Words and stories are powerful. Literature is used to communicate, inform and entertain in a way that is broader and deeper than simply relaying facts. Talented authors transport their readers to times and places: exposing them to new people, ideas and cultures. Literature matters because it expands my world and allows me to escape my own complicated life and travel to previously unknown lands; it feeds my hunger for adventure until I am able to satiate myself.
I was a Navy Brat growing up. My father would get restationed every two years and it was always difficult for me to maintain close friendships. Growing up in military housing was like living in our own little matriarchal world. The dads were always gone, nobody had a lot of money, but we always looked after each other, and through our struggles, I always had books. I was drawn to stories about people who persevered through difficulties or were magically rescued from their problems. I must have read A Little Princes by Frances Hodgson Burnett fifty times and in a world without a father or material riches my peers often had, daydreamed about my own benefactor lavishing me with beautiful new clothes and soft pillows.
I had the most incredible educational benefactor, in the form of a teacher, in the fifth grade. Mrs. Bently realized my interest in reading and encouraged me to expand my literature base. She gave me poetry and Black Boy by Richard Wright. I was too young to understand most of the themes but I was definitely left with the sense that my life wasn’t so bad and that people wrote in order to deal with their problems and emotions. In the novel, Wright describes losing himself in a story: “She whispered to me the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives and I ceased to see the porch, the sunshine, her face, everything. As her words fell upon my new ears, I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me.” Black Boy taught me that literature had purpose.
Mrs. Bently taught me that I could compose literature for myself and eventually I won first place in the school’s writing contest.
As I matured, I continued to read: Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, William Carlos Williams, and William Faulkner. Faulkner illustrates that words can be complicated messy and show complex emotions. Yet, Williams uses 15 simple words to create an image that evokes longing and need: “so much depends / upon / a red wheelbarrow / glazed with rainwater / beside the white chickens”. That one word, depends, holds all the power and emotion in that poem. It still enchants me. I continued to write and felt so enriched by all of it that I wanted to become an English teacher. I have known that I wanted to be some type of teacher since I was five years old and sharing my love for words and stories is a natural fit. Literature mattered to a young girl who was discovering her place in the world and I wanted to help make it matter for other young people.
On my path to becoming a teacher, during my third semester of college, I was studying at Grossmont and working at Pershing Middle School as a teacher’s aid. I worked for an English teacher and an art teacher who were both candid about their eagerness for retirement and having “zero fucks” (and that’s a direct quote) to give about the children in their classrooms – great role models for an aspiring teacher. The English teacher would make her students write in a journal for 10 minutes every day, to various prompts, and one of my monthly tasks was to gather all the journals for all of her classes, approximately 180 students, and grade them. I would sit in the teachers’ lounge for a few days each month to read through them. I opened up the last journal in my stack and saw that the student was writing in his journal, but he wasn’t answering the prompts. Instead, he was asking for help.
Every day he wrote, “I don’t understand. I need you to help me.” Every day.
With tears in my eyes, I showed the journal to my coworker. He asked who the student was and I told him. Eddie replied, “Oh, he was arrested this morning for stealing or something.”
I couldn’t contain my emotions. Eddie just looked at me, “You’ll never make it as a teacher if you don’t toughen up. You can’t care that much about these kids.”
That student had a voice that no one heard.
His literature mattered.
I dropped out of school three months later. I met a guy, got pregnant, and was consumed with life.
It only took a couple of years for me to realize that the actualities of marriage and parenthood often differ from what is depicted in movies and romance novels. My husband gradually isolated me from my friends and family and became increasingly verbally abusive - constantly telling me how stupid and worthless I was. We had two children together and I spent all of my time trying to please him and shelter them. I retreated into myself and couldn’t even find respite by writing because he would read it and criticize me. Thankfully, my husband got bored with me, started an affair with another woman, and left us for greener pastures. I was 24 years old and a mother to two young boys, ages 3 and 1. I was exhausted, with no self-confidence or self-esteem, and no outlet for my emotions or self-expression. I started drinking, going out whenever the boys visited their dad, bouncing from one empty relationship to another, trying to fill the void. I desperately needed literature but was too broken to realize how much I needed it.
I thought that keeping myself busy and distracted would prevent me from making bad choices and harmful behaviors, so a few months later, I enrolled in a creative writing class at Grossmont and started writing again. I finally had an outlet and thought I was on a path to healing. I was too naïve to realize that the kind of healing I needed would take a long time. The semester ended, life continued, I was divorced, but we still fought constantly as my ex-husband tried to maintain control over my life. I got another job that paid better, but demanded more of my time. It was easy to ignore my pain with the cycle of work and kids activities. It was too easy to ignore literature when I desperately needed it.
