HARRISONBURG — The energy in the auditorium of Harrisonburg High School was palpable Wednesday afternoon.
As a guitar gently and sometimes jauntily played in the background, Kwame Alexander lobbed up prompts for a couple of hundred middle school students in a question and response format as he shared the story of his life.
As Alexander told the inspiring story of how he went from aspiring poet to Newbery Award winner, he kept his young audience engaged by making them part of the story.
“OK, so he had...” Alexander would drift off while mimicking the look of dreadlocks with his hands.
“Dreads!” the students would answer. Together they told the story of how Alexander was rejected almost 20 times by publishing companies after writing his first book, “The Crossover.”
Told in the form of poetry, “The Crossover” is the story of twin brothers Josh, who loves basketball, and Jordan Bell as they learn to accept change, responsibility, and loss in their middle school years.
As Alexander told this story to a group of Skyline and Thomas Harrison middle school students Wednesday, he got to the crux of his message — as a self-described “say yes” person confronted with 20 people telling him no, what did Alexander do?
“Published the book yourself?” asked one girl timidly. And that’s exactly what he did.
His self-published debut novel eventually got the attention of a publishing company in Boston, and it soon blew up. Alexander remembers the morning he got the call from the Association for Library Service to Children at 7 a.m. — and how he had been up all night watching reruns of the “Walking Dead” and writing new poems — telling him he was the 2015 Newbery Award winner.
“What if I had given up after the first no? After the fourth? Or the 19th?” he asked the students. “That was the day that changed my life.”
Now, four years later, Alexander is a New York Times bestselling author of 32 books, and has traveled all over the world sharing his message of perseverance with students, along with his best friend and guitar accompanist, Randy Preston.
Alexander has given this presentation more than 2,000 times over the past four years.
“I want them to leave here engaged in literature and language,” Alexander said. “I want them to pick up my book but also pick up any book.”
He said the buzz from students on Wednesday was “off the chains” and “incredible.”
Harrisonburg Schools Superintendent Michael Richards met Alexander while still living and working in Northern Virginia. He had taken his daughter to an event at a library to promote Alexander’s latest book.
“It was so empowering I went up to him and asked if he would come to Harrisonburg,” Richards said.
During his first year as superintendent, Richards only has one academic initiative, which centers around the idea of “the world is my classroom.” It helps empower teachers to think beyond the classroom by providing resources and events such as Wednesday’s with Alexander.
“When you look at his books you see our kids,” Richards said. “We have a very diverse school division and want to seek out people who are diverse as well.”
During his time as superintendent, it has become clear to Richards that this type of opportunity has been needed for awhile, he said, but that teachers can feel limited by standardized testing and that it’s the responsibility of the division to provide teachers what they need.
“It’s about engagement and deeper learning that students will retain and use,” he said.