A persistent student books a world-class storyteller

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2011 - 9:21 PM
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Chanhassen High School junior George Glaros was instrumental in persuading Nigerian poet and activist Chris Abani to speak at his school next week.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Chris Abani is a poet and a professor, a prisoner and a rebel, a seeker and a son. At his core, Abani is a storyteller whose mission is to share tales of "everyday people" changing the world in extraordinary ways.

And when he speaks in the Twin Cities on April 11, the most extraordinary story will be about how Abani, an internationally acclaimed Nigerian novelist who came to address the students, families and the community at Chanhassen High School for a mere $5,000.

All because one student refused to hear no.

"It frustrates me when somebody says I can't do something," said George Glaros III, a 17-year-old Chanhassen High junior who is the reason Abani, a professor at the University of California-Riverside, will stop in the Twin Cities on his way to engagements on the East Coast. "Naturally," Glaros said, "I had to go and do it."

Glaros was born in Washington, D.C., where his friends were as likely to be homeless as the children of politicians. His family -- parents George Jr. and Cynthia, and sister, Kristina, 23 -- moved to Minnesota when he was in eighth grade.

His sophomore-year English teacher, Lara Etnier, introduced him to Abani's work, including a conference in which the writer speaks about humanity (www.tinyurl.com/nulvd7). "Hearing him say that really touched me, especially with his experiences," Glaros said.

Abani grew up under a military dictatorship and was imprisoned by the Nigerian government as a teenager for his writings. He speaks gently of his late mother, a 5-foot-2 woman with five children, "who stood up to soldiers who wanted to kill us." He is the recipient of the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award and the Hemingway/PEN Prize for his bestselling novel, "Graceland."

Glaros, working this year as an aid to Etnier, hounded her to put him on the school's Diversity Council. Then he persuaded her to let him attempt "something big." He would bring Abani to speak during Diversity Week.

"Don't get your hopes up," she told him.

He ignored her and called the Lavin Agency, which represents Abani, as well as Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende and Edward O. Wilson, among others. He got Lavin's executive vice president, Tom Gagnon, who didn't realize he was speaking to a high schooler. Yes, Mr. Abani was available, but he charges a five-figure rate.

"A shot to the heart," Glaros said. But he kept talking. "Does he do public schools? Might he consider it?"

Gagnon was impressed, especially when he figured out that Glaros barely had a driver's license. "I was blown away by how mature he was and by the sincerity of the request," Gagnon said. "I believe he fully understood that he was taking a big leap, but he was undaunted by the challenge."

Glaros then crafted a letter to Abani, which Etnier made him rewrite. "It was all in passive voice," she said. She liked his second try. "Your story and your poetry are the best match for what we could ever hope for in a guest speaker," he wrote, in part, "which is why, on behalf of Chanhassen High School, I would like to extend an invitation for you to come and speak."

In late March, the teacher, student and others in the unlikely campaign got Abani on a conference call. He said he'd make it work.

"It is rare that speakers are willing to consider such significant discounts in their fees," Gagnon said. "Chris really was moved by George's letters and how important he felt Chris' work was."

The school and community have stepped up to raise the $5,000, with donations coming in from the International Club and Leo's Service Group, as well as the Chaska Education Association, Community Education, Carver Country Library and Culver's. Art students created posters. Glaros' friends, including Luba Gittsovich, Rida Shaikh and Kelly Schenk, helped to create buzz.

"Stories of Our Humanity: A Community Conversation With Chris Abani, " begins at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. (To reserve seats, go to www.tinyurl.com/3bx5e8p.)

"I'm so looking forward to this," said Etnier, who hopes that the 650-seat school auditorium will be filled to capacity. "Abani's whole take on life is to address it with humor and reverence."

She also has new reverence for Glaros. "As adults, we too often underestimate the power kids have," she said, "and how incredibly receptive they are to ideas and change."

For Glaros, who takes college classes on top of a full high-school load and works 20 hours a week at a retirement center, a look at the computer made his success hit home.

"I really didn't smile until I saw Chanhassen High School on Abani's website of coming events," he said. "That's when it really felt real."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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