Seven more years rushed by as I continued to search for meaningless was to comfort my loneliness, anxiety, and stress. Then I read the book Stressed-less Living by Tracie Miles and literally had an epiphany when I read, “I realized that most of my stress was rooted in trying to control circumstances that I had no control over.” I finally saw the pattern that I so easily fall into. I quit my job, left a second emotionally abusive relationship and spent an entire year starting to heal my heart. I felt like I lost everything, but I re-found literature. I went to the library and read at least a book a week, but I was too scared to write. Through all that self-reflection, I rediscovered my dream of being an English teacher and decided to go back to school. I enrolled in English 124 last spring; I was terrified. I had a very encouraging professor, Kathy Pasha, who introduced us to Chimamanda Adichie and Adrienne Rich. Adichie’s passion and Rich’s confident feminism fed my soul. Writing was still a slow and painful process to me, but I could feel the ice thawing. Last semester, I attended the Creative Writing Department’s Three Genre Reading and heard Lidia Yuknavitch read from her story, “Woven”. In it, she says, “In the ninth year of our eleven-year marriage, my second husband emerged from our kitchen pointing a gun at me. I haven’t written much about this, at least not literally. I don’t ever talk about it. It’s a bit like a little malformed myth still lodged between my heart and my rib cage.” The courageous and vulnerable honesty of Yuknavitch’s writing broke open the thick, frozen wall that protects my soul. I barely controlled my sobs as she continued to read. I bought her memoir and voraciously read it for the next two days.
Wright, Adichie and Yuknavitch all use literature to find liberty. Their journeys are all different, but the results are the same – liberation. A freedom from oppression, freedom from your own demons, and freedom from fear or whatever else holds you down. My journey is teaching me that literature has many definitions; it’s the classics we’re taught in school, it’s the stories people tell on podcasts, it’s the poetry that your classmate is writing, and it’s in the journal you write in every night. In the TED Talk, “The Danger of the Single Story”, Chimamanda Adichie asserts, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Literature matters – mine, yours, theirs.
I was a ‘Navy Brat’ growing up. It was easy to make friends when I was in early elementary school, but during 3rd through 6th grade, I attended 4 different schools. Starting over only got harder the older I got so I retreated into books and escaped into magical lands where everyone’s problems were easily solved. I have loved to read and write ever since; I want my students, and my children, to find the same freedom in literature that I did.
As a preschool teacher, picking out books for my classroom library and choosing what to read for story time are my favorite activities. I want the children to be actively engaged in the story when I am reading aloud to them. I always introduce the book before I start to read: we analyze the cover, talk about the title, and predict what the story will be about. While I read, I change the volume of my voice, make eye contact with each child, make animal noises when needed, and ask questions about what’s happening in the story. After I’m done reading, we talk about it and even go back to revisit passages if necessary. Books now have to compete with all of the different screens children have access to so I want the stories to come alive for the children and live in their imaginations long after the book is returned to the shelf.
I plan to keep the read aloud tradition alive in my future middle or high school classroom because by 11 years old, many children say that they hate reading. Learning to read is hard for many kids and fluency becomes a chore so they never have a chance to develop love for an enticing story. Reading and writing is about communication, but most importantly, it is about human connection. Our society desperately needs human connection.
In her blog article, How To Stop Killing The Love Of Reading, Jennifer Gonzalez interviews Pernille Ripp about the reading practices Ripp employs in her 7th grade classroom. Ripp discovered that so many students hated reading because they haven’t had the chance to read just for fun and they weren’t able to pick out their own books. Ripp decided to devote the first 10 minutes of every class period to individual reading. She also has a classroom library of over 1000 books, including picture books so that no one has to feel ashamed about their reading level. This idea is brilliant because she asked the children an important question, listened to their answers and responded in a positive way. I am already building my classroom library.
My step-daughter doesn’t like to read. She grew up hating school, never made a connection with a teacher after 1st grade and even dropped out during her freshman year because she thought she was stupid and would never learn anything important. Unfortunately, some of those self-depreciating thoughts were reinforced by her teachers. I am slowly changing her mindset to realize that she can succeed at hard tasks and that reading can be enjoyable. She is an example of the type of student I want to reach out to when I become an English teacher.
How do you encourage a love for reading in your classroom or home?