Chapter 1 from Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner
Date: September 10
Subject: School Assignment
Dear Rachel Maddow,
I am writing to you because of a school assignment. It’s a totally ridiculous reason to be writing, but I don’t think you’ll actually read it anyway. This kind of thing is so sixth grade. I am a junior in high school and I’ve been forced to write to a “celebrity hero” by the Applied English teacher. (Hey, Mr. Grimm! How’s it hanging, buddy?) I wasn’t going to do it, because my ex-girlfriend worships you and, hello, school assignment. But I turned on your show and Mom totally freaked out to see me watching you. Apparently your liberal and leftist views don’t sit well with her. Mom spat out the words like she was talking about my dad, so I knew she meant it. That made you my celebrity hero.
You were talking about some guys running for Congress. But then you said one of them was “freaking amazing.” I don’t think newspeople are supposed to say things like that. And isn’t that biased? Newspeople aren’t supposed to be biased. I know this because Mr. Grimm made us watch this video about newswriting. Though no one else knows this about me, Rachel Maddow, I have a near photographic memory for stuff people say. Their words just stick in my brain. So I remember what a reporter is supposed to do.
Anyway, thanks for pissing off my mom.
Date: September 11
Subject: RE: School Assignment
Dear Rachel Maddow,
I am writing to you because of a school assignment.
[begin strikethrough]It’s a totally ridiculous reason to be writing, but I don’t think you actually read it anyway. This kind of thing is so sixth grade[end strikethrough]. [Brynn, this is good, honest writing. Can you try to put a positive spin on it?]
I am a junior in high school and I’ve been forced asked to write to a “celebrity hero” by the Applied English teacher.
[begin strikethrough](Hey, Mr. Grimm! How’s it hanging, buddy?)[end strikethrough] [I’m doing well, thanks. But you can take this out.]
[begin strikethrough]I wasn’t going to do it, because my ex-girlfriend worships you and, hello, school assignment.[end strikethrough]
But I turned on your show and Mom totally freaked out to see me watching you. Apparently your liberal and leftist views still don’t sit well with her. Mom spat out the words like she was talking about my dad, so I knew she meant it. That made you my celebrity hero. [Again, great personal touch. But maybe too intimate for this correspondence?]
You were talking about some guys running for Congress. But then you said one of them was “freaking amazing.” And I don’t think newspeople are supposed to say things like that. And isn’t that biased? Newspeople aren’t supposed to be biased. I know this because Mr. Grimm, my Applied English teacher, made us watch this video about newswriting. Though no one else knows this about me, Rachel Maddow, I have a photographic memory for stuff people say. Their words just stick in my brain. So I remember what a reporter is supposed to do. [You are right, Brynn! I didn’t know that about you. Shouldn’t you remember your assignments, then?]
[begin strikethrough]Anyway, thanks for pissing off my mom.[end strikethrough] [There is a list of questions I asked you to include. Maybe you could end with that instead.]
Date: September 12
Subject: School Assignment Again
Dear Rachel Maddow,
I learned an important lesson about rough drafts. If you really want to send someone a letter, you should just send it. Do not turn it in to your English teacher first. But Mr. Grimm (said English teacher) is the only person I know who doesn’t think I’m hopeless, so I am trying this again for his sake. Though I’m sending it to you, too, to avoid further editing.
My name is Brynn Harper and I am sixteen years old. I live with my mother and stepfather in Westing, Pennsylvania. I have a brother, too. Or, I had one, anyway.
I first watched your show a couple of times freshman year because my best friend (well, okay, my girlfriend) loved you, so she kind of dragged me along with her. She’s not my girlfriend anymore. And she said she didn’t have time to watch television anymore, either, even for you. So she dumped us both. That gives us something in common.
I had a list of questions that I was supposed to ask you, but I got most of the answers online already. Mr. Grimm suggested I think of new ones.
