thanks to the taste for travel she earned herself in high school.
She also spoke about a camping orientation trip in college and how it felt to be suddenly and completely surrounded by privileged students for whom private education—and the “bright red North Face gear everyone but me seemed to own,” she laughed—were the norm.
Aidan Park ’18 said Ms. De Leon’s experience paralleled his own at Bivouac.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be walking around in North Face or any high-tech gear,” he said. “My parents make the sacrifices to make things work monetarily. Money is just always a concern, and for lots of BB&N students, this clearly isn’t the case. I can tell you that my class tends to be more of a problem than my race.”
Ms. De Leon said she was not surprised that her story sparked reactions similar to her own in students of different backgrounds. This connection inspired a quality of closeness that Ms. King said resonated with the student body.
“I love her message about the importance of remembering and honoring your roots, be they familial, linguistic, or cultural,” she said, “but I especially loved what she emphasized in her talk: that we as individuals are in charge of our own story and have the power to change our narrative.”
Ms. De Leon closed her talk by thanking the audience for being so receptive to her words.
“It’s such a pleasure to tell a story and see people connecting,” she said. “I feel a huge amount of responsibility, and part of that is coming to speak in schools, but part of it is getting out stories and narratives that haven’t been told. And that’s not easy. All writers are taking risks constantly, and we’re vulnerable.”
Flavia Roscini ’16 said she felt this connection with Ms. De Leon because her own integration into American schools, after five years at the British School of Boston and a childhood in London and Italy, was not as smooth as she would have liked.
“I was suddenly exposed to a completely new school, new people, and new culture,” Flavia said. “When Ms. De Leon shared her story, I could relate with her words because I think it’s incredibly important to hold onto your roots, cherish your background, and share your culture.”
French Teacher Candie Sanderson—who spoke alongside Eptisam, Sihak Lee ’16, Damon Levin ’16, and Mr. Bryant at the school’s first community building assembly on November 2—agreed that only this sharing can make everyone in a community feel represented.
“That is why I talked about my mother’s struggles as a Vietnamese immigrant in France and about [my] being the first one in my family to attend college,” she said. “We have many privileges here at BB&N, and it’s important we remember the stories of those who may not have had all the privileges we do.”