Resonance

I bet your’re a book reader.

That is: like attracts like, and I am a book reader, and you are here.

So we are readers, yes?

I’ll go even further and guess that, because love of reading is innate in us–or because we learned it as a joyful or comforting habit in childhood–we are well attuned to the gifts that books bring. For me, I know that during lonely periods in my life, I still had the companionship of books. I know that a three-hour delay at an airport, instead of making me to groan with dismay, causes me to think, “Yay! More time to read!” I know that the absence of a book, when I have free time, creates anxiety. I feel unprotected, exposed, even vulnerable without a book on hand.

As well, at least half of what I know about people has come from books. In reading stories and meeting characters, I have been given insights into humanity’s motivations, foibles, and vagaries. In reading tales set in foreign lands, I’ve gotten to know the world. In times of stress or confusion, books have clarified. Handing over a well-loved book to a friend or family member feels like we’re about to take a trip together.

In what is only a minor overstatement, I assert this: Books mean everything to me.

I want to hug all of the books, all of the time.

That’s why it can be so difficult to teach non-readers. When students proudly proclaim that they don’t read, I realize there is a chasm between us, a values disconnect so profound, a lack of sympathy so jarring…that I may not be able to bridge our differences. To put a finer point on it, the frustration I feel with non-readers makes it so that I sometimes don’t care to build a bridge to these callow youth who wear their puerile disregard for the written word like it’s a nose piercing worthy of comment and admiration.

This feeling of “Why do I even try?” was reinforced last semester when a male student made a loud announcement in class that he had never read a book and never intended to. After he spoke, my heart stopped for a moment. It had to stop so it could catch its breath and recover the will to beat. As the class looked on, many of them nodding in agreement with him, I responded honestly, “You have to know you’re hurting my heart up here. This makes me so very sad. Could we try this, though? Could I buy you a book? My gift? I’m not talking about some fancy book that is painful to read. I’m talking about a book that I really think you would enjoy–maybe a graphic novel? Or something about playing pool? You’re a competitive pool player, right?”

He stared me in the face, blinked once, and said, “Don’t even bother. Didn’t you hear me? I. don’t. read. books.”

And while I wanted to clip out, “And. you. don’t. talk. to. your. English. teacher. like. that, you ignorant buffoon who doesn’t belong in college,” I managed a more civil reply: “But you could. My point here is that you could, and so I’d like a shot at showing you how great a book can be.”

Blinking again, he responded, “Nope. I don’t read books. Save your money. I’d never read it.”

So, well, there’s that illustrative moment which will have a permanent place in the annals of my inspirational teaching history, most likely in the chapter entitled “Students School the Teacher.”

However, when I teach a literature class–those cherry classes that keep English teachers from spending the last twenty years of their careers with their arms wrapped around themselves, rocking in the corner of the classroom–the whole point of the class is to make students read. It’s then that I realize I am, in truth, power hungry, for I LOVE to make them read, especially if they don’t want to or if they have never explored the pursuit before.

My all-time favorite literature class to teach is the Introduction to Literature: The Novel course. It’s one thing to read essays or short stories in other types of literature classes, but in the Novels course, I get to increase the reading load significantly, and in doing so, I get the chance to unlock the world of reading for The Reluctants in the room.

It’s heady stuff, that power.

During the class, we read seven novels in fourteen weeks, which means they’re reading half a novel each week, roughly 160-200 pages.

Yes, a few drop out. But, surprisingly, most of them hang in there; retention rates are comparatively high. Yes, a few of them acknowledge that the reading load is intimidating. But most of them just shut up and drop their heads into their books, either through excitement about exploring new worlds or through a fear of the quiz and everyone-must-participate discussions. So they read.

Because I realize this is a rare chance to transform non-readers into readers, I stay away from Thomas Pynchon. There is no Heidegger. We don’t delve into Finnegans Wake. The books I choose, and they vary term to term, are fairly mainstream, yet they still qualify as literature. The books take work, but students don’t end up with beads of blood dotting their foreheads.

