Reyna Grande and Across a Hundred Mountains


Gary Dawson Smith and Reyna Grande

Gary Dawson Smith and Reyna Grande

Yesterday was a good day of education.

Seeds were planted yesterday that will turn into beautiful gardens. That’s my hope.

Let me explain.

Last year I began using a novel called Across a Hundred Mountains in my classes. It’s an amazing novel and an audicious debut by Reyna. It’s a little difficult for some students but the rewards of reading this novel surpass the challenge.

The novel is about two young women, Adelina and Juana, in search of their fathers. They are both illegal immigrants from Mexico. Adelina finds her father buried in the desert near the border. Juana goes in search of her father who left for the United States to make more money to give his family a better life.

This is a story of the journey to the United States. It is a harrowing and life changing journey for both of these girls and gives the reader an understanding of the motivational forces that drives immigrants to make this journey.

Adelina’s and Juana’s stories are told side by side. Often Adelina’s story on side of the page then Juana’s on the other. So this can make it a little confusing for students, especially in Basic Skills Reading classes.

But, the book is so relevant to their lives…well I think it is at least…that we work our way through it.

I normally read this book at the end of the semester. This semester, however, I found that Reyna Grande, the author, was speaking at Santa Monica College where I teach, so I moved the book up the reading schedule.

So there we were yesterday. My self and a large part of the audience being my students. For many of them this was the first time they had ever seen an author speak…let alone an author whose book they were reading currently.

Reyna’s talk was really inspiring for all of us. I don’t say that lightly, and I know that sounds so very cliche, but this was different.

She spoke of coming to the United States when she was just nine years old. Like most immigrants, the primary driving force for her father to bring her here was a combination of economic and educational opportunities. She crossed the border on foot.

Then she began attending school and learning English. She quickly fell in love with books, first the dictionary, then many reading books. By the time she was a community college student, she was already an English/Writing tutor. When painting/art didn’t pan out, she followed the advice of her teachers to persue a major in creative writing.

Many years later, she wanted to write an autobiography, but she was fictionalizing so many events that it just turned into a novel. Four years later she had her novel, Across a Hundred Mountains.

So we were all sitting there listening to this. Then we had the pleasure of the author reading the book out loud. She read it much slower than I read it out loud. I feel that I am always in a rush in my classes. Like I always bite off more than I can chew. (I wonder how my students feel).

Both of the selections she read were about the yearning and search for these girl’s fathers. It made me think metaphorically (which I’m always doing) about the relationship we have with our fathers real fathers and father in Heaven.

That rich rich theme with the journey theme and some fascinating twists in the plot which makes us question our identities makes this a wonderful novel for teaching classes.

Reyna inspired me with some things she said. One was that “you don’t know what a story is about until you get to the end”. That’s a profound quote about our lives and the very process of writing. Another thing she said was that “reading gives you the words and ideas to express yourself”. This is a simple way of explaining reading that I love to use also.

The big thing that inspired me though, was when she said, “write the book that you want to read”. I have a story sitting around in my head for three years now that needs to be written. I try to figure it out in my head…but maybe I should just write it in the way that I LIKE: symbolism, action, sex, drugs, rock and roll, mystical themes, all the stuff I’ve been studying or that I find interesting.

Then my students had a chance to meet Reyna Grande and get their books signed. Very cool. I spoke to some and their eyes had lit up. They felt inspired also.

Then I met a wonderful lady, Judy Navarro, who invited me and my students to have lunch with the author. What an opportunity.

We sat in the loft, had a sandwich and began introducing ourselves. I had six students out of my classes there. Primarily Latina girls. 

I made a big boo boo. I said that I teach “Lower” level reading classes. An experienced English professor, Hari, corrected me and said that we don’t teach any “Lower” level English classes here. Good point. This comment really bothered for about 24 hours. I was embarrassed for describing my students as “lower” level students. I can’t help it at times. They are called C – Level classes. The skill level for reading/writing in these classes needs lots and lots of improvement. I thought about this comment deeply when it happened and deeply the rest of the day. Like how I could I see my students as “Lower”. The fact is, I have. But it’s not just me, it’s the whole system. I’ll have to make some apologies. Yet another pin my intellectual bubble. 

I went on to explain how I push students to read five books, and that all students are capable of accomplishing great things with high expectations. So while my students might be “lower” in my mind, my class is not. It is like a graduate level class with more reading of REAL books than they can keep up with. The reading load is huge. From my research of reading comprehension, this is what is needed for big improvements in their reading. Reading one textbook, doing a bunch of multiple choice tests, and one reading novel is not enough to foster substantial changes.

