Touching Absolute Truths: Sherman Alexie Speaks at HS3 High School

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

Heath Sciences and Human Services High School (HS3) has an all-gray performance space called the MPS that looks like a place where unexpected things happen. When the lights are up, as they are for school assemblies, the room’s skeleton is exposed—a technical balcony overlooks the rows of students seated in the round, stage lights positioned at odd angles dot the ceilings and floor, and there is an overall sense that everyone in the room is backstage, about to see something intimate and honest.

There could not have been a more fitting place for Sherman Alexie to have told over three hundred students at HS3 earlier this week, “If you come up to me afterwards, you can touch my brain.” Referring to a quartet of lingering “soft spots” that resulted from brain surgery the renowned writer underwent when he was five months old, to relieve pressure caused by hydrocephalus, the invitation could be understood in both a literal and literary way—the standard for much of what Alexie went on to say that morning.

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Maybe many of the students felt as if they already knew the author from reading his semi-autobiographical novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Or, perhaps it was the raw honesty behind the anecdotes he told of growing up in poverty on the Spokane Indian Reservation, of unintentionally hitting a teacher in the face with a book and of having what he called a “Costco-sized head.” Whatever the cause, the sense of a connection between the writer and the students made the large room feel deceivingly small, as though there were only a handful of us listening, instead of hundreds.

This intimacy was also evident in the candidness of the students’ questions. The first, sounding as if he were talking to another kid about girls they were crushing on, asked, “So, who’s this girl Penelope?” Referring to a character of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the author drifted into stories about the beautiful blonde who once sat in front of him, with smitten recollections: “She was so pretty, she had theme music.” The student responded with a pronounced nod; he knew what Alexie was talking about.

The question that brought the most insight was one that only students are fearless enough to ask. “If you weren’t poor and didn’t grow up on a reservation, do you still think you’d be as successful as you are today?” a young woman in the back of the room inquired, with a soft but unflinching tone. Giving one of his longest pauses of the morning, Alexie answered slowly, his words gaining their sense of assuredness as he reached the answer’s end: “If you can survive these agonies, it gives you a sense of strength. And it makes you original.”

The talk soon ended, the standing ovation subsided and a horde of students surrounded the writer, who indulged them with countless selfies. Despite the invitation, I did not see anyone try to touch Alexie’s head. He had already given so much access, spoken so many sentences that felt as though they would be heard only by those of us in the room, it seemed as though we already had.

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