Severn News

A Memorable Visit with Acclaimed Author Olga Grushin

Students in the Upper School elective Self-Discovery Through Literature recently met with award-winning author Olga Grushin to discuss her novel, Forty Rooms. As our seniors journey toward self-discovery beyond Severn, the visit was a chance to further investigate the mysteries of this philosophical and thought-provoking novel. During the intimate gathering, our students and teachers were honored by the writer’s interest in sharing her life and work with our community.

The Class: Self-Discovery Through Literature

Mr. Ron Giddings developed the curriculum to provide second-semester seniors a high-level English class that meets their academic and emotional needs as they prepare to move on to college. The class explores self-actualization through examining non-fiction books, essays and interviews along with novels and short stories. Each selection provides a different perspective on the human condition. Taught by Mr. Giddings and Ms. Susan Jackson, the class helps students develop an interest in the evolution of identity, both in others and in themselves. Through classroom discussion, creative writing, and analytical writing, they consider how personal identity shifts over time and from situation to situation. In addition to Olga Grushin's Forty Rooms, authors and works taught in the class include:
  • Essays by Jon Kabat-Zinn, known for his work as a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher
  • Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly known for her study of courage, vulnerability and shame
  • Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage known for his advocacy of positive psychology
  • Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption known for his exploration of inequity in the American criminal justice system
  • David Eagleman, author of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a neuroscientist known for his study of sensory substitution, time perception, brain plasticity, and synesthesia
  • And more

Inspired to Make a Connection

In Forty Rooms, Ms. Grushin takes the reader through forty rooms that represent the path of the main character’s life. It chronicles the many changes in her identity from a once a hopeful poet in her youth to a middle-aged American housewife. It’s a story of failed dreams and unending journey written with challenging and beautiful prose.

This spring our students took a particular interest in the book, some practically reaching across the table to share their ideas during lively classroom discussions. After learning that Ms. Grushin lives just outside D.C., Emily Shaener ‘19 reached out to the author and invited her to visit Severn. Ms. Grushin responded quickly, both struck that high schoolers were reading her book and impressed that our students were eager to learn more about her writing. Several weeks later she met with the classes in Koch Alumni Room for an afternoon of literary discourse.

What’s In a Room?

After a brief introduction to acquaint Ms. Grushin with the overall concepts of the class, Mr. Giddings asked how she conceptualized Forty Rooms. She talked about moving from a house in which her children had grown up, walking from room to room to share memories as they prepared to leave. She recognized that the most significant memories were of small moments — the minute details that comprise our everyday lives — and used that to shape her novel.
Severn School teachers talk with a visiting author.
Spencer Russell ‘19, Will McCollum ‘19, and Madeline Iazzetta '19 read original pieces of writing inspired by rooms that were meaningful to their lives in some way. They shared personal and emotional stories with creative and sophisticated writing, painting a picture for the listener with every word.
Severn School high school student reads a piece of writing aloud.
Ms. Grushin answered student questions on everything from the central character’s motivations and her choice of literary conventions to her writing process and experience as an immigrant to the United States. Mr. Giddings and Ms. Jackson helped their classes prepare these questions and encouraged them to make the most of this one-time opportunity.

When asked about her intended audience for the book, Ms. Grushin replied, “I did not write it with an intended audience, I just write about things that interest me. But I think younger people seem to read it with a different attitude than older generations. Older generations can have mixed emotions about this book because they’ve already made their choices, some they may not be happy with. It’s not exactly a negative reaction, but a strong, emotional one. So maybe I would give it to young people first, it can encourage you think about the choices you haven’t made yet.”
Severn School high school students pose as a class with their teachers and a visiting author.

About Olga Grushin

Olga Grushin moved to the United States from Russia to attend Emory University. During her professional career she has worked as an interpreter for President Jimmy Carter, a translator for the World Bank, a research analyst at a Washington law firm and an editor at Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Published in 2016, Forty Rooms is her third novel following The Line (2010) and The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2006). She has received critical acclaim for all three books. She currently lives outside D.C. with her two children.

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