Then something wonderful happened.

All the girls introduced themselves. They talked about where they were from. Two of them were immigrants and were deeply touched by the novel. One of them, a returning student, Vanessa, had read only the second book she had ever read a week ago in my class. I sat there listening to them, and thought…they come to college to pursue a dream. Just like the characters in the novel. This is a REAL THEME that means something deeply to them and every other student that starts college. They come here with dreams, visions of the future, and am I helping them get there?

Hari pointed out how Reyna’s talk was just about perfect…the ideas…the emphasis on reading and writing…the themes in the book. He threw in a comment that he was surprised many of his colleagues were not with us.

Though I was there with students. My boss, Susan Sterr was there. I sat there wishing I had more eloquent words to share with everyone. I spoke again on the wonders of this book and of GOOD BOOKS in general. That I choose this type of novel because when I choose it, it brings this book onto the campus, and then they begin to spread virally. They get handed to friends and younger brothers and sisters and even to teachers. GOOD BOOKS move. They don’t just get returned to the bookstore. They are cherished. Especially with an author’s signature.

And in this age of rapidly declining reading rates amongst youth and adults. In this age of Internet, cell phones, video games, facebook, and DVD’s…a few moments spent bringing the stories to life with our imaginations and emotions means something. The few moments connecting to the real life experiences of the characters. And the few moments spend having lunch exholing the virtues of good literature…well these moments are why I teach. I get to give this gift to young people. It is moments like this I feel the presence of God in the room. Like…THIS is why we are here.

I left that little piece of Heaven to go to El Camino College to teach just 45 minutes later. This is the situation of the part timer adjunct member at colleges. I’d love to settle in and talk literature and work with students for the rest of the day but the freeway calls.

At El Camino, I bored my class silly with reading comprehension exercises. We took a vocabulary quiz.

Then wanting to do all the big ideas I’ve been thinking about and reading and writing about lately I introduced our big projects.

Project One: Group Presentations on a theme based on the book we are reading…My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell. One amazing book that I think more teachers should use with college students. I put the ideas up on which I will share with the class. I introduced them to the world’s best presentation specialist…Garr Reynolds and told them I don’t want a regular Powerpoint Presentation…I want something exceptional. Their presentation is to present ideas about the book and the Iraq War using multimedia.

Project Two: They will have to write a blog on their area of interest. They will have to write ten quality blog posts helping other people through the blog. Gave them all the tools they will need. Explained why and how to the best of my ability.

One returning student questioned the whole efficacy of this. Quite literally said she would rather just do the textbook and take tests and write papers. I explained why we are doing this with the change of literacy due to the Internet. It didn’t satisfy her demands. I know the type of teaching that I do doesn’t please everyone, but I continue on. Researching all these issues, and blogging about them here, makes me more determined to make a world class educational experience in my classroom as the norm not the exception. It’s not traditional. It won’t be. I asked her to stay after class and I’d be glad to give her an alternative assignment.

She didn’t.

Amanda did stay. She wants to do a blog on fashion. We discussed it. I asked her what she was most passionate about. She said she loved fashion. Read magazines on it all the time. Talks about it. Wants to go to fashion school.

So I said do your blog posts as fashion reviews. Then I introduced her to William Sledd. William was a Gap Store manager in Paducah, Kentucky and turned the camera on himself and began doing openly gay fashion reviews. His youtube channel was an instant hit. Over 12 million people have watched his videos. He is now making a career through endorsments, speaking, and product selling from the thing he loves the most…fashion.

And in an age with traditional jobs collapsing around us left and right…I think William has found the proverbial gold in his own backyard. And built a sustainable model of business that takes no money to get started and that any student can do.

Amanda stood there watching William’s video and like what I saw with my students earlier in the day, her eyes lit up.

“I like him. I really like him.”

“I think I can do that. I talk like him.”

I replied,

“Yeah. And you can do this also.”

And we spoke about our dreams for while.

Just like I used to with the handful of college teachers that changed my life by believing in me.

“Yeah. You can do this also.”


One Response to “Reyna Grande and Across a Hundred Mountains”


    i went to the speech of Reyna Grande.
    i loved it. i saw how simple she was and how she gave some good advice to all students. how she told us somethings she went throw and how she relate to the novel. i liked th phrase “write the book that you want to read”
    and also when she gave me her autograph she wrote
    “Jady, Best of luck with your own Journey!”

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