“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all miseries of life.” W. Somerset Maugham
“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” – from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
She sauntered into my class on the first day of school, scanning the room for familiar faces. I was standing to the side of the room greeting students when my eyes locked with hers, and arbitrarily, she chose a seat in a group of desks at the front of the room. The way she moved quickly, averting her gaze, alerted my teacher brain, and I moved from the side of the room to the front where I could keep a closer watch on her. In her hands she held a drawstring bag, one that she clutched, holding it as one would a security blanket, and she was still peering around the room and eyeing the door for someone. When a friend of hers walked into the room, her face illuminated with joy, and probably a little relief, knowing that she would not have to endure class alone. Immediately, she engaged her friend in a conversation that included lots of giggles and furtive glances in my direction. She slid items of interest across her desk to her friend who slipped them into her bookbag, checking to see if I had noticed. When she saw that I had, she rolled her eyes and slouched in her seat. She caught my gaze again, and within her eyes were fires that danced with determination, daring me to say something. This is my 9th year of teaching, and I am well aware of the adjustments that students have to make at the beginning of a school year, their minds settling into the idea of a new grade level. They must become acquainted with a new teacher. For me, the first day is about establishing connections and relationships, and I try not to form opinions based on the first day I meet them. Something about this young lady, however, captured my attention. Her eyes and body language were offering a challenge, almost as if she were willing me to provoke an argument. I held the stare until, in response, she rolled her eyes and put her head down, turning so I was out of her view.
I walked to her desk in an attempt to mitigate any animosity that I might have created, especially at this point in the year. When I approached her desk, she sensed me standing there and sat up. “I’m sorry if I upset you,” I said, trying to smooth what appeared to be a possibly precarious situation.
“It’s ok,” she said, but her tone didn’t convince me.
“I’m Mr. Crowder. What’s your name?”
“Faith,” she said. After the monosyllabic word, she put her head down again, her social cue that the conversation was finished. I went back to my desk and called roll. When I called her name, she didn’t say anything. Her head remained on her desk.
Homeroom seamlessly segued to first period, and when it started, Faith came into class with a notebook, labeled English/Language Arts. She slid back into her seat, still clinging to the drawstring bag from earlier. Her spirits seemed better at this point, but I was cautiously optimistic, nervous that I would recreate the scene from earlier that morning. I passed out the class syllabus, and as usual, asked my students to highlight parts of the document that were important. Faith acquiesced, highlighting portions with precision, even broadening certain lines so that she made a perfect square around paragraphs of information. As a class, we discussed their required independent reading, and although I was nervous about her reaction, she didn’t seem phased by the voluminous expectation delineated in the syllabus. I felt hopeful, but my hopes were premature as I was to learn the following day.
We wasted no time getting to the media center on the second day of school. I had spent time booktalking numerous novels in my classroom, hoping to spark some form of interest as my students began establishing reading lives. A large number of them chose books from my classroom library, but there was a significant number that needed to visit the library. So off we went. I was the last to arrive in the media center and students were all over browsing books. Faith stood off to the side with her friend, ignoring the shelves of books that surrounded her. I approached her, stubborn enough to believe I could help.
“Have you selected a book?” I asked.
“I don’t like reading,” she said. Provocation, I thought.
“Well, unfortunately for you, you don’t have a choice. Would you like me to help you select something?”
“No, I’ll just get something.”
“I’ll be happy to…” Before I could finish, she had taken a book from a nearby shelf and joined her friend at one of the tables in the media center. She sat there for the rest of class, laying her head on one of her arms while a hand steadied the book on the tabletop. She fake read for the rest of class.
For the next month, Faith continued to read this book, one arm supporting her head while she tried to focus on the narrative. Sometimes, her fingers would trace the sentences, and she would mouth the words, one by one, trying to negotiate the text. During reading conferences, she had little to say about the characters or plot, sharing only a modicum of information with me. I could tell she was bored with the storyline, but she resisted any other reading suggestions I gave. I start each year with a reading interest inventory to determine students’ ideas and opinions about reading and as a means to guide them to literature that will engage them as independent readers. Her reading inventory proffered little help about her interests. Conversation with her yielded the same results, and I was beginning to think this student would slip through the cracks. Defeat seemed imminent when I saw her skip the last 50 pages of the book before proclaiming to her friend, and ultimately me, that she had completed the novel. It was impossible to read and write with fluency if these were the academic habits she was establishing. I would say I felt hopeless, but the word hardly captures the feelings I experienced.
We stayed in the media center for class that day, transitioning to writing workshop after our independent reading time. I was scheduled to conference with Faith about the memoir she was writing, and when I sat down beside her, she barely acknowledged I was there. Instead, she was diligently typing another paragraph for the first draft. I asked her how the writing assignment was going, and although she had struggled a bit with some sentence structure, she felt confident about this draft. I read over her shoulder as she typed and was appalled at her story. The first page was infused with themes of neglect, abandonment, verbal abuse, and death. Her memoir unearthed her troublesome past, justifying the actions she willingly displayed in class. Faith knew transience at such a young age, moving from place to place, person to person, environment to environment. Through each test of her resilience, she had somehow found resolve. She had chosen a book in which she could not see herself; no wonder she had no interest in the story.
I went to the shelf in the media center and chose Dark Song by Gail Giles, a gritty novel about a teenage girl whose strength and resilience enable her to overcome her fears. I took it to Faith as class was ending and talked about it briefly. “Just try it,” I said. “If you don’t like it, we’ll try something else.” When she returned to class the following day, she opened to the first page and started reading. Within five minutes, her posture had changed. Within fifteen minutes, she was squinting her eyes, indicative of the negotiations she was making with the text, the characters, and story. Her familiarity with the characters and situations yielded deeper conversations during reading conferences, and I could sense her negative view of reading beginning to change. One day, I looked over, and her drawstring bag was in a pile beside her desk; she was lost in her book. Success!
Since then, Faith has read eleven books. Her interests have ranged from Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper, to A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Currently, she is reading The Memory of Light by Francisco Stork, a novel about people who find redemption as they resolve the tenuous relationships and issues of their pasts. If you ask her about it, she’ll give you a thorough analysis of the characters and their situations. I often share this story with co-workers and friends because I believe in the power of books. I believe that once students find the right book, they’ll be hooked forever. One of my favorite writers, thinkers, and mentors is Penny Kittle. I have often heard her say that “the difference between a reader and non-reader is that a reader has a plan.” Once we help students develop reading plans, they learn to sustain their reading lives. This experience taught me a valuable lesson about the rich experience reading brings. Students walk into my room every year, convinced that reading is not for them. Their opinions about reading are framed by the worksheets, multiple-choice tests, and vapid discussion that has surrounded books, articles, and poetry. Considering that this is their context for any instruction surrounding literature, I can’t blame them. I continue to believe that they can become enraptured by a narrative, and that it is never too late to develop a reading life. I continue to believe that a story can come to life in their minds and build a world full of light, a fortress of illumination that opposes the darkness and misery of our world. I just have to have faith that the right book is out there.