By Mike Roark, Upper School English Teacher and Department Chair
English teacher and Department Chair Mike Roark shares how his connection with author Madison Letts ’15 dovetailed with a redesign of the English 12 course that invites students on a narrative exploration of themselves and a community of which they are a part.
In 2013, I was new to Country Day and unsure how my experience as a public-school teacher would translate to a private school. In my first English 11 class, I met Madison Letts ’15, a student whose energy and smile would help me navigate the course and connect with students. She was always upbeat and energetic! Whether it was engaging with her friends, talking about Walt Whitman and Romanticism, or talking about field hockey, she always had something to say. I could count on her to keep discussions moving and her classmates involved. How fortunate I was!
This past spring, my wife, Nicola, who teaches with Elizabeth Letts at our Lower School, brought home a copy of Madison’s recently published book, I Don’t Want You to Regret Anything: A Memoir. When I saw the name on the cover, I was thrilled! As I read it, I was blown away by both the story and by Madison’s honest, heartfelt way of sharing the experiences of her young life and the tragedy she faced as her boyfriend, Knox Martin, battled brain cancer. Her writing gives an honest, intimate view of the person behind the smiles and of the challenges she faced that others could not see.
As I was reading Madison’s book, the English Department was finalizing a redesign of our English 12 course; we wanted to allow our students to have a more shared fall experience. We decided on coursework and a final product that would invite students on a narrative exploration of both themselves and a community of which they are a part. To help them in this work, the course readings would focus on exploring memoir writing and personal narratives. But first, we needed to decide on summer reading.
We quickly realized that Madison’s memoir would be a fantastic summer reading text. Our students would get to read a memoir by someone who sat, not so long ago, in their seats. They would hear from someone who set off on her journey to college and started her life in a way that many of our students will also set off on their journeys. They would learn about the unforeseen challenges that arise in our paths as we work toward our intended destinations in life. They would learn that there is life after tragedy.
Madison was gracious enough to visit on August 28 and 29 to speak to our English 12 classes. I’m not sure the students or Madison (or the teachers) were entirely sure what to expect from the visit. However, in each class, students slowly, but surely, opened up and asked wonderful questions about writing, Madison’s life at Country Day and University of Georgia, her relationships, and more. Madison answered each question with thoughtfulness and openness. It was powerful to see the interaction between someone who has embarked on the “real” life beyond school and those who will set out on their own journey in a few months.
We cannot thank Madison enough for her candor and care in speaking with our students! We hope that both her book and her visit have kindled in our students a vision of their own possibilities as storytellers and given them room to think about how they will share those stories with others. And maybe, just maybe, some of them will return to Country Day to tell their stories too!
More About Madison: Madison Letts ’15 is co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of the Knox Martin Foundation for Brain Cancer Research, a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding innovative research on Glioblastoma–the most aggressive and under-researched form of brain cancer. Born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Madison received her BFA from the University of Georgia. She now lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and their two cats, Bug and Taika.
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