Making space for children of color in children’s literature
A Rossier alum is joining his passions of teaching and writing
By Michael Agresta
Aaron Braxton MAT ’15 always saw himself becoming a classroom teacher.
“If you read my high school yearbook, it says I wanted to be an actor, writer and teacher,” Braxton says.
After college, Braxton moved to Los Angeles to be close to the entertainment industry, but he also took a job at a performing arts magnet middle school, teaching drama and speech and putting on plays with his students.
“I was very committed to teaching and instilling my students with valuable skills that were going help them in life,” Braxton says. “Also, integrating art into the curriculum was very important to me. It was something I did naturally.”
For several years, Braxton’s principal gave him the flexibility to occasionally book commercials or short-term acting gigs while still working full-time as a teacher.
“He got it,” Braxton says. “If I’m teaching a skill, especially acting, and telling my students, ‘You need to be focused,’ it was important that the students saw their teacher working in the field he was teaching.”
When the school’s administration changed, however, Braxton’s side career was not so well-tolerated, and he was forced to choose between his passions. He decided to return to substitute teaching so he could work on not just his acting but also his dramatic writing. This did not mean a disavowal of Braxton’s commitment to education, however—quite the opposite. His first one-man show, Did You Do Your Homework? (2010), focused on his experiences as an educator and the familiar yet intractable challenges of teaching in poor urban neighborhoods.
Did You Do Your Homework? was a major success for Braxton, garnering a nine-month run at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and touring to Atlanta, New York and Romania, where it took first prize at an international festival of one-person shows. In the play, Braxton portrayed the challenges faced by teachers, students, parents and administrators alike at a school in an urban neighborhood where many families are caught in a cycle of poverty, discrimination and violence.
“Urban kids see a lot,” explains Braxton, who grew up in Boston, the son of a single mother whom he credits with pushing him to achieve at school. “It’s almost like they grow up in a war zone.
“What does that do to a kid, walking to school and seeing prostitutes, seeing crack vials, seeing gangbangers, maybe staying up all night because their parents are yelling and screaming, or because of helicopters in their neighborhood?” he adds. “These things affect the psyche. Kids are coming into classrooms angry, yelling and screaming. But deep down inside, they have the same aspirations everybody else does. How do you as an educator deal with that? How do you break through those barriers?”
After the success of Did You Do Your Homework?, Braxton considered film school at USC but completed the Masters in the Art of Teaching program instead, continuing to combine his passions. These days, he still books acting gigs—he’d just returned from a film shoot in Hawaii for a faith-based feature at the time of this interview—while as a writer he has begun to focus on children’s literature.
“I wanted to expand my reach to kids, especially urban kids,” Braxton says. “When I was teaching literature and reading, we’d read Wonder and The Giver, those types of books, and I realized there were not enough kids-of-color voices, especially books in the first person, about how they’re feeling and how they see the world. In particular, there are not a lot of books out there inside the consciousness of African-American males.”
Braxton’s first young adult novel, Jesse and the Caterpillar Who Got His Wings (2018), aims to change that. The book tells the story of a boy’s difficult journey from bright-but-awkward youngster towards a coming of age that will give him the tools to stand up to his bullies. Throughout, Braxton weaves in the metaphor of ungainly caterpillars becoming beautiful butterflies.
The image, as Braxton interprets it, holds true not just for awkward pre-teens in challenging school and neighborhood environments, but also for any USC Rossier alum contemplating an unorthodox or less-predictable career path.
“Caterpillars may see butterflies fly by and never know that one day they’ll become one of them,” Braxton says. “Even as they turn themselves inside out, they may not know what they are becoming—but they know something great is happening.”