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Ken Tangvik writes book with lessons from students


Ken Tangvik


Tangvik has been teaching English at Roxbury Community College for more than 25 years, and has been teaching and mentoring young people in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square neighborhood for more than 20. His new book, “Don’t Mess With Tanya: Stories Emerging From Boston’s Barrios,” is a collection of short stories based, in part, on his experiences teaching writing and civil rights to an increasingly diverse group of kids.

Q. From the places you grew up — Dorchester and Chelsea among them — and the places you work and live, you’ve seen different cultures bonding and clashing for years in Boston. Has that knowledge of diversity inspired your work?


A. It has, in both my teaching and the book. I wanted the book to reflect the feelings and lives of young people in Boston’s increasingly diverse neighborhoods.

Q. What’s your approach to teaching in an age of short attention spans?

A. Over the years I’ve found that short stories work really well in the classroom. They’re a good way to hold students’ attention and make sure that everyone’s read their assignments. And when you know they’ve all had a chance to read it, then it leads to better discussion about the assignments. The relationship between teacher and student is enhanced.

Q. How did you come up with the concept for “Don’t Mess With Tanya,” and how did the book come to fruition?

A. After reading better work from my students — due in large part to their feeling like they understood literature better, thanks to short stories — I decided four years ago to write some [short stories] of my own. I shared them with my colleague and fellow instructor David Updike, a well-published author himself. And he liked them. He encouraged me to have them published. So I plugged away.


Q. At what point were you confident that the stories would resonate not just with peers but with the young people who inspired them?

A. You know, that started when I began to share the stories with my students to get their feedback. But I shared them, at first, under pseudonyms, because I wanted to get their brutally honest opinions. And I’m not sure they’d have told me how they really felt if they’d known I was the author. But they received the stories well, and gave very positive feedback about how they could relate.

Q. Speaking of relating, since many of these stories are based on your real-life experiences, what is one of your favorite short stories in the book?

A. I guess one of my favorites — and the one the students tell me they like the most — is the title story, “Don’t Mess With Tanya.” It’s about a character I describe as “a young, beautiful black woman with attitude.” She has a reputation for not taking crap from anyone. And she’s respected for it. Then one day she has this disturbing experience where she’s profiled while shopping in a clothing store — shopping while black. So she decides to pull a prank on the store owner to teach him a lesson about stereotypes and making assumptions. I think the reason I like this story so much is that is probably the number one complaint I get from my students — that they are regularly followed around stores for no apparent reason other than their appearance.


Q. In addition to teaching, you’re the director of organizing and engagement for the Hyde Square Task Force. What have you learned in that activist role that elected officials and other community leaders should know about fostering better intercultural relations?

A. First, the students really thrive on seeing things get accomplished. We led protests against what students felt was unjust profiling and harassment by transit police at T stops. That led to the MBTA acknowledging that many new officers were from suburban communities and not accustomed to dealing with minority youth. They also agreed to start a new training program to help make those officers more sensitive. . . . Those kinds of victories do wonders for the kids, because talk is cheap. Second, I’d tell them to engage the kids. Don’t just talk to them or at them, but involve them in the problem-solving process, and you will see better relations.

Interview was condensed and edited. James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.