just mercyBy Amanda Tobier, English Teacher, Bronx Lab School

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At the high school I work at in the Bronx, we started a book club for teachers last year. It is a great way to spend time with colleagues when we are more ourselves, and not always acting as an educator or administrator. As with any book club, we spend a lot of time deciding on the menu, and enjoy putting our feet up on the comfortable chairs in the school library. And sometimes, like other book clubs, we stray off topic . . .

But when we turned our attention to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, we were immediately gripped by what we were reading. Even before our first meeting, we were emailing each other with pages that blew us away. By the time we met, we had all finished reading the book—an accomplishment for busy educators!—and we were looking forward to discussing.

Over and over, we thought about the connections we saw between the people that Bryan Stevenson helped and the students in our school. We work in a neighborhood that has been touched by violence and gang issues, and some of our students have been incarcerated. This is a situation that is all too real for our community, and we were especially touched by the chapter of Just Mercy that focused on how children have been affected by capital punishment. And even if it is not the child who is directly at risk of imprisonment, there may be a family member who is not present in the student’s life because they are in jail—which all adds up to a very difficult family environment.

We read Just Mercy with deep concern, and interest, and an eye to how we can use what we read to inform our students. Bryan Stevenson’s devotion to his clients, and his impressive commitment to a life of service was one aspect that impressed us the most. How could we bring this to our kids and have it resonate with them as well? We ended up seeing a way that the book would connect well with the students with our new chapter of the National Honor Society.  The students must maintain a certain grade point average to stay in the Honor Society and also commit to a service project for the year. As of next year, the Honor Society members will read Just Mercy in a book club, and work together on volunteering with an organization that they all agree on. I am sure that after reading how Bryan Stevenson dedicated his life to the Equal Justice Initiative, they will understand the value of giving back to your community. I hope our Honor Society will inspire a new generation of altruists.