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On The HotSeat: "Strange Prom"'s Brooke Hauser

By now, you've probably read the article, This Strange Thing Called Prom, which opens like this:

“We’ve been watching prom on TV,” said Lyse Pamphile, a Haitian girl who had already snagged as her date the captain of the soccer team, a tall, sandy-haired boy from Poland. “The typical prom has a prom queen and king.”

“And the mean girl and the prissiest girl and the girl who wants to go with every boy,” a Venezuelan girl chimed in.

“And then there’s the virginity-losing thingy,” Lyse added.

“Getting pregnant?” Hawa said with a slight gasp.

“That’s an American tradition,” replied a girl from Gabon, rolling her eyes.

Maybe you've even watched the video.  Now you want to hear from the author, Brooke Hauser, whose story about immigrant and refugee kids has hit a deep note with readers -- and Hollywood. 

Click below to check out Hauser's thoughts on the story, the tremendous response she's getting so far, what makes for great nonfiction writing, and an update on what's happening with the characters from her story. 

1 -- How's the response been to the article so far, compared to other things you've written?

I've gotten more reactions to this story than anything I have ever written. I heard from a former teacher of the Tibetan twins, and my own prom date.

2 – Some bigwigs might also be interested, right?

Probably the biggest surprise was reading that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wanted to adapt the article into a movie.

Brooke_contrib2 -- Why do you think everyone's liking it so much?

The same reason why I loved reporting it -- the kids. They're so endearing in their earnestness. We're all rooting for them.

3 -- How did you decide to focus on prom?

I thought it would be interesting to watch students from such diverse backgrounds campaign for a school election. I briefly imagined the hallways plastered with homemade posters, like Vote for Pedro -- or Fawwaz, for that matter. In the end, I chose prom because the season was nearing, and I thought it would be the most fun.

4  -- How do the students and their families feel about the piece?

I always feel protective of my subjects -- especially kids, and especially these kids, whom I came to care about so much. At their graduation, several students told me that they loved the story and introduced me to their parents.

5 -- You're not an education writer, per se, but you write about teens a lot -- what's your beat, and what's its appeal compared to a straight education beat?

My beat is that I don't really have a beat. As a reporter, I am always being thrown into foreign cultures, each with its with own peculiar language and currency, and trying to find my way -- in that sense, I relate to these students. Teenagers are great because they tend to be unrehearsed. They're also trying to find their identities, which can be a harrowing experience whether the kid in question is a high-school freshman from suburban New Jersey or war-torn Sierra Leone. I guess the appeal of a nontraditional education story is that readers get to see the students as "real people" outside of school.

6 -- Who are your favorite nonfiction writers or reporters these days, or favorite pieces?

One of the best works of nonfiction that I've ever read is Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, about a Hmong family living in California and the little girl at the center of their lives. I also admire Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, who wrote Random Family.

7 – What about favorite education writers and stories?

I've really loved Samuel G. Freedman's education column in The New York Times, and I just finished his book, Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School. It sits on a shelf a few spines away from Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren, which I recently bought for my best friend, who is a teacher. In fact, I am surrounded by teachers -- my mother, two of my closest friends, my entire book group -- and I am constantly riveted by their stories and insights about their students.

8 -- If you wrote school reform stories, how would you come at them differently than the traditional approach (ie, is this program working, will this school be saved)?

Personally, I am galvanized by issues when they have a human face, when I can latch onto and understand the perspective of an individual, at least as a starting point. It's the old adage, "Show me, don't tell me." I think no matter what the subject, it's important to tell a story so that readers feel engaged.

9 -- Why did you decide to end on a down note -- one student can't go, the other gets shy and doesn't have a great time?

Well, first, because that's what happened. But it seemed fitting that, at least for some of the kids, the night should end in heartache and disappointment -- that's just high school.

10 -- What's your favorite line, or detail, or image from the piece -- or if you don't have one the thing that everyone else comments or asks about?

Everyone asks about Martha Pyne, the young Liberian mother who didn't make it to prom. My editor really encouraged me to develop her story, which I stumbled on late in my reporting. There is a postscript to her prom saga. Although Martha never got to wear her little black dress, I saw her in cap and gown a few days later at graduation, holding her baby and her diploma. It may not have been exactly the happy ending she had in mind, but I'd like to think it's a hopeful beginning.

Brooke Hauser (articles here)

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I loved the article and especially the way Brooke made us feel safe to tell our story. She hung out with in Miss Dariana's office and even came to our talent show. When she came to our school, we never thought that the article would be so nice and that so many people would learn about us. Thank you

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