I almost have a connection with Sherman Alexie, the winner (announced today) of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award. Let me please take advantage of that "almost" because I have enjoyed his writing for so long. Around 1994 I heard him talk...entertain...enlighten...and touch an audience in Spokane, Washington the largest city near his hometown reservation, Wellpinit. He was writing poetry--POETRY and people enjoyed it. I snapped up The Business of Fancy Dancing but...stupid me...didn't stand in line to get it signed.
That's not my "almost" connection to Sherman Alexie, though. I really enjoyed his writing, but you've gotta hear the guy in person. He's so funny, so perceptive, so unassuming. Shortly after the first time I heard him speak, I took one of my sons who had to write a report on an author to listen to Sherman talk. He was equally impressed and got an A on the paper he wrote. Smoke signals sent from him were not yet in demand in distant places, so we were treated to many opportunities around the Spokane, Seattle, Portland, northern Idaho area to hear him. He never disappointed. He always had new material. And at the same time, he kept writing.
With the publication of a mystery novel, Indian Killer, and a movie based on a short story, Smoke Signals, Alexie's star kept rising. He remained unchanged, but when you consider his origins and his early resolve, that's no wonder.
If you don't know, Sherman Alexie was born hydrocephalic, undergoing surgery at 6 months with little chance of survival and if he survived there was the great possibility of mental retardation. He beat the odds, though he did suffer seizures and other side effects. Nonetheless, Alexie grew; his brain seemed to function quite well. In fact, he began to read early, reports are at age 3, and by elementary school he was enjoying novels.
We're getting to my connection now. I was a young, first year teacher, at Wellpinit High School. I was teaching all the English classes for all the students in the high school plus drama, journalism, and trying to maintain the library. The 90 year old brick school functioned, but just barely. I was swamped. To the side and behind the high school was the K-8 school. Looking out the window of my classroom, I would watch the little children playing. Was there one little boy who sat alone, under a tree maybe or on the stairs reading a book? I don't know, but one of those little boys was Sherman Alexie because he did attend the elementary school at that time. Our paths did not cross. I taught at Wellpinit two years and would have loved to stay longer, but I just had twin boys, the place was remote and isolated, and so I moved on. It wouldn't have mattered. As semi-fictionally chronicalled in his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie realized that the education he was receiving and would continue to receive on the reservation was not going to take him where he wanted to go. Even then he must have had big big dreams to have bucked the system by attending Reardan High School which was some 30 miles away...not to mention athletic opponents of Wellpinit's high school baskball team.
So, I didn't have any impact on Sherman Alexie as an instructor. He won't be writing any lengthy speeches honoring my inspiration to his life and dedication to writing and the arts. But I know HE will be a huge inspiration to millions of people. Congratualtions, Sherman. And maybe someday we'll meet.
Just as an afterthought...here I am living in Mississippi, home of Faulkner.