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My Teacher James Foley and The Book That Changed My Life
When the news broke earlier this year that an American journalist named James Foley had been killed, I paused. I felt my stomach turn from the heinousness of the act, not yet realizing that I knew James. I watched the news montages on this great man and journalist. He looked familiar, but he was in the media, so obviously I had seen his face, I thought. Then I saw John and Diane Foley speak about Jim's death, and the person they described seemed more familiar than ever. That day, I got an email from Terri Slater, the former assistant director of the University of Massachusetts Upward Bound program, in which I had been a student many years ago, with the subject line: "Jim Foley."
In that instant, it clicked, all the connections were made. I knew before I opened the email. I wrote Terri back, expressed my disbelief, and explained what Jim had given me so many years ago.
In the summer of 2000, Jim Foley was my favorite teacher. I received an A in his class. He taught me history, government, and social studies like I had never been taught before. He infused our lives, beliefs, politics, sociology, and economics in a two-month, rigorous summer course. The class was interesting and interactive, but my fondest memory of Mr. Foley was not in the classroom.
Upward Bound had mandatory study halls for the students when teachers would come around and help us with our homework. Jim read one of my writing assignments. He liked it, gave me some feedback, and said "Do you know Junot Diaz?"
"Who's that?" I replied, thinking he was talking about another student in the program, not a writer. "You need to read his work,” Jim said. “He's Dominican American, like you, and a great writer."
I told him that I would look for the book once I got back home. I probably wouldn't, even though the idea of a Dominican-American author piqued my interest. Jim must have known that. The next day he brought me his copy of Drown, Junot Diaz's short story collection. "Read it, I think you will relate to the characters and the writing." He was right. I devoured the book within a week. It was also the first book ever gifted to me by someone other than my mom.
After that summer, I never saw Jim Foley again. His influence on me, however, was lasting. In the summer of 2004, during my time at Boston College (BC), I worked at a residential program for incoming freshmen. Stephanie Gonzalez was one of my student mentees, and she didn't like reading. She said she couldn't relate to most books she read. I grabbed my copy of Drown from the shelf, and said, "Read this." She kept the book.
When I graduated from college in 2006, I joined Teach for America. I was placed in Houston, teaching middle school English Language Arts. I bought another copy of Drown and my students, some of the most notorious students in the school, would jostle for it. Then I came back to Boston and taught in Boston Public Schools, including one summer as an Upward Bound writing teacher. I used the book to teach creative writing to my high school students. The students devoured it. So much so, that one day, the book left the classroom, never to return again.
It wasn't until after Jim's death that I realized the ripple effect he had on so many, and how many people he turned into readers, or at least Junot Diaz fans. Drown sits as my number one favorite book, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao sits as number 2, also written by Diaz.
I taught at Upward Bound, like Jim. I taught through Teach for America, like Jim. I gave away copies of Drown, like Jim. I can't help but think that Drown and Jim brought me closer to who I was going to become. I can't help but think how many people Stephanie shared the book with, how many students count the book as one of their favorites, how much the student who kept my second copy of the book was influenced by it.
After I wrote on Facebook the day I realized James was Jim, Stephanie messaged me that she still had the book and posted: "My love for reading began shortly after I read Drown, the summer prior to my first semester at BC. The book was a gift from Peter Alvarez, a mentor as I started the college journey. I learned today that the book that sits on my bookshelf belonged to James Foley, the correspondent whose life was tragically taken. Having never met him, I would still conclude that his taste in books was impeccable. Sending it your way soon, Peter."
She sent me the book, and it sits on my bookshelf once again.
A couple of weeks later, Terri Slater and I had lunch. We started talking about Jim, and Terri said: "Peter, you know what book I just started reading?" I looked at her, and she had tears glazed over her eyes, but a smile on her face.
"Drown, by Junot Diaz."
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