A Tale of Survival Everyone Wanted to Hear

A story of survival and success against all odds brought together more than 600 public school students in the Bronx one Friday in March, 2014. The students assembled in the auditorium of the John F. Kennedy High School campus to hear Ishmael Beah speak. Beah was a child soldier in Sierra Leone in the 1990s and has overcome more obstacles in his life than most people will over the course of their lifetime. His story kept all 600 students under rapt attention throughout the assembly. This event was unique not just because of the distinguished guest – what also made it special is that the students in attendance came from eight different schools!

The JFK campus in the Bronx is home to six district and two charter high schools. The principals of the schools meet on a weekly basis to discuss building-related issues. However, at one such meeting, a new idea was brought to the table – an English teacher at the New Visions Charter School for Advanced Math and Science had recently learned about Beah’s autobiography, A Long Way Gone. She brought this book to the attention of her principal, Julia Chun. Ms. Chun suggested to the seven other principals that all schools incorporate A Long Way Gone into their English curriculum. Then together, they would invite Beah to come to the school.

"This talk is such a wonderful opportunity for all the schools on the JFK campus, both charter and district, to take part in a dynamic, shared learning event,” said Principal Chun. “We can all benefit from hearing Beah's story - the resilience he has shown in overcoming the trials of his youth is a lesson from which we all can learn."

Dr. Jessica Goring, Principal of The Bronx School of Law and Finance, agreed: "We are excited about this event because it brings realism and authenticity to what we are learning in the classroom--what a powerful opportunity to meet the author of the book you just read in English class."

At the event, Beah summarized his experiences as a soldier and read a few excerpts from his book with students following along from their own copies. Beah also spoke of his struggles as a new immigrant to the U.S. and how tough high school was. At the end of the assembly, Beah autographed copies of the book for students, many of whom were also immigrants from West Africa and felt deeply inspired by his success.

The principals said that the co-location of their schools, combined with dedication from their teachers in creating a curriculum around Beah’s book, enabled them to coordinate this successful and memorable event. They hope to plan more events around shared curricula in the 2014-15 school year.