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Writing Diverse Characters in The Last Fifth Grade

I recently recorded a podcast with my friend and neighbor Matthew Winner of All the Wonders. Matthew is a school librarian just a few miles up the road from me.

Although his children are much younger than mine, Matthew and I talked about how we value the culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse schools here in Howard County, Maryland. For both of our families, it’s been a gift to be part of culturally rich schools, where diversity just is.

Matthew asked me, as others have, how I — as a white woman — was able to write about children of so many different backgrounds. In the podcast, we talk about my own experience growing up in a multicultural (and interfaith, though I don’t mention that in the interview) family and being a first generation American. The feeling of unease, of being split between two cultures and countries, was my own point of connection with many of the characters in FIFTH GRADE.

As my critique partner Timanda Wertz says, “We don’t live each other’s specific experiences, which is where the research comes in, but we all have points of connection and shared human/ developmental experiences.”

One of the goals for the poetry collection that became the verse novel THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY was to make it feel like a real Howard County public school. For a long time, I’ve been planning to write a series of posts about the research I did and the help I received from our local community in creating Ms. Hill’s students.

Meet Rajesh Rao: Captain of Patrols, 5th Grader, (Reluctant) Poet

I’ve already written about a few of the characters, including Brianna Holmes, whose family is temporarily housed in a motel. Here is my interview with Kim McCauley, who works with homeless families in our county schools.

And in this guest post at Latinxs in Kidlit, I spoke with poet and translator Patricia Bejarano Fisher, who worked with me on Gaby Vargas’ Spanish and English poems.

Today, I’m going to focus on Rajesh Rao.

Points of connection: There’s a lot of my own childhood in Raj. He is the eldest, with three younger sisters. As a big sister to two wild younger brothers, I feel his frustration at always being in charge. Like him, I was the most academically-focused kid in my family, so parental expectations were high.

The first poem I wrote for Raj was “Raj’s Rant,” a sonnet about how he wants to break out of his Responsible Raj image. Originally, the poem (p. 162 in the hardcover) opened with these two quatrains:

My sisters Shreya, Priya, and Deepti
are wild and stubborn as a pack of mules.
They need−since they are all younger than me−
a brother who can make them follow rules.

Miss Hill chose me as Captain of Patrols.
I wear a badge and help kids cross the street.
It’s like I’m older brother to the world
when I tell students, “Hey! Slow down those feet.”

He’s tired of always being the responsible one. Oh, boy, can I relate!

In revisions, the focus shifted to show why Raj decides to rebel. I cut the first stanza, moved the second one up, and laid out his argument. Like many school-aged perfectionists, his breaking point is when Ms. Hill’s whole class gets yelled at, including the kids who weren’t at fault. That feels like an injustice to Raj. (Little known fact: Like Raj, I was co-captain of the safety patrols.)

Here are the first two stanzas of the poem, as published.

Ms. Hill picked me for Captain of Patrols.
I wear a badge and help kids cross the street.
It’s like I’m older brother to the world
when I tell students, “Hey! Slow down those feet.”

I’m always quiet when I ride the bus.
I get straight As. My homework’s never late.
But I got mad when Stiffler yelled at us
and told us that we might not graduate…

Research and help: My neighbor Shruti Thakur, whose daughter Shreya was a classmate and close friend of my daughter’s, was a huge help in creating Raj’s character.

When my children were in elementary school, I worked as a freelance features writer for our local edition of the Baltimore Sun, covering education, the arts, and community stories.

Several months before I began work on THE LAST FIFTH GRADE, Shruti suggested that I interview Chitra Kumar. Ms. Kumar was Shreya’s classical Indian dance instructor. I’d seen Shreya perform at school talent shows, but watching a Kathak teacher work with students was a new experience.

You’ll find my Baltimore Sun article about Chitra Kumar here.

With this background knowledge, and advice on details from Shruti, I wrote Raj’s second poem, “Talent Show.”

Talent Show
By Rajesh Rao

My whole family was sitting in the cafeteria.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, even my grandparents.
My three sisters were the first act.
When they came on stage
their ankle bells and costumes looked
too bright for our worn-out school.
The music started.
I’ve heard it a million times.
They are always practicing
classical Indian dance at home
and at their Kathak class.
My sisters moved their hands
as if they wanted everyone to come closer
and listen to the folk tale their dance tells.

I wanted to be in the talent show too.
I wanted to play piano for Mark’s band.
But my parents didn’t want me to spend
so much time at Jason’s house,
practicing rock music.
“Homework first,” Dad always tells me.
“It’s different for sons.”

What else went into this character? Wow. I gave Raj a lot of conflict to deal with. He’s feeling boxed in by how people view him, both at school and in his family. (I love using a strict poetic form like the sonnet when characters are feeling constrained by outside pressure.)

He’s also struggling to find his footing in the social dynamics of the classroom. As his friend Edgar pulls away, who will Raj connect with? This was the last layer I added for Raj’s character, finding a new friend and a way to stand up for himself.

Leave me a comment if you’d like more background stories on characters from THE LAST FIFTH GRADE. Any special requests?