Books Teachers Share: Lillie Marshall and 'A Long Walk to Water'

 (Courtesy of Lillie Marshall)

Boston middle school English teacher Lillie Marshall loves to travel. On top of teaching English to 140 seventh graders of diverse backgrounds each day, Marshall finds time to run two travel blogs, Around the World L, a log of her own travels, and Teaching Traveling, which profiles teacher travelers like her on their own journey for self-discovery and understanding. A book that has significantly impacted her teaching is the young adult novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, based on a true story of the one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The book intertwines two narratives, one of 11-year-old Salva as he escapes the ‘80s violence in Sudan and is adopted by an American family, and that of Nya, a young girl growing up in modern-day Sudan and her daily life, which revolves around the ordeal of getting water.

Marshall talked to MindShift about why A Long Walk to Water has had such a big impact both on herself and her students, especially since Marshall spent more than a year living and volunteering in West Africa, and she now teaches the book to her seventh graders. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

a-long-walk-to-waterA Long Walk to Water came out fairly recently, in 2010, and it’s a slim book. People discount it as sort of childish, but I feel that this book is so important, and relevant and deep for all ages. It’s based on the true story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan in the 1980s, a boy named Salva who had to flee his village because of the violence and ended up walking, basically, across East Africa. He ended up in two refugee camps, and then was adopted by a foster family in Rochester, New York. The story is interwoven with the story of a girl named Nya in Sudan in the 2000s, just going through how her day focuses on fetching water every day. Their stories end up converging when Salva finds a solution to Nya’s water problems.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” she talks about how people have this sort of stereotype about Africa -- that’s it’s poor, it’s helpless, there’s nothing of worth there, it’s dirty. It’s such a disempowering and untrue story that ignores the powerful, smart and ingenious people within Africa. And what I love about this book is the boy, Salva, by the end of the book is incredibly empowered and important, educated and helpful to his community. He’s not just waiting around for people from the outside to help, he’s someone from within the community who has gone through great hardships and come back to help his community.

As a teacher, it made me realize how important it is to provide opportunities for young people, especially when often you don’t know the background that they come from. Often we do have students who have traumatic backgrounds like this, maybe in a different context. In that way, it really motivates me to do an awesome job as a teacher and to provide a great service to the students that I teach.

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The second way it’s influenced me as a teacher is reminding me that, when we teach about parts of the world, we try as much as possible to let people speak for themselves from those regions. So rather than learning about, say, all the terrible things that are going on in Sudan, getting the specific story of someone who was able, through great strides, to overcome hardship, and then go back and contribute to his community -- I think that is really important as a teacher to put forth.

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So my favorite part is a passage at the very end, at the part where Salva meets Nya and the two halves of the story meet. Salva’s drilling these wells, and she’s looking at him, and Salva says, “That man, the boss of the workers?,” he said.“You know he’s a Dinka.” And Nia looks at him in astonishment. So it comes out that they’re from different ethnic groups that have traditionally had sort of rivalries. And I love the detail where she goes up and she thanks him. I love that detail because it shows how, again I sort of think people have this single story of Africa as being sort of brutish, like there are two groups or many groups of people who hate each other and they never get past it. So this is showing someone from within that community taking on that negative and changing it. He’s decided to dig wells for people from all ethnic backgrounds, and not only contributing to a community, but he’s challenging the division within his community as well.

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