Reading Room: What Your Colleagues Are Reading

Fall 2022

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of MonticelloI have known, like any interested student of the Founding Fathers, about Thomas Jefferson’s children by the enslaved Sally Hemings. But my knowledge was limited to items in the news media, and I contextualized the story as American political history. Recent times made me eager to see the situation in a new light, and Annette Gordon-Reed’s remarkable book, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, provided me with all I could have hoped for, at least at the distance of two centuries.

I first recognized the originality of Gordon-Reed’s approach from her threefold title: “The Hemingses,” putting Sally’s family at the center; “of Monticello,” as certainly as the Jeffersons were of Monticello, if not more so; and “An American Family,” as surely American as her “owner.” 

But more was to follow. Sally Hemings’s father, the English-born planter John Wayles, was also the father of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Sally’s mother was the enslaved Elizabeth Hemings, and Martha’s mother was the first of Wayles’s three free wives. So Sally and Martha were half-sisters, and Jefferson the father of children by both women. Sally’s brothers, including James and Robert, were also enslaved members at Monticello, James serving as Jefferson’s chef after training during Jefferson’s years in France, where slavery was illegal, and Robert as his manservant. Sally joined them when she was 14 as a companion to Jefferson’s only surviving daughter, Polly.

It is hard for the modern mind to encompass all of these complexities. Was Jefferson a “good” slave owner, supporting the men’s careers—eventually freeing James—and agreeing to emancipate Sally’s children if she returned to Virginia with him instead of claiming her freedom. Or was he a self-centered hedonist, profligate in his spending and his other pleasures, at the expense of others? Gordon-Reed warns “we must cast the net as widely as possible if we want to see slavery through the eyes of the enslaved.” Throughout the book, she consistently does so.

Richard Barbieri, longtime Independent School  contributor who spent 40 years as a teacher and administrator in independent schools

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me GoThis is a favorite of mine for its overcast days, forgotten seaside towns, and characters who long for companionship in an unforgiving world. Kazuo Ishiguro’s sense of hope about the human condition made me want to teach it in my dystopian literature class. At first, I worried students would be bored by Ishiguro’s attention to detail and tangents. But the book yielded inspiring discussions about what makes us human, creativity, and the adolescent soul. “I don’t know if I can say I liked the novel,” one student said, “but I liked how I felt when I read it.”

Angie Yuan, English Teacher, University Prep (WA)

Raising Kids: Your Essential Guide to Everyday Parenting by Sheri Glucoft Wong and Olaf Jorgenson

Raising KidsThis is a book that educational leaders, teachers, and parents will want to include on their reference shelf. Authors Sheri Glucoft Wong (a San Francisco Bay Area family therapist, consultant, and parent educator) and Olaf Jorgenson (a Silicon Valley–based school head, author, and teacher) offer a practical and thought-provoking guide for anyone engaged in the most wonderful job in the world: influencing the development of children.

As a parent, educator, and longtime student of leadership, I’ve learned to equate parenting with leadership, and perhaps parenting is the most important leadership endeavor of all. Leading requires always seeking clarity in our thinking. Early in the book, the authors present a novel paradigm for such a notion, and name it your parenting spot; that place where your head (a decision follows your good judgment), your heart (it comes from a loving place inside you), your gut (your instincts tell you it’s right), and your feet (you are ready to stand firm and walk your talk) are all in sync. In other words, you’re really tuned in, grounded, and clear. When on your spot, you’re prepared to exercise leadership that’s authentic and meaningful because you’ve taken the time to clarify your thinking.

This book is written in clear, short, digestible chapters full of helpful takeaways. Chapter 10, “Your Role in Your Child’s School Life,” was my favorite, for the way it masterfully clarifies the boundaries around responsibilities and authority in that important setting. With today’s seemingly evolving notions with respect to parents’ roles within the school enterprise, this chapter’s sage advice is worth its weight in gold in terms of providing advice and clarity.

Finally, the book’s inspirational conclusion, “Parenting in the Home Stretch,” sums it all up beautifully by reminding us that it’s never too late to create the relationship you want to have with your children. Parenting is always a work in progress, and certainly worth it.

Harry V. McKay Jr., Executive Coach and Consultant, The Education Group, and former Head of School, Saint Andrew’s Episcopal School (CA)

How to Hug a Pufferfish by Ellie Peterson

How to Hug a PufferfishThis is a wonderful way to address the topic of consent and boundary setting with children of all ages. It can be used as an introduction to the topic or to spark discussion with older students. The illustrations are beautiful and keep children engaged in what could be an uncomfortable topic. I have seen examples of parents and teachers who have created art projects using pufferfish to keep the conversations going.

Lily Medina, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Seattle Country Day School (WA)

Share Your Mini Book Review

Our independent school community is one of readers—and we’d love to hear and share what you are reading. Tell us about it in a few sentences: Why did you like it? What made you want to read it? What was your biggest takeaway? It can be nonfiction or fiction, work-related or not, a recent bestseller or a time-honored classic. Email us with your 150-word review at [email protected].