Arnisha, a student I taught last year, sauntered over to me this morning, a half-frown on her face. She called me by my last name, ran up to me, and hugged me. Backing away, she said, "Did you hear my friend died?"
At first, I was surprised and didn't know what she was talking about, but something about the amount of eye contact she made with me made me realize that the person she was talking about had as much to do with me as he did to her.
"Yes," I said. "I heard. Isn't that sad?"
The colleague standing next to me was confused and concerned. "Who passed away?," he asked.
Arnisha fielded this one. "August Wilson died yesterday."
He had not heard.
And that's how the day went today at school. Have you heard the news? Where did you hear it? Have you seen the NY Times full page story yet? Yes, yes, that's sad. But at least he got his ten-play cycle done in time.
I asked one woman to read an announcement about his death over the PA, thinking for sure that she had heard already. It was 2pm by then. She hadn't. When I told her, she was thunderstruck in the hallway, and her voice broke when she told me about the time she met him, and how he signed her copy of Joe Turner's Come and Gone with the note, "(Melissa), You are a Shining Woman." That's a paraphrase from the most famous line of that play.
Our school loves August Wilson. We used to have every kid read a play by him every year, this four-year study culminating in a senior research project that links the four pieces together. That has since been abandoned in favor of a bit more Shakespeare and a bit more prose, but since I've been there, I know that Jitney, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and Two Trains Running have all been taught. But, more than any other is Fences. Every kid at our school reads that one; it's practically a graduation requirement. Most kids in the country read it at some point, I'd say. It's Wilson's most famous - and I'd argue best - work.
It's about fathers and sons, strong women, baseball, and the Negro Leagues. How could I not love that play?
In person, Wilson was just as poetic and musical as his play's dialogue were. His plays were magical. We've lost a great one.
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