So here you go:
- When you look at the papers on your desk and circle something, are you really reading from them? Don’t you read from a teleprompter? When you go to commercial, you shuffle those papers, too. Seriously, is there anything even written on them?
- How much does a person have to know to be considered a “wonk”?
- At least one person laughs in the background while you are talking. Is this on purpose? Who is that?
- Why don’t you run for political office?
- Is there ever a staff meeting when you think to yourself, “Huh, there really isn’t a lot going on in the news today”?
- How many pairs of shoes do you actually own?
Date: September 14
Subject: Jumping for joy
Dear Rachel Maddow,
I am embarrassed to say that I literally squealed in the library when I got your e-mail. I scared the hell out of one of the librarians. She came over to yell at me, and I just sort of jabbed at the computer screen and jumped up and down in my seat. When she figured out that you had written back to me, she just grinned and gave me a thumbs-up.
I made the mistake of forwarding your e-mail to Mr. Grimm. He said I had to answer back again. I was so disgusted with the idea that a good thing would lead to more work that I complained about it at home.
Mom went nuts. I sort of lied and told her I was assigned to write to you (which, technically, was true). She and my stepdad (aka the Fart Weasel, a name I gave him years ago that stuck in my head because even his whiskers smell like fart) then went on an angry rant about bombast and lies and liberals and blah blah blah. The Fart Weasel said he’d even talk to Mr. Grimm on my behalf, which I knew would never happen, because that would require him to make an actual effort in this life. But their reaction sealed my fate. Obviously I would write back to you.
Date: September 17
Subject: RE: The Blues
Dear Rachel Maddow,
Mr. Grimm has used the fact that you wrote back to me after our hero assignment to discuss “cause and effect.”
[begin strikethrough]This might seem pretty basic for a junior English class, but because I gave up on being Brynn the Scholar a while ago, the effect is that I am in the basement of the school, where the rooms don’t have numbers, only colors.[end strikethrough] [Brynn — I don’t mind if you retain the epistolary format for assignments, if this is what inspires you to do your work. However, keep in mind that if you intend to send this, you might want to be a little less confessional and a little more formal.]
Us “Applied” juniors are in the blue room (as opposed to the Honors/AP or Academic students allowed to walk in the sun aboveground). I started freshman year on the Honors track, but was shuffled into Academic shortly into my sophomore year. By the end of it, my mom said I was going to end up like my brother and I had better get my act together. My journalism teacher referred me for a shit ton of assessments, which got me into Applied, where I could get “more attention.” I thought all I needed was to give more of a shit, but it turns out speech-to-text technology makes me a writing fiend. (Note: I still actually need to give more of a shit.) We have three teachers who teach us in shifts along with the ninth, tenth, and twelfth graders. They always look tired, even with near constant caffeination. [Good use of imagery, but let us both agree never to share this with the rest of your faculty.]
Passing junior and senior year in the Applied Color Room Kingdom is Brynnie’s Last Chance at graduating, because the numbered rooms of tiny Westing High gave up on the Brynnster for good last May.
The blue room crew is cool. The best of us is Lacey, who chills in her wheelchair using her voice board to communicate. She is quick with that thing, and her brain works about a thousand times faster than mine. She is actually an Honors/AP senior, though I don’t hold that against her. Since she’s the smartest person ever, the school lets her do basically whatever she wants. She gets bored with high school classes and even the extra community college classes she takes. Thus she spends a lot of time with us as a ‘resident peer tutor’. This works out for me because she’s super-nice and has kind of taken me on as a special project. Greg, Lance, Riley, Bianca, and I (the Applied junior crew) basically see Lacey as another teacher.
Do you get lost effects from lost causes? I’ll have to ask Mr. Grimm. I think he’d be happy to learn I was paying attention to the lesson. [You know … I actually am. Though none of you are lost causes. Please consider adding a few more paragraphs addressing the specifics of this assignment, “Cause and Effect in My Daily Life.”]
