|Michael Patrick Macdonald|
What do a former teen heartthrob and a son of Southie have to say to roomful of Brooklyn high school students?
Plenty it turns out.
Last week, an extraordinary meeting of minds took place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
As regular readers of this column know, I have a day job as an English teacher at Automotive High School.
In my prior life as an Irish Voice reporter, I got to know author Thomas Kelly, best-selling author of books such as Empire Rising, Payback and The Rackets.
Kelly’s latest gig is a job as a writer and producer on the hit CBS TV show Blue Bloods. The show is about an Irish American family of cops led by patriarch Frank Reagan, the New York City police commissioner, played by Tom Selleck.
One of the main characters in the show is Chief Reagan’s son Danny, played by Donnie Wahlberg, who has appeared in films such as The Sixth Sense, Zookeeper and Saw IV and V.
Of course, in Wahlberg’s past life, he was one-fifth of the chart-topping band New Kids on the Block. The kids -- now known as NKOTB -- still get together and perform. But Wahlberg has also successfully made the transition from singing to acting.
One thing Kelly and Wahlberg share is a desire to remember where they come from.
Both currently make fine livings in show business, but their beginnings were humble, to say the least. So they understand that kids in traditionally underserved communities sometimes need different kinds of motivation.
That’s where the Actors and Writers Book Club of the Writers Guild Of America East (WGAE) Foundation comes in.
The club sends actors and writers to high schools to read and discuss works of literature to get students excited about reading, writing and story telling.
So Kelly asked if my students would be interested in a program featuring Wahlberg, as well as the acclaimed memoirist Michael Patrick MacDonald, whose book All Souls: A Family Story of Southie, is perhaps the definitive look at that most Irish of cities, South Boston.
In the past I’d taught MacDonald’s book in my English classes. Though it is about poor and working class Irish Catholics, the book’s themes have always resonated deeply with my students who are largely black and Hispanic.
MacDonald writes poignantly about the scourges of crime and drugs, fatherlessness, as well as the perseverance of large families living in poverty.
The Southie disdain for snitches and rats is also something my students are quite familiar with.
I decided to spend two weeks with my current 12th grade students (60 overall) reading excerpts from All Souls to prepare them for MacDonald and Wahlberg’s visit.
This was particularly timely since just a few months back, the most infamous South Bostonian of them all, Whitey Bulger, had been arrested.
This time around, my students were consumed by the question of how we -- how MacDonald, how we all -- are shaped by our environment.
Are you destined to follow in the footsteps of alluring criminals like Whitey Bulger, as one of MacDonald’s brothers did? Or is it possible to not only break the cycle but return to help others do the same, as Michael Patrick MacDonald did?
“Destiny -- that’s a powerful word,” replied Wahlberg last Friday in the Automotive auditorium, when he was asked by a student if he believes “geography is destiny.”
Wahlberg went on to note that his own large family from Dorchester was “poor,” surviving on welfare and “government cheese.”
But Kelly, MacDonald and Wahlberg agreed that with passion and tenacity, you can become anything you want, wherever you come from.
“My own brother was in prison,” Wahlberg added, when the New Kids were getting big.
Wahlberg, of course, is referring to world famous actor and Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg, most recently seen as Irish Micky Ward in The Fighter.
The Brooklyn teenagers peppered the writers and singer/movie star with questions about acting and singing, passion and show biz.
“That was great,” Wahlberg said afterwards.
And in case anyone thought he was merely acting, he vowed to return to the school for a basketball game when the season kicks off next month.