A year ago, someone I loved severed every cord of trust that existed between the two of us. Heartbroken and devastated, I retreated into a gray haze of living, numb and fractured, yet determined to keep moving forward. Responsibilities—teaching, contributing to my professional community, and finalizing a manuscript—tethered me to reality, and while I yearned to distance myself from everything, I remained loyal to my work. Many mornings, I left my feelings and emotions inside my apartment—tear-stained pillows, empty tissue boxes, remnants of depression—and entered my workplace with a veneer of happiness, prepared for a day of working alongside students and fellow teachers. One thing remained consistent throughout this time, though: books were my haven, and I was and still am thankful for the comfort they provided throughout the pain of the betrayal I felt.
My very being, my existence, is rooted in my love of books and reading, of words and meanings, of writing and crafting. Ask the people who know me and they will tell you that every fiber of my being is saturated with book love. For me, to live is to exist in the world of books; to heal is, ultimately, to read. As days turned to weeks and weeks amassed into months, my reading life intersected with texts that I needed. I realize this now. Subconsciously, I was reaching for books that would provide balance to my internal dissonance. So much of living exists beneath the placid surface of consciousness; somehow my psyche knew I needed these books, and I indulged the inclination. I’m glad I did, because in the end, I fed and nurtured my reading life, and in turn, without my realizing it, my reading life fed and nurtured my soul.
I did not recognize the healing balm of my reading life at the time because I was intensely focused on not hurting. We all want to be loved, but betrayal forces us to retreat and protect our hearts. And I saw this thread run through these books and many of the others I devoured.In retrospect, it all makes sense. Hunger by Roxane Gay, The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, and Social Intercourse by Greg Howard were books that gave me a sense of understanding and healing, even as I read the painful, searing, and heartrending passages that reminded me of my own fractured self. Words and sentences sutured the wounds in my heart; I no longer felt alone.
When I found Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous writing, especially Housekeeping and Gilead, I found myself engaging in conversations and themes of memory and consciousness, where characters found themselves reflecting on the past to interpret the present. I took my cue from them. Suppression and repression are how I’ve dealt with difficult experiences in the past, but with these books, I found myself confronting them. John Ames, the protagonist in Gilead, provided a history of his family, exhuming memories from long ago to help me make sense of life, love, and faith. I walked with him across the terrain of remembrance, and in a way, I carried his thoughts with me as I recollected the anguish of this past year. I needed his wisdom. And the wisdom of the myriad characters from my reading life.
As with many things in my personal reading life, I always consider the links to my classroom. From my dear friend, Laura Robb, I learned to value the way books make us feel. Most often, when students say they’ve finished a book, I ask them, “How did this book make you feel?” I want them to consider the heart connection because making meaning of texts begins with a transaction, something Louise Rosenblatt would insist is the most important aspect of reading. The way I felt when I read books such as Clay’s Quilt and Southernmost by Silas House and Beloved by Toni Morrison was not bound by hefty analysis; instead, I roamed through life and experience with the characters and made sense of my own circumstances through theirs. These books nurtured me and provided clarity as I trudged through time; they mended the fragments and offered another way to see the world. I’m glad I nurtured my reading life because it nurtured me. And this is the same thing I want for my students. I want them to read and read and read some more because eventually, their reading lives will provide the healing balm they need as they continue to grow and learn and experience.
For the past few years, I have worked to remove the barriers that have separated my teaching life from my personal life. I am by no means open with kids about everything in my personal world, but I am more transparent than I have ever been. Teaching students means being true to myself, as Dr. Gravity Goldberg would say, and to teach this way as an English teacher means to merge the narrative of my reading habits with the expectations and hopes I have for my students. This past year of reading and healing connected me more intimately to my classroom because I began focusing more on how students related to texts, not on how much they were analyzing them. Together we spent time responding authentically to books, allowing our reactions and feelings to lead us into interpretation. The atmosphere of my classroom changed and as a result, many students developed a love of reading.
Books give us a chance to know ourselves. I have spoken countless times about the need for choice-based initiatives in the classroom. I have worked alongside teachers and kids in developing an understanding of this work we do as readers. Thinking beside adults and children is a passion of mine, and I always link my reading life to love and joy. But I have never thought about the nourishment a reading life provides. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the way my reading life would care for me. It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what it did. It nudged me. I want students to become intrepid readers, ready to open a book or enter a text without fear. I want them to grow into capable readers, striving for challenge. But most of all, I want them to fall in love with books because stories are full of dreams and magic and hope. They show us the world and the people, either heroic or ignoble. They help us live our lives. And they help us see our self-worth.
Just last week, Brandon told me how much he loved Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz. Before this year, he was a self-proclaimed non-reader and he wore that label proudly. Just last week, he finished his eleventh novel of the year. I think of students like Brandon who have never loved books, but are entering young adulthood, an overwhelming and turbulent time when life feels unbalanced. I hope the books he has read this year will linger in his heart and give him the equilibrium he needs to sustain himself throughout his adolescence and adult years. I believe they will. Who knows, Brandon may be faced with a heartbreaking experience and think back on his reading life. And perhaps one of those books will give him the strength and grace he needs to withstand hurt and pain and anguish. That’s the power of a reading life.
That brings me to you, dear reader. If you are reading this, you either support my efforts as a writer and teacher, or you’ve landed here because of a Google search. Whatever brought you to this article, I thank you for reading to this point. I may not know you, but I do know that we are in this important work together, guiding students to developing a love of books and a passion for story. I ask that you work alongside me this year to engender a love of reading in your students, because the book they read in your classroom next week might offer the forbearance, grace, and hope they need later in their lives. This past year of healing was not what I expected, and at this point last year, I was wading in a sea of despair. Books lifted my spirits, and I am confident that books can provide the same for all readers, especially the younger ones among us. Let’s lead our students to develop reading lives that will nurture them now and in the years to come.
I look forward to hearing your story.