Date: September 18
Subject: Got the blues
Dear Rachel Maddow,
I had a pen pal once in fifth grade. I loved writing to her, even if I hated the physical act of writing. It felt good to put all my words some place. So, I’ll keep writing to you. Don’t tell Mr. Grimm. If he knew I was doing it so much on my own, it might go to his head.
Today, to suck as much as humanly possible out of something interesting, Mr. Grimm put us in pairs to talk about our hero assignments. Peer Mentor Lacey was stuck with me. She did the assignment just for fun even though she didn’t have to.
“So, that’s the lady with the one eyebrow?” I said of her hero.
“Yes.” Lacey sighed. She did that a lot with me. “But she painted herself as she was, see….”
“But she’s dead. You wrote to a dead person?”
“I interpreted the assignment. She is famous. She is my hero. Like Grimm would argue with me. I’m not even a student in this class.”
“Well played.” I whistled. I was mostly annoyed that I didn’t think of something like that.
“And you like a pundit. Fascinating.”
“She is a scholar and a storyteller,” I said, bowing my head reverently and putting my hand on my heart. “Politics are her canvas.”
Lacey chuckled. “Well. We both like artists, then.”
“Did you know that Frida Kahlo was also in a wheelchair?” Lacey said.
“No. I don’t think I did. Did you know that Rachel was the first out Rhodes Scholar?”
“Of course you did,” I said. “You know everything.”
“Seems like it.” I crossed my arms. “Are you sure you don’t want to go out with me?”
“I had to agree not to date my mentees. You and I have had this discussion. Also, I’m still into guys.”
“Fine. That makes no sense to me. But fine.”
Lacey laughed. Her laugh sounds a little like wind chimes.
Date: September 19
Dear Rachel Maddow,
Confession: I used to be on the school paper. That’s actually how I really got to know my ex-girlfriend Sarah. One day in ninth grade I was pulled out of study hall and taken to a room far in the north wing. It was way sketch but when I got there, I wasn’t bound and gagged.
Instead, I met Mr. McCloud, journalism teacher extraordinaire.
“Ms. Harper. I’m told you have a way with words,” he said.
“I do? By who?” Mr. McCloud smirked. “By whom. But that wouldn’t have rhymed.”
As it turned out, that was the start of Brynn the Investigative Beat Reporter. I didn’t investigate so much as write little articles about the sports ball players or about the 4-H kids’ winning rabbits or about the events at the War Memorial downtown. But I loved it, especially my War Memorial beat. Every stupid little slice of life piece I wrote. It’s fitting that the War Memorial practically burned down in August. The causes are still under investigation and have been deemed suspicious. You can still overhear kids talking about it in the halls at least once a week.
If I had the grades, I’d be reporting the fuck out of that.
Especially because firecrackers had been found at the scene.
And because the story seemed to die out on television and print and even online. That had to mean something, didn’t it?
And because people are still interested. The War Memorial was a big deal in town.
Is someone trying to cover up something? Who? What?
First I had to crack the case of a 2.3 GPA to get back on the paper. Then I could run wild with my conspiracy theories for fun and credit.
You used to be on the radio. You said you loved it, too. I get it. There’s something so satisfying about telling people stories.
About telling people’s stories.
But at the end of last year, my grades weren’t high enough to stay with the paper. I don’t know why that matters. I can still write, you know? But the guidance counsellor said I had to “focus on academics.” Maybe losing the paper would “motivate” me to “improve” and “re-join later.”
I miss the fucking school paper with all the shards of my shattered heart. I miss its online edition with the hideous layout. I miss all twenty of our bimonthly subscribers (not counting the staff) and their inane comments on every article. I loved every stupid word anyone wrote.
I loved it and then I lost it.
This has not motivated me. Loss isn’t motivating. It’s debilitating.
I don’t have Sarah anymore. I don’t have the paper.
I guess I only have you.
