Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author Eli Saslow came home to Colorado Academy for a day in January and brought with him a message of hope for the students and the community.
Saslow’s roots at CA run deep. He attended CA through Middle School, and his father taught at CA for many years. Throughout presentations to Middle and Upper School students and an evening speech about his newest book, Rising out of Hatred, delivered to an overflow crowd of CA and Denver community members, Saslow accomplished what he seeks to do in his writing—he brought insight into a larger world, a world his audience might never see as intimately as Saslow does.
With that insight, Saslow hopes that people can become less polarized by taking time and making an effort to understand those with different—and even mistaken or uninformed—views.
Middle School: ‘You can see the world through his eyes’
Peggy Butler, Saslow’s former Sixth Grade teacher, introduced this “famous reporter” to a gathering of all CA Sixth Graders. If the students were at all intimidated, Saslow disarmed them immediately by recalling that in Middle School at CA he had thought it was “cool to wear his clothes backwards, and obviously it wasn’t cool.”
Saslow explained to the students that in his books and reporting for the Washington Post, he focuses on “big issues in the country impacting people’s lives.” His passion and his expertise dovetail. With a low-key and unassuming manner, he earns the trust of the subjects of his stories, embeds himself in their lives over long periods of time, and then shows how significant issues have impact on individual lives. To him, the ordinary person is just as interesting—if not more interesting—than the person in power.
To a rapt audience, Saslow described writing about a Seventh Grader having to make funeral arrangements because both his parents had died of a drug overdose on the same day. He told the students about spending six days with a boy from Honduras immediately after the 12-year-old had crossed the border into the United States, fleeing danger in his homeland.
“When I write a story, it feels like you are seeing someone else’s experience,” Saslow told the students. “If you spend time with a person whose life is totally different from our own, you can see the world through his eyes.”
Like good reporters, CA’s Sixth Grade students were prepared to ask Saslow questions:
Have you ever been in an uncomfortable situation where you didn’t want to do a story?
How did you decide to become a reporter?
How do you find ideas for stories?
What are you working right now?
What have been your most memorable experiences?
In his responses, Saslow gave the young students a short course in journalism and writing. They learned that writing is easier when you are passionate about the topic and that the connection to the people in your story doesn’t end after you have finished writing. They discovered the value of curiosity, persistence, outlining, multiple drafts, and lots of editing to produce successful writing.
They were impressed to find out that Saslow is working with HBO on a mini-series based on one of this articles. They were even more impressed by Saslow’s description of Secret Service officers standing around him as he waited outside the White House Oval Office to do an interview with President Barack Obama.
Upper School: ‘You have the responsibility to try’
Speaking to the entire Upper School in Froelicher Theatre, Saslow recalled that the last time he had stood on that stage, he was buried in the back of the chorus for a Middle School production of Annie. On this day, he was front and center on stage.
Students listened silently as he described the pain of writing about the Newtown shootings and spending six months with the Barden family, who had lost their 7-year-old son Daniel, as they lobbied national leaders to effect change in mental health care or gun laws.
“They wanted to be able to say at least our kids were martyrs for something bigger,” Saslow told the Upper Schoolers. “Then they came to the realization that they had to go back to their lives and nothing would change. That’s one that still gets to me.”
Saslow also described the story which evolved into his most recent book, Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, recounting how he spent months and then years earning the trust of Derek Black, the son of a former KKK grand wizard and heir apparent to lead the white supremacist movement. After Black enrolled in a Florida liberal arts college, his fellow students exposed his double life as racist, anti-Semitic, white extremist leader and mild-mannered, pleasant college student. After being outed, Black found himself living with both ostracism and outreach from his fellow students. Saslow’s book tracks how outreach wins, as the people Black knew in college change him and show him he was wrong in his ideas. Saslow’s book is their story as much as Black’s. Today, Black is a prominent anti-racist activist who has disavowed his family.
“White supremacy is alive and well in our country,” Saslow told the CA students. “If you have someone in your life who has problematic ideas, you can change them. You may not succeed, but you have the responsibility to try.”