R. Dwayne Betts @ Calvin Coolidge High School

Photo by Melanie Agnew

It was homecoming at Calvin Coolidge high school. The students in Ms. Berke’s fourth period class were loose and excited, draped in school colors, and Reginald Dwayne Betts wanted to talk about hospital rooms.

“My wife just had a baby so I’ve been in the hospital for the last few days, thinking about hospital rooms,” Betts told the class. “They can be a lot like prison, actually.” And he would know. Currently on hiatus from a prestigious Radcliffe fellowship at Harvard University to take part in our Reading Series, Betts–the author of a book of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, and a memoir, A Question of Freedom–has been artfully dissecting to American prison experience since his own release from the Fairfax County Jail in 2005 (read more here, here, and especially here). And it’s that dissection that Ms. Berke’s students have been studying for the last few weeks, paging through his memoir, ready now with pointed questions on small sheets of paper that range from How do you feel about your father? to Could you ever go back to prison?

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James McBride @ Calvin Coolidge High

Greetings all. I’m Max, and I’m an intern for PEN/Faulkner, helping out behind the curtain. This week, a number of authors appeared at our annual Gala, held to benefit both our Writers in Schools program and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The event featured twelve different authors tasked with reading on the same theme (“Writing on the Wall,”) and among those authors was memoirist and musician James McBride.

McBride penned the bestselling memoir The Color of Water, a book read and enjoyed by kids in the classrooms of our own fair city, as well as in a multitude of others the world over. And since it’s a tradition for our Gala readers to visit DC high schools during their stays here, I accompanied Mr. McBride to Mr. Igoudjil’s English class at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School last week to observe the phenomena for myself. 

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