A few months ago, Susie read Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story the fabulous new book by Nora Raleigh Baskin about the events surrounding 9/11/ Being profoundly touched, Susie exclaimed, "Justin you HAVE TO READ this new book!" Susie and Justin were then in communication with Nora on Twitter professing the brilliance of her book. (People, you really need to get your hands on this book if you don't already have it..
As many times happens, there were the proverbial, “Let’s get together” exchanges between Justin, Susie and Nora. Because Susie helps Justin be more brave and Justin helps Susie be more brave, the meeting actually came to fruition. (Nora is brave all by herself!)
Scene: Upper West Side of Manhattan, Susie and Justin giddy with excitement for meeting this amazing author. “Where should we sit?” “Will we recognize her?” “How crazy are we for doing this???”
Hugs all around.
The first part of lunch was getting to know each other...Nora has the cilantro hating gene...who knew there was such a thing? (Read more here: Science Explains Why Cilantro Tastes Like Soap For Certain People ) We told her about our new project around how to help students shine (Let Me Shine ). Quickly, our conversation went from the surface, cilantro hating, to a deep revelation of feelings and experiences.
Nora showed her vulnerability with grace and beauty. Her mother had committed suicide early in Nora’s life, her father had abandoned her and by the 6th grade, Nora was a self described “mess.” She skipped school, smoked and was frequently suspended. But, she related how one teacher, Mr. Thomsen, saved her life. He valued her writing and ultimately helped her feel like she “existed.” This story fell into the hearts of Justin and Susie. It had them thinking for days. This important story of Nora’s ultimately found its place in their presentation at the ILA conference.
It was Nora’s humanness that hit home and so deeply affected Justin and Susie. A few days later, we voxed Nora and told her that THAT STORY and her relation to the character, Sergio, in her book Nine, Ten was what impacted us most deeply. Sure her research around this topic of 9/11 was impressive, but in the end, her humanness was what spoke to our core. We think that Nora felt heard in our conversation, not because of us, but just because of the power of listening and understanding the backstory.
Nora now is onto a new adventure that we will let her tell you about, but we firmly believe that actually, all humans deserve the opportunity to shine, not just children. Nora helped us see this. Human is human, story is story and we need to bridge that gap so that more humans understand each other. We are honored that Nora is in our life and she is helping create that bridge of understanding. Her work is so deeply important.
We asked Nora to write about this meeting without seeing our reflection. Here is what she wrote:
My first meeting with Susie Rolander and Justin Dolcimascolo started out with me thinking, I’m going to force myself to do this. I’m going to say “yes.” I’m going to go into New York City and meet two people I don’t know.
That might not seem like a big deal to most, but for me it was. First I had to overcome my general anxiety about leaving my house, my dog, my cat, my computer; I had to figure out driving directions and grapple with the question of where I was going to find parking. Then I had to convince myself it might even be a good experience. Worse case scenario, I told myself, it’s uncomfortable, I muster up some fake enthusiasm, and I drive home. In reality, nothing could have been further from what actually happened.
To begin with, I found a parking spot right on Riverside Drive, minutes from the Mexican restaurant where we had planned to meet. Things were looking up already.
Next, I walked into the restaurant and immediately recognized Susie’s huge smile from her Twitter profile. There was no mistaking it. And Justin, equally as warm, was right beside her. The rest is a happy blur.
To backtrack, I first noticed Susie on Twitter and offered to send her an advanced reading copy of my newest book, Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story. Weeks later I saw her review of the book and I was floored by it. Sure, she liked the book and that was nice. But it was beautifully written, and also deeply personal and honest. She then shared the book with her friend Justin and he, too, wrote to me on Twitter and told me how much he liked it. I wrote to them both to thank them and Susie wrote back with the standard: “If you’re ever in NYC we should meet.”
“Oh, yes,” I wrote. “That would be great.”
At the time I thought that would be the end of it, right there. But then Susie wrote back again: “Justin is coming into the city this week. We’d love to get together.“
It so not like me to agree to agree to something like that. I am a total homebody and I am nervous about meeting new people. I find no joy in small talk, and I don’t know how to make it. But I agreed. Nervously.
I knew I had made the right decision as soon as we started looking at the menus and I mentioned how much I hate cilantro. “I’m even a member of the I Hate Cilantro Facebook page,” I told them.
Justin immediately pulled up the group on his phone and read one of their I-hate-Cilantro haikus out loud. But I knew I had found real friends when Susie said she felt terrible for having chosen a Mexican restaurant—I assured her I actually love Mexican food—and Justin asked if I would mind if he had cilantro with his lunch. I have a radar for kind people, empathetic people, people who will look out for you. I had just found two.
Over the next two hours, I learned about how they met. Never having before seen each other in person, Susie and one of her colleagues got on a plane and spent a week in Justin’s Kentucky home. (He is originally from central Jersey. The central part is important!) I learned about Susie’s three children, her supportive husband, and her mom, a teacher, too. And most importantly, I heard about the project they are working on together, Let Me Shine (2TLMShine.com). They could hardly contain their passion for their students, for teaching, for their love of literature and the importance they place on being one’s true self.
So now that I learned their stories, I had to tell them my story, right? I mean I had to. The story about my sixth grade English teacher, Mr. Thomsen, who saved my life. During a very difficult time in my life he gave me an identity other than “unlovable, unwanted, a burden.” He read my homework out loud, fictional story that I had written. And because of that simple act, he gave me a new name to call myself: Writer.
Outside on the sidewalk, before we said goodbye, I handed over my phone to Justin so he could download Voxer for me, and we’ve been Voxing a lot lately. They also impelled me to drag out a memoir that I had written four years ago (about my childhood and how I became a writer), and with their love and support I am considering trying to publish it. Right now, the draft is in their hands and I trust them completely.
I just do.
What struck us about these two accounts were the similarities
- Cilantro...ok, that is not the deep part, but there was a sense of kindness that came through in that discussion.
- Knowing the “back story"
- Finding people's strengths
- Believing that people can shine.
As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic,