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Book-Lovers’ Bash : Education: Marking New Year’s with a Watts magnet-school teacher means 24 hours of reading and discussion. For a houseful of enthusiastic young people, the annual session is a celebration of learning.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Early in the evening, the love scene began heating up, the language becoming more explicit. But Zahid Iqbal, 18, kept his cool and finished . . . reading aloud.

From around the spacious Leimert Park living room, a muted chorus of oohs emanated from the 20 other teen-agers and young adults sprawled in a rough circle, some on sleeping bags, others on sofas and recliners--and all holding copies of the same book.

But moments later, the host for the evening and oldest member of the group--a woman three times the age of most in the room--posed a serious question about the lovers in question, Grant and Vivian, characters in the book “A Lesson Before Dying.”

“Why did Vivian get treated so badly by Grant’s aunt and her friends?” asked Yvonne Divans-Hutchinson.

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The question drew some blank stares, then one tentative suggestion that Vivian’s skin color was the problem.

“Exactly,” exclaimed Divans-Hutchinson, slapping her own copy of the book. “You see, in the black community there’s this thing of self-hatred. . . .”

If this was a slumber party, it was one with a distinctly academic twist.

It has also become a New Year’s tradition for Divans-Hutchinson and her students, past and present, from Markham Middle Medical Magnet School in Watts. It’s the ultimate holiday bash for young bibliophiles, a 24-hour read-a-thon in which participants take their spirits not from alcohol, but novels that they read aloud and dissect at Divans-Hutchinson’s home.

When they were not reading this past weekend, the students ate, drank, welcomed friends who dropped in for a spell, dropped off to sleep occasionally . . . and held spirited conversations that ranged all over the sociopolitical map.

Divans-Hutchinson, who has taught college-prep English and journalism for 28 years at Markham, presided over the invitational event for the sixth straight year.

“When I first suggested doing this, my ninth-graders looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “But some of them said, . . . ‘Why not make it an enjoyable time for people who love to read?’ ”

For San Phay Chou, one of the teacher’s former students attending this year, the annual event provided a welcome break from physics studies at UC Santa Barbara.

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“This is the one time during the school year that I get to read for pleasure and discuss racial, social and other issues,” said Chou. “The books are timeless. . . . They relate to a lot of what’s going on today.”

The session began Friday and was wrapped up on New Year’s Eve morning. The past and present students, ranging in age from 13 to 22, settled into Divans-Hutchinson’s living room to tackle this year’s two selections: Ernest J. Gaines’ “A Gathering of Old Men” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”

Students came not only with copies of the books, but with sleeping bags and potluck dishes. They alternated reading aloud until completing the nearly 600 pages, pausing only for the dinner break, spontaneous debates and a brisk “midnight run” around the block.

Several of Divans-Hutchinson’s friends and colleagues also stopped by to “guest-read,” facilitate the discussions or simply contribute a dish.

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With flames crackling in the fireplace, students broke from the reading at one point to discuss a doomed character, a man named Jefferson, in “A Lesson Before Dying.”

Why, Divans-Hutchinson asked, did a black man condemned to die for a crime he didn’t commit describe himself as a hog?

Stacy Burroughs, 19, suggested that the problem was an inferiority complex. “He believes that about himself because he was told to, over his whole life,” she said. From all corners of the room come comments--and testimonies--about the insidious effects of racism.

Iqbal, a native of Bangladesh, shot up his hand. “It’s sad, but it’s much easier to believe the bad things people say about you than the good things,” he said. “Even if (the bad things) seem way off. You believe it, and you start becoming someone else.”

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Newcomer Brandi Miller, 16, said some people read too sluggishly for her taste, but she found the read-a-thon a “cool” experience overall.

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” said Miller, a junior at Hamilton Music Academy who joined the marathon at the urging of a friend. “I figured we’d just read to ourselves. . . . This is a good idea for me, because I only read when I have to.”

Divans-Hutchinson was inspired to start the New Year’s read-a-thons after learning of a group of students from the Claremont Colleges who decided to plow through “Moby Dick” in an all-night session. She decided to see if her students would respond to a similar activity.

“I tell my kids, ‘If you’re not in love with reading, don’t come,’ ” she said.

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But getting students to come has never been a problem. Attendance ranges from 20 to 45.

Though Divans-Hutchinson focuses on African American literature--the group read works by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison for three years--the students come from diverse backgrounds.

“I enjoy the conversations, exploring new meanings and ways of looking at things,” said Rakee Joshi, 16, a self-described Shakespeare fanatic who cited Morrison’s novel “Jazz” as her favorite selection thus far. “Here we can discuss anything we want. Nobody’s interpretation is wrong.”

But during the dinner break, Rahsaan Thorpe, a participant for the third year, admitted that the discussions, and the books, were not what brought him here initially.

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“Mrs. Hutchinson, she’s my favorite teacher. That’s why I came,” he said, spooning spaghetti onto a plate. “I’m not really an active reader. But when I’m here, I get incentive. I get off into what we’re reading. In school, when do you ever get a chance to do that?”


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