I met Sid Carlson White when he was 12 years old and already enthusiastic about the Saint Paul Almanac. At age 14, he joined our Community Editor group and began contributing his literary skills and knowledge to the circle of editors.
The influence he left on the Almanac after aiding in the creation of three editions of the book, as well as the IMPRESSIONS mobile poetry project, makes it hard to see him leave for his first year at Yale University. Before departing, he left us with a gem of a gift: He recollected his experience with the Almanac in his senior speech at Mounds Park Academy. What follows is a transcript of that speech. It warmed my heart and many others. It also shows us why the Almanac—the book as well as the community of artists, neighbors, and lovers of our Saint Paul—is such an important literary and cultural asset. I am sharing Sid’s work because I love his speech and I think you will too.
Executive Director, Saint Paul Almanac
After these speeches are over, and I am at home, I will open my computer. I will click the Chrome icon, type the letter “f” into the search bar, wait for autofill to finish “Facebook,” then press Enter. Not exactly a good habit, I know, but I probably do it 20 or 30 times a day. If you have ever looked over my shoulder as I do this, you will know that most of what I scroll through is news, usually of the political variety. Through Facebook, I can read the New York Times’ coverage of today’s events on Capitol Hill. I can experience blissful schadenfreude reading Dear Prudie’s advice column in Slate. I can better understand the issues of the day through the depth of the reporting at the Atlantic or the Wall Street Journal, or I can have Mother Jones tell me exactly how many times Mississippi’s state legislature has violated the Constitution since I woke up.
Through the wonder of the internet, I can read intelligent and interesting stories about any place or issue around the world. This is undoubtedly a good thing. It is possible, however, for me to keep clicking the refresh button over and over again, never pausing to look outside the window at my own community. I can, after all, have too much of a good thing. Perhaps, through all of the news stories I have read, I could tell you about how cities can evolve in destructive ways but never really know about the destruction of Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood in the 1950s by I-94. I can read all I want about the modern ramifications of the Civil Rights Movement, but I might never find out how the same forces that drove change in Washington have affected the history and people of my own hometown.
I know, and have known my entire life, that Saint Paul is a beautiful place. I have lived here for 16 years, spent six years in an amazing public school at the very heart of Saint Paul, and found something to love in every corner of the city. So it seemed like a natural fit when I joined the Community Editor board at the Saint Paul Almanac in late 2013. The Almanac, as many of you know, is a community organization that is created by and serves the citizenry of Saint Paul. We publish one book annually, in addition to a number of other projects. Every year, we receive hundreds of stories and poems submitted from writers across the metro, about a variety of topics as diverse as their writers. After the window for submissions has closed, we, the Community Editors, get to work evaluating the stories and deciding which ones we will publish.
Every year that the Community Editors have compiled the book, we have been a diverse group in a number of different ways. Beyond our racial and age diversity, our numbers include published poets and novelists, professors of literature, community organizers, well-known spoken word artists, and professional editors. Taking a seat at the table, surrounded by 30 other people who had been immersed in the world of literature and publishing longer than I had been alive, was daunting. Yet those differences seemed to fall away when we got down to reading the stories and talking about the Almanac’s goals. First and foremost, we wanted to publish a book of memorable stories and poems that reflect our vibrant city. As we progressed through the weekly meetings, however, we began to more fully understand the Almanac’s unique role in Saint Paul. Many of the authors we publish have never published anything before sending their story or poem in to us. We strive to publish narratives from underrepresented communities and neighborhoods, allowing our readers to engage with as many aspects of our city as possible.
It turns out that you can do a lot with 650 words. In my three years as a Community Editor, and having read all 11 editions of the Almanac, I have likely read more than a thousand stories. I have learned about what it means to start a new life on Payne Avenue, and I have discovered the rich history of baseball on the corner of University and Lexington. I have taken a literary tour of the pho cafés in Frogtown, and read with bated breath as a doctor carefully removed a bullet from a Prohibition-era gangster. I have borne witness to one man’s first days in America, and another’s first days outside of it. I have heard a story of a newly arrived refugee giving birth downtown, and followed along as an old man, who had lived here all his life, had his ashes scattered a few blocks away on I-94. I have calmly listened to countless storytellers find peace amidst suffering and death, only to be moved to tears a few pages later by a jar of grape jam.
As we released our eleventh edition of the Almanac at Lowertown’s Black Dog cafe, I was struck by the realization of something I should have figured out long ago. I had always looked up to my older and wiser editors as a set of knowledgeable ambassadors who wanted to teach our readers something about the city of Saint Paul, or at least declare with authority which stories and poems the public needs to read. But after three years as an editor myself, it has become clear to me that we are the students, not the teachers, of the city of Saint Paul. We do not sit around that table because we believe that we have something important to give back to the city. We edit the Almanac because all of us, whether we’ve been in the city for one year or fifty, know that we still have so much to learn from it. No matter how many stories come through our submissions page, nor how many discussions we have around the table in the back room at Golden’s Deli, there will always be so much we do not know.
This knowledge of my city and its people is not the kind of information I will find on my Facebook feed. I am by no means condemning the desire to be up-to-date on the current events of the world around us. That would make me a hypocrite of the worst kind. What I am arguing for is the value of knowing what is going on around us in our own neighborhoods and communities. I can gain a lot from reading the news every day, but to me, that doesn’t compare to reading the stories of the people around me and helping them share a tiny slice of their lives.
We are living in an era that historians will describe in a lot of ways. They will surely talk about the global resurgence of conservative nationalism, the maturation of the internet, or perhaps a new pessimism about America’s place in the world. Above all else, however, I think we are living in a time of confusion. I can only speak for myself, but a number of questions have bubbled to the forefront of my mind in the past year that were not there before. When we reconvene, I imagine that the other editors will be thinking the same things too. We’ll have to ask ourselves questions such as “Who gets to have their voice heard?” and “What does it mean to be an American?” These are not questions we will be able to answer with the New York Times’ electoral map or polling data compiled on FiveThirtyEight. If we, as editors, or as human beings, want to understand our world, we must first begin by listening to the stories of those around us.
The breadth of human experience will not fit within these pages, nor will any editor claim that it does. We can only hope to pass along the thoughts and feelings that we experienced to our readers, and perhaps inspire them to share their story or poem with us. We may never find answers to the questions that arise around the discussion table. What we do know for certain is that we must keep our eyes and ears open to the stories that surround us, and take pride in the communities in which we live and work. Above all, when we sit down with a new round of stories and poems, we must remember that there will always be so much more to learn.
Sid Carlson White