Subjects such as justice, gender identity, cultural norms, compassion and empathy — sometimes considered too mature for students — instead took center stage Thursday at Providence High School.
The Roman Catholic school invited journalist and New York Times best-selling author Dashka Slater to discuss her true-crime narrative “The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives.”
The story behind the novel involved a real-life event that occurred in Oakland in November 2013 and involved an underage African American student lighting on fire the skirt of a fellow classmate, who identified as agender, — a person who doesn’t identify as having a gender — as that student slept.
While the Catholic Church has rejected the notion of fluid gender identity, that didn’t discourage Providence from holding a schoolwide event talking about similar topics and Slater’s book.
“A lot of educators pine after the ‘good old days’ or complain kids don’t want to read anymore and a lot of that comes down to relevance,” said Scott McClarty, head of school at Providence, whose entire school voted to read the book as part of the school’s “One School, One Story” program.
“What we want to do is give our students an opportunity to tell us what they want to read and what they’re interested in, and they picked this book,” he said.
Slater’s book chronicled the incident, media blitz, eventual trial and aftermath that forever changed those involved.
Slater opened the discussion by asking students to think about what justice means.
“There is the classic image of justice, and it has something to do with the scales being balanced,” she said to a group of freshmen and sophomores in a morning presentation in the school’s gym. “Turns out, it’s a really hard word to define.”
Before delving into the book, Slater gave some background about her career and moments that forged her evolving viewpoint on the subject.
She mentioned a visit early in her career to speak with Alameda County District Atty. Jim Anderson.
The man “known for having the most death-penalty convictions” covered his office walls with mug shots of people he had convicted.
“For Jim Anderson, justice was about winning,” Slater said.
She also mentioned how she chronicled race and its impact on the law and about one incident that changed her beliefs.
Around the time of the Rodney King trial and acquittal of police officers by a primarily white jury, Slater observed a case in which African American jurors in Oakland voted to convict a black man who allegedly accidentally fired his gun, while white jurors asked for leniency.
The black jurors, who lived in the same neighborhood as the man on trial and could have been hit by bullets, showed little mercy, while white suburbanite jurors, some of whom owned guns, were sympathetic.
“Here’s another thing about justice, it’s very situational,” Slater said. “It’s about what you know and what experience you are bringing to the study of the events.”
Junior Olivia Robinson, who introduced Slater at the event, said she loved being able to discuss important and timely topics.
“It was a great book, and it’s really cool that everyone got to read this book,” she said. “It’s a Catholic school, and I’m sure it challenged some people.”
Classmates and fellow juniors Sophia Wright and Kate Terbush said they were also thankful to have an opportunity to talk about difficult subjects.
“I wanted to hear about her views on gender and the criminal justice system and how her reporting was affected by bias, and it’s great to talk about that,” Wright said.
Terbush added, “This book challenged my views and it started a conversation in my house that I thought I’d never have. We all changed, at least in my house, because of this book.”