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‘Dear Martin’ author talks to freshmen

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette — Nic Stone, author of ‘Dear Martin,’ talks to Michigan Technological University students Tuesday. Incoming students read the book as part of the annual Reading as Inquiry program.

HOUGHTON — The first-year Michigan Technological University students gathered in the Rozsa Center Tuesday morning will all experience failure and uncertainty at some point in their lives, if they have not already.

And they should embrace that, said author Nic Stone.

“I failed freshman English, more than once, and now I’m a New York Times best-selling author,” she said. “It’s through failure that I wound up here. It’s through dropping out of college twice, leaving the country and honestly having my faith turned upside down, through trying every job there was to try and realizing none of them worked for me … all of these things are experiences that are going to help build you into the people you’re becoming.”

Her book “Dear Martin,” was this summer’s Reading as Inquiry book at Michigan Technological University. Incoming students read the book over the summer. In addition to Stone’s talk, they also met in small groups Tuesday to discuss the book.

She gave students four pieces of advice, helpfully acronymed FAIL: Find your thing; allow for the question; investigate the things that bother you; love the process, and yourself through the process.

Stone asked students how many were sure what they wanted to do. About a quarter raised their hand. Even that number surprised her.

“Those of you who don’t know, you’re good,” she said. “I didn’t figure it out until I was like 28.”

STEM students probably crave certainty and right answers, Stone said. In her own career path, she has been drawn to situations with more ambiguity. And her own sense of things that bother her — racism, homophobia, xenophobia, among others — led her to write fiction about social justice.

“Giving yourself the space to be wrong about the answers you’re coming up with will take you very far,” she said.

Stone’s book centers on Justyce McAllister, an Ivy League-bound black teenager caught up in a case of racial profiling. He starts a series of letters to the late Rev. Martin Luther King, investigating whether his ideas hold up in the 21st century.

The spark for “Dear Martin” was the murder of Jordan Davis, a black teenager who was killed after a man parked next to Davis at a gas station was threatened by the loud rap music he and his friends were playing. It resonated with Stone, who had recently given birth to a son.

“I realized he’s not going to be an infant forever,” she said. “There’s going to come a day when he gets taller, when he gets bigger, when he’s out with his friends and people make assumptions.”

King became involved after the death of Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident shook up Stone, whose father was a police officer.

After the Black Lives Matter protests, King saw commentators who compared them unfavorably to King. Many of them had to disregard history to do so, such as the mayor of Atlanta, who told protesters King would never block a freeway. (King’s marchers used the highway numerous times, including during the march to Montgomery, Alabama.)

“So that was kind of the second piece of this, me wanting to face down some kind of mythology that is now involved when we talk about the civil rights movement,” she said.

In researching the book, she found misconceptions she had about history, things she didn’t understand and questions she couldn’t answer.

“There are more questions in that book than there are answers,” she said. “There’s more stuff to discuss and try to figure out together than ‘This is what you should do about racism.'”

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