How I Became Hugh “H.D.” Hunter’s #1 Fan

Leah Werther, July 2023
Hugh's first Writer-in-Residency, 2019

In the fall of 2018, I decided to begin a First Chapter Friday (FCF) program. At the time I had heard little about FCF, aside from teachers recommending books to students. However, I didn’t want my students to think the voice of their English teacher was the only one worthy of listening to, so I invited guests to come in and read an excerpt of a book they thought young people would enjoy. Educators, alumni, and students across the district signed up for a slot.

Donna McAndrews, our school librarian read from I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez. Joseph Carosella, a World Language teacher, picked out poems from Mary Oliver’s Devotions. Author and alum Elizabeth Rosner chose Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

The program grew when I decided to invite people outside of our school community to be part of this book sharing journey. Authors Anne Blankman, Ryan Smithson, Chandra Persaud, Wendy Walker, Emma Otheguy, and Hannah Mary McKinnon graciously agreed to virtual visits. I could not contain my excitement when Laurie Halse Anderson….Yes, you read that right…Laurie Halse Anderson told her booking manager to schedule time for my First Chapter Friday series!

If these superstar writers all agreed to visit my class, who else would?

I documented each book recommendation on my teacher IG account @thewritewriter, and I decided to see if I could reach out to others on that platform. I had just read American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures, so I contacted everyone who contributed to that book. Sadly, America Ferrera, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Frank Waln never responded. I sent messages to Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Reese Witherspoon. No luck there either.

Somehow author Hugh “H.D.” Hunter came across one of my Instagram posts. At the time, Hugh was a self-published author whose book Torment: A Novella was beginning to enter classrooms across America. Instead of me initiating contact with an author, one was asking to join my class!

Screenshot of our first online interaction 2018

Hugh was living on the west coast at that time, and during the 2018-2019 school year, our school day started at 7:40am. Of course, I taught a first block class. No one could tell that it was 4:40 in the morning for him. He interacted with students in a way that just felt right. Within a short period of time, students were comfortable with him. They didn’t shy away from questions. They listened intently. They cared.

That’s not to say that prior author visits were not meaningful. Students certainly shared how much they enjoyed hearing from living authors, but something about this exchange felt special.

I knew others needed to see this undeniable connection between Hugh and students. When Dr. Eva Jones, the assistant principal, joined us during a later class, she agreed and we began the process of booking Hugh to be our school’s 2019 Writer-in-Residence.

Our district started the Writer-in-Residence program several years ago. One of Kwame Alexander’s first school visits was at our school in 2007. During his latest book tour for The Door of No Return, he happily reminisced about his time working with our high school students. Gilbert King, author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, The Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, also graced our auditorium stage in 2014. He discussed his Pulitzer Prize winning book, his knowledge of civil rights history, and his life as a writer.

Hugh leads students through a writing workshop, 2019.

Hugh was invited for a two-day writing residency. He presented a keynote and led creative writing workshops with students. That magic students felt from his virtual visits was there in person tenfold. His keynote titled “Authenticity” was taped by the team of YouthFX, so first year high school students from 2020-2023 have watched his speech and discussed his message of building community.

A few months after Hugh’s in-person visit, the world shut down. That didn’t stop our partnership. We had started with online Skype sessions, so as classes went remote, we continued our yearly visits, with funding help from Jean Winkler, the ELA director, and the PTO.

On April 18, 2020, Hugh invited me to join a Virtual Writerly Toast. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but it gave me an excuse to dress up and drink champagne! I was introduced to family members, friends, and other teachers – all loyal supporters and fans. Hugh shared that he had been picked up by a publishing company!

Even with his writing career taking off, Hugh made time for my classes.

My students love reading Torment: A Novella. It’s often their favorite book they read in high school. The first year it was added to our ninth grade curriculum, one of my students required audiobooks in her Individualized Education Program. I asked Hugh if he had an audio version, but unfortunately, there was none.

Ready to join Hughs Virtual Writerly Toast, 2020
Screenshot of a text exchange, 202

A few days later, I received this text “just bought a mic! going to make this Torment audiobook happen!”

Not only did Hugh create the audiobook to meet the needs of my one student, but he also posted it for free on his website! Since then many students have benefited from listening to the audio version. I knew this man was special, but his commitment to student accessibility cemented it for me. I would forever be Hugh “H.D.” Hunter’s #1 fan!

Throughout the years, students have said this regarding Hugh’s visits:

• His speech, in my opinion, sent great messages. I agree that we need to make the school into a community. Like Mr. Hunter said, right now we can plant the seed of acceptance, but it won’t grow without cultivation.

• He was so chill and fun. I, along with many of my classmates, grew fond of him. I felt like he would fit right in at this school. He could empathize with everyone my age, which not many adults his age can do.

• His inspiring words make me want to help others as much as possible, live the best out of life, work hard for what I want and need, build steady relationships, and meet new people.

• He says that this self- interrogation is uncomfortable, and I agree. People don’t like confronting what makes them tick and why they care so much about certain things. But many times we want to avoid it, hoping that it’ll go away. But he says that the only way out of the uncomfortableness is going through it, which really inspires me a lot.

This year, as a high school Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion coach, I was able to coordinate Hugh’s return for another two-day residency. The students he met during his last in-school visit are now seniors. Hugh wrote about his visit on his blog.

Hugh and I accomplished so much together because of our genuine love and admiration for one another. Little did I know that a simple post about sharing the first chapters of books with students would get us here.

We started as strangers, who on a whim, gave each other a chance. We soon realized that what we had was unique, but we also knew it didn’t have to be. One of the most satisfying parts of our working relationship has been knowing we have encouraged others to begin similar collaborations.

Perhaps one day it will be the norm for educators and teaching artists to connect and draw inspiration from each other.

Can you imagine that for all young people? We can.

Leah Werther and Hugh "H.D." Hunter. Photo Credit: Erica Miller, 2023

Leah Werther serves as a co-director of the Capital District Writing Project and co-facilitator of the Freedom Dreaming for Educational Justice initiative. She was invited by #DisruptTexts co-founders, Dr. Kim Parker and Tricia Ebarvia, to write for the #31DaysIBPOC blog series, and her most recent piece highlighted her work as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion coach. She is also an active member of NCTE’s Asian / Asian American Caucus.

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