July 29, 2014

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Students get life lessons from author Alice Walker

AVON LAKE – Authors write books, students read books, and it`s not often the two worlds collide.

But on Thursday, thanks to technology, Alice Walker – best known for penning the critically acclaimed novel “The Color Purple,” chatted with Avon Lake High School students.

LISA ROBERSON / CHRONICLE
Avon Lake High School senior Dan Outcalt, 17, asks novelist Alice Walker a question on Thursday. Avon Lake High School students had the opportunity to speak with Walker at a distance learning classroom.

Walker was in Cleveland shooting a segment at the WVIZ/PBS studio as part of the ongoing series “Master Moments,” a collaboration of Playhouse Square and WVIZ/PBS and 90.3 WCPN Ideastream, while the students were at a distance learning classroom. After a few clicks, the two locations were linked, allowing students to interact with Walker, as well as with Marsha Norman, a playwright, screenwriter and novelist who penned the Broadway musical version of “The Color Purple.”

“It was so cool to get to hear the actual author`s perspective instead of what we just infer from reading the book and talking to our teacher,” said 17-year-old senior Dan Outcalt.

When students in two of Avon Lake`s advanced placement literature and composition classes read Walker`s novel, questions about the work sparked lively classroom discussions. The spent hours dissecting the complicated relationship between Celie and Mister.

Still, even with the lengthy discussions, the students only scratched the surface of Walker`s work. More than once, students expressed the desire to talk to Walker about the novel, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983.

So when they got the chance, what did they have to say to Walker? Outcalt wanted to know how she felt knowing that her book had become a staple in classrooms. That, Walker said, made her grateful.

“‘The Color Purple` is good – good for you, and should be read,” she said.

The response generated a few laughs in the classroom, as well as from the studio audience watching the segment`s taping.

“I want it read,” Walker said. “I want you to be strong, free and open-hearted. When you read my books, it`s like taking vitamins that feed the soul.”

What about Celie`s sexual orientation, another student asked – how was it intended to be portrayed? Walker replied that it contributed greatly to Celie`s development of self-love.

Sarah Stueber, 18, was more interested in what Walker felt was the book`s overall theme and how readers should apply it to their own lives.

“Life is meant to be lived,” Walker said. “In the end, life is about joy, pain, sorrow and celebration. But we are supposed to find living on this planet an amazing experience.”

Walker, 63, speaks from experience. Her life has been one amazing experience after another, she said. She shared a story about world-renowned African-American poet Langston Hughes to illustrate this point. It was one of many moments in the nearly 90 minutes Walker spoke with students that intimate details of her life emerged.

When Walker first met Hughes decades ago, she sat across a table from the poet, and he asked her which of his books she enjoyed most. She had to admit that she had never read his books. But instead of being upset or insulted, Walker said Hughes simply handed her a stack of his books. She devoured them quickly.

Many years later, that experience inspired Walker to write a children`s book about the poet.

“I never wanted another child to be as ignorant as I felt in that moment I met Langston Hughes,” Walker said.

Bridget Elias, the high school`s language arts department chairwoman, said she has read “The Color Purple” numerous times. Despite its mature content, the novel is regularly included on the advanced placement required reading list.

“The book allows students to witness a lifestyle that they may not normally be accustomed to,” Elias said. “It enlightens students to a different way of life that they will only experience through the written word.”

Set in rural Georgia in the early 20th century, the novel focuses on the plight of an African-American woman who struggles for self-empowerment, expression and freedom under the oppression of an older man she was forced to marry at 14.

“Still, I think you could relate to the themes in the book,” Stueber said. “It`s so amazing and inspirational to see how Celie`s character unfolds before your eyes.”