Date: September 20
Subject: Justin Time
Dear Rachel Maddow,
I stand corrected. I have you and a kid named Justin.
One of the chief characteristics of a good reporter, you may agree, is persistence. Justin Mitchell, ace investigator for the Westing High Gazette, is the freckled embodiment of persistence.
Today I walked to my classroom, wondering if I should take the long route past Sarah’s locker, when Justin stopped me.”Well, hello,” he said.
“Hey,” I said.
“How are you? Are you coming back to the paper? We need you. Things are getting weird. I can’t even tell you how weird, because it’s kind of a secret? But if you were there, you would know and then we could talk about it. How are your grades? Are they up yet? I guess not because we’ve only had a few weeks of school, but maybe I could help you and, oh man, maybe you could just do a column or something with a pen name.”
This is how Justin talks.
“I can’t, in fact, come back to the paper. Summer school didn’t go so great.”
“Maybe I could talk to someone.”
“Good luck with that,” I said.
“Listen, Brynn. This sucks. It all sucks. But don’t be a stranger? Okay? I’m around.”
“Okay, sure, Justin.”
“I’m serious.” Justin seemed to be staring at something over my shoulder. His freckles were kind of melting together.
“Are you blushing?” I asked. I turned and saw Lacey was in the elevator. I looked back at Justin.
“Shut up. I’ll talk to you later.” He turned and abruptly walked away.
“Lacey, my friend,” I said, sticking myself in between the closing elevator doors. “I don’t suppose you want to take my quiz for me. I have one for Ms. Yee in about five minutes.”
“Sure, Brynn. I’m positive no one will notice me doing that, and of course I don’t care if your teachers can tell whether you learned the material or not.”
“You and your stupid ethics,” I said. The elevator door slid open.
I emerged unto my basement kingdom, away from the one that used to be mine. Lacey made me go in the classroom first just to be sure I didn’t try to make a break for it away from the quiz at the last second.
Date: September 21
Subject: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Dear Rachel Maddow,
You have a brother. Is he nice?
My brother was nice. When I was twelve, he got me a pair of ice skates for my birthday. I resented it because I felt too old for that sort of thing, but they were from Nick so I pretended to love them. The War Memorial used to host ice-skating every other weekend. It still would have, probably, if half of it wasn’t charred rubble from the fire. Earlier today Justin had showed me a clipping from the Tribune that investigators still weren’t releasing further information. That was still weird as fuck.
Mostly people went there to get stoned in the bushes, but I didn’t know what that was back then. Nick had just gotten his license and drove us to the rink. It was filled with hockey dudes and their girlfriends. Nick was cool with everyone then, just this big guy with a too-big laugh and too-big sense of humor. He held me up and dragged me around and around the rink until I finally started to be able to balance on my own.
When I finally made it around without falling, Nick bought me a slice of pizza. We sat at the long counter, and I watched couples skate — the girls backward, the boys guiding them around while trying to sneak their hands places they probably shouldn’t in public. Nick laughed, and we goofed on all of them.
That was the last time Nick and I really did anything together. He started hanging with sketchier and sketchier people, and Mom wouldn’t let me go anywhere with him alone. Nick had always seemed like he was too large, too much for his own life. But then everything about Nick started to shrink.
Now with Nick gone, I’m just a girl skating backward, only I don’t have a partner.
This ‘Dear Rachel Maddow’ excerpt is provided by permission of the author Adrienne Kisner, Copyright © 2018 Adrienne Kisner, per Feiwel and Friends. The full novel (ISBN: 125014602X; ISBN13: 9781250146021) was published June 5th 2018 by Feiwel & Friends and is available through US Macmillan (https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250146021) and online via Amazon and a variety of other outlets. The author Adrienne Kisner was inspired to write this book by her work with high school and college students. Dear Rachel Maddow is her debut. It has been met with strong support from the US mainstream press including The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, Salon and many others.