DeKALB – Thirteen-year-old Brayten Wilkerson's interpretation of a 34-year-old novel was powerful enough to bring the author to Clinton Rosette Middle School for a series of assemblies on the issue of race.
In his debut novel, "Running Loose," author Chris Crutcher tells the story of Louie Banks – a high school senior with a beautiful girlfriend and a starter on the football team. Things turn tumultuous, however, when Banks is forced to confront his ideas of sportsmanship and grieve like an adult.
In an attempt to encourage Wilkerson not only to read, but really to enjoy it, seventh-grade language arts teacher Jaquelynn Zatloukal recommended "Running Loose," and Wilkerson devoured it – secretly reading it during class, and staying up past his bedtime.
But it wasn't the stress of Crutcher's fictional world that prompted Wilkerson to email the author. Rather, it was the all-too-real use of a racial slur that stirred questions of tolerance in Wilkerson's mind.
"I was reading it, and I got a little agitated; and I kept on reading, and I had to stop because I felt so angry," Wilkerson said. "I gave [my teacher] the book back, and I was like, 'Can I please email the author or something? Because I just want to talk to him and ask him a question.’ ”
And, just like that, what began as light reading between lessons quickly evolved into public conversation about understanding.
Crutcher spoke out on social media after responding to the student's email. Eventually, the author would volunteer to fly from Washington state to DeKalb to meet the student face-to-face and speak with his peers.
"Not all my emails can be considered 'fan' mail," Crutcher posted on Facebook. "Yesterday, I received one from a seventh grade African-American student who is reading my first novel, RUNNING LOOSE. He told me I seem to have a problem with the ‘n’ word (meaning I was creating a problem by using it). He wanted to know if I’m a racist. He also politely asked me to stop writing books like that."
Having assumed Wilkerson emailed Crutcher a generic set of questions about the book, seventh-grade language arts teacher Zatloukal was surprised to learn that the student who she never could get to enjoy books not only was avidly reading one, but also taking a personal interest in the writer's thought process.
"I was very impressed with him and the fact that he did that all on his own and wasn’t prompted by me or his mom," Zatloukal said. "He's really kind of taken it upon himself to kind of fight for what he believes is right, which is really good."
During three assemblies at the middle school Monday, Crutcher relayed to groups of students what he wanted to get across to Brayten Wilkerson.
"You’re right, I do have a problem with that word, but it might not be the problem you think, so hear me out and you can decide. I can’t honor your request to stop writing books like RUNNING LOOSE, because I’ve written 14 more, and I’m sure I used the word in more than half of them," he wrote in a response to Wilkerson's email.
"I have ONLY used it to expose racism and racists; in other words, the only characters who use that word in my stories are bigots. I can’t expose hate without showing hate. I can’t expose ignorance without showing ignorance."
This satisfied Wilkerson. It was all he had wanted to know.
"He told me in the car last night how, 'I want the class of today to be. I want them to verbally tell the truth of what happened back in that time,’ ” Wilkerson said. "He verbally told the truth of what happened back then. He did. He did a really good job of it. It’s not like he’s just putting in words."
Wilkerson's mom, Karen Wilkerson, and Crutcher both agreed that Clinton Rosette deserved credit for embracing the student's curiosity.
"To raise a young black male in today’s society is very hard because there’s so many negative images," Karen Wilkerson said. "His interactions and emails with Chris showed him that not everybody is what society portrays. Him asking him directly if [Crutcher] was a racist and then having a conversation about it – he got to have a conversation and form his own opinion."
The teenager's special interest in a book more than twice his age inspired one of the most significant conversations Crutcher has had with a reader, the author said.
"What Brayten took out of my book made it bigger and deeper than what was in my head," Crutcher said.