Reading Tyrell by Coe Booth with Second Chance Students

by Stella Akua Mensah

literature for all of us Second Chance TyrellDuring the last month of my book group at Second Chance Alternative High School, we started Tyrell by Coe Booth. We talked about sexual harassment, mentors, parental figures that are not our parents, receiving and offering earnest support when folks are struggling, homes away from home, homelessness, poverty, polyamory, different roles we play in our families, dealing with neglectful mothers, and responsibilities.

We opened the group with the question, “How do you define being ‘grown’ or being an ‘adult’?” People had a lot of takes on this, mentioning living alone, financial independence, and spiritual/emotional independence. Participants agreed quite unanimously that we are never fully “grown”—that we never stop learning and evolving.

In the opening chapters of Tyrell, we watch the main character’s mother manipulate and neglect him in various ways. In response, he spends a lot of time with his girlfriend’s mother, who feeds and pays attention to him. Folks in the room shared some anecdotes of parents or mentors they’d had that were not their blood parents. From here, we talked about what makes a parent, and what makes a mentor, coming to the concept that perhaps parenthood is never defined by genetics.

We also talked about people’s experiences navigating poverty, and the family roles they had to take on in the midst of this and other lack.

In the opening pages of this novel, Novisha, Tyrell’s girlfriend, is being sexually harassed by a boy at school. We talked about how folks in the room respond to sexual harassment, how they seek support, and how oblivious many men are to the existence and severity of these forms of harassment I heard several of the womxn* students in my room talk about the urge to harm men who harass them. I made sure to honor and lift the rage my students felt, creating a discussion about the validity and magic in womxn’s fury.

From discussing harassment, we transitioned into infidelity. Only a couple of girls in the room supported the idea of dating multiple people at once, and they were met with confusion and scoffs from others in the group. I told them about polyamory, and the fact that we’ve been socialized into narrow and isolated, toxic concepts of partnership. Most students found the idea of polyamory weird and mostly for white people, but they seemed intrigued.

We closed with the quote: "To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves -- there lies the great power of self-respect." –Joan Didion

*we use the term womxn here instead of “women” because it is a more inclusive, forward-moving term than “women” – that not only sheds light on the harm and institutional barriers womxn have faced, but also posits that womxn are not the extension of “men” (wo-“men”). Rather, they are their own untethered entities. More intersectional than womyn because it includes trans-women and women of color.