Monday, October 31, 2016

Meet the Luminous and Talented Tonya Blue

I first met author Tonya Blue during a spring trip to When Words Count, one of two visits in 2016 to the luxury retreat center for writers in Vermont. I was instantly impressed by both the writer and the writing. Tonya had penned a fantastic book based upon her experience as a teacher in the inner city schools -- frank, unapologetic, gorgeously written. Adding to that late March visit was the added bonus of enjoying Tonya perform the work during the nightly sharing of writing in the center's Gertrude Stein Salon -- Tonya planned to take I am the Children I Teach to the stage in Baltimore in August of 2016, and blew us away with her excerpts, becoming the book's four lead characters -- teachers Ms. Brown, Ms. Wilson, and students The Boy and Red-haired Girl.

It was my pleasure to sit down and talk craft with the fabulous Tonya.

I loved I am the Children I Teach! In Vermont, you told me the back-story as to why you wrote this book, with this focus (partly through the lens of a teacher who doesn’t exactly live for her students). Can you share that story here?
I believe a lot of people think teaching is easy. It’s not. I thought that too, and that was one of the reason I applied for the job.  I thought it was easy enough to teach and go home with summers and weekends off. Snow days -- yes! Holiday breaks -- awesome! Wrong. Teaching is not easy. You are never told the true experiences you may face in a classroom or the challenges our students (mostly inner city youth) encounter. I am the Children I Teach looks at the side of teaching most don’t like to discuss, the issues that can cause a ripple effect in your classroom climate. We educators are given one of the biggest responsibilities and that is to help mold a child so they can become a successful adult. Many of my students don’t get a chance to just be children at home because of other responsibilities, exposure to adult issues, or due to their environment. The last thing I expected was a battle for control or a fight to show a child you care and to get them to believe you or a child who can’t read and doesn’t want to learn how so they refuse to do the work. We as educators have to fight for the trust of our students before we can teach them the content.  It’s a hard battle and you have to be strong to stay the course. 

(Tonya on stage as "Ms. Brown")
I wrote the book after going to a few professional developments that did not reflect my teaching experiences. No one told me about these challenges, they just told me about lesson planning and grading, but not how to build relationships with children, lay aside my own biases, and embrace them anyway. That’s hard when you are taught to respect your elders and everything else falls into place. Our classrooms can be a place of learning and one of a battle for control at the same time. There is no class or course for building a relationship before you teach your content. That is on the job training and it is what makes some leave the profession. You get tired of fighting just to help and to show you care. I wrote about my experience and of those who I know. I wanted to tell the truth of what is behind the eyes of a child and an adult (our own pain, experience and desires) when we enter the classroom. To shine a light on the real experience of teaching in an inner city school, the baggage we all bring into the classroom, and to make educators reflect on our own childhood and how our childhood manifests through our relationships with certain students.

In August, you did a staged performance of the book. Please tell us about that -- the genesis, the challenges, the results!
I had started writing my series Famine and I just couldn’t ‘get into it. I felt like I am the Children I Teach wasn’t done. I had copies in my basement and I kept wondering why. I realized I wasn’t finished with those characters yet. I always loved theater and did a few shows in college and in my 30s. I have even done stand-up comedy a few times. I live for the stage and I knew I wanted to write a script for the book, but I wasn’t sure of how. I sat at my desk and tried to just cut and paste pages from the book, no go! As soon I let go of what I thought it should be, it became what it was meant to be. I thought ok now what. Do auditions and see if I can rent a space, but in reality I wasn’t sure if anyone would know them like me. Who would evoke the emotion that I carried for five years for each character. So, I thought I can do it. I know them, because I am them. I am each character that I wrote about. So it began. I knew of a young lady, Naelis Erving, who produced and directed For Colored Girls and we had a reading at Panera. Her excitement and belief in me was enough for me to go forward. A two-woman team put on a one-woman show in three weeks. I can truly say I am very proud of our work. She pushed me to new levels and this process became therapeutic for me. I told of my own story of abuse and pain and was released from it as soon as I hit the stage. We sold out our first night and were only seven seats away from selling out our second night. I had finally lived a dream, my characters had come to the stage and I haven’t been the same since.

(Tonya as The Boy)
I loved hearing you read from the book in person -- so powerful! How did that translate on stage to a bigger audience?
There are four main characters in the novel, Ms. Brown, The Boy, Redhead Freckle Faced Girl and Ms. Wilson. I played Ms. Brown, The Boy and Redhead and brought Ms. Wilson to life through audio and pictures. My stage was an actual classroom. My audience sat in student’s chairs and they received a waiver for being a part of a classroom discussion/scene. I made the play interactive so the audience felt like students from the time they entered the school. They had to respond to parts of the play and were held accountable for their “homework.” I believe the classroom was the perfect stage, my audience felt included and the smell, set up and decor of the classroom was the icing on the cake.

Tell us about your creative process -- where you write, how you write, and what subjects call to your creativity.
When I write I like it quiet. I sit down at my desk, pray and then there are a few quotes I have hanging from my desk that I read aloud. I am surrounded by things and smells that make me smile. My vision board is in front of me, my grandmother’s teapot, writing utensils I have collected from my travels, a picture or my husband and parents. I burn scented oils and turn on my small desk light and go. Whenever I hit a roadblock, I do the Cupid shuffle (line dance) or play a spiritual/ uplifting song (Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder, India Erie, Marvin Sapp), dance my heart out and get back to it. If I can’t write at home, Barnes and Noble is a wonderful muse for me or just to sit outside and listen to nature.

(Tonya as the Red-haired Girl)
What are you presently working on?
I am working on a few things. Presently I am tweaking the show to go on tour next year hopefully to hit three-four cities next summer. I am working on a devotional for writers and runners, my Famine novel series and a workbook as a supplement for the novel for a series of professional development for new and veteran teachers that I would hope to do for the 2017-18 school year.

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