At the end of the semester, I send out a take-home final exam with four questions on it. The first three deal with analyzing character, plot, setting, and point of view, and then the final question is a “softball”–but one that yields the most interesting responses, answers that I tuck into my heart and take with me into the next classroom, into the next semester, into the next face-off with a disinclined pool player.

Below are two such responses, shared with the students’ permission.

The question:

Often times, fiction traces the personal journey and growth of a character. Of the novels read this semester, which character’s journey has the most resonance for you as an individual? Why? (Incidentally, if you aren’t familiar with the word “resonance,” there will never be a better time for you to look it up.)

One student wrote:

Of all the characters that I have met this semester, the one that I felt closest to was Little Bee. When we met her, she had survived a terrible ordeal. She was in survival mode, and spent an awful lot of time figuring out how she would kill herself if “the men came”. While I have never been in a situation like hers, I have been in an extremely abusive relationship. This relationship only lasted two months, but the abuse didn’t end when the relationship did. He stalked me for a year, and used his power over me to continue to hurt me and control my life. Even when he eventually went to prison for 4 years, and I was technically safe, I found myself making escape routs in my head, and planning what I would do if he showed up. She handled it better than me, continuing to live her life the best she could. I wish I were that brave. My post traumatic stress disorder turned into agoraphobia with panic, and I stopped living life for awhile. Years have gone by now, and I’m still not who I was. I learned some good things, and still have some ghosts that haunt me. But reading Little Bee, I saw a part of me in her.  I had experienced the constant terror of thinking you would be found at any moment. We are both survivors of violence and feel the effects on a daily basis. It’s my favorite literary connection, and it’s one of the truest. Little Bee says something that will stay with me always.

I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defeat them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived…Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this story teller is alive. The next thing you know, something fine will happen to her, something marvelous, and then she will turn around and smile (Cleave, 9).

I had never thought of the emotional and physical battle scars I had that way, but she was right. Survival is beautiful, and so are the marks we get when fighting for our lives, no matter what that situation may be. We read Little Bee right as I was finding myself again, which is probably why I connected with her so much.

———————

Another student wrote:

Snow Child was the novel that resonated the most for me. I was really brought into the emotional life of Mabel. Having been in a very dark place in my life where there seemed to be no hope and no way out I felt strongly connected to her. I am a recovering addict and there were many times in my life that I felt like there was no way out. That I would not be able to stop and desperately wanted to change my life. Fortunately, like Mabel, a miracle happened and I was saved from the pit. I know longer live in fear and regret. I have a full life. I don’t have to wake up at 3:00 in the morning filled with anxiety, knowing that again that morning I would not be able to not drink and use. I was a prisoner in my own life. Mabel’s character expressed that same feeling when talking about the winter to come and the demons that haunted her. She knew what was coming, she did not think she could face another day like that. On the upside, the both of us received divine intervention and not only survived but thrived. Every day upon waking I realize I am not physically sick. I won’t have to take a 40 of Miller Lite in the shower with me in order to stop shaking and start my day. I have a place to sleep and roof over my head, a loving family in my life and true friends. Then I look at my dog. He rocks. Another blessing given in sobriety. A biggy, I am getting my degree. Like Mabel I am finally happy. For that I am truly grateful. That novel stays with me. It was truly magical, and easy to lose myself in;

The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was beauty that ripped you open and scoured you so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all. She turned back to the river and walked home. (The Snow Child)

————————————-

So I read their final exams,

and I get a little misty at these glimpses of their burgeoning Readerhood,

and I wish them a lifetime of comfort from books.

Then I smile

and welcome them to the fold.

If you care to share, click a square:

Comments

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Published by Jocelyn

There's this game put out by the American Girl company called "300 Wishes"--I really like playing it because then I get to marvel, "Wow, it's like I'm a real live American girl who has 300 wishes, and that doesn't suck, especially compared to being a dead one with none."

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24 Comments

  1. My father and his siblings were abandoned, circulated among the relatives or housed in the Children’s Home. My aunt wrote about her childhood, and the peace of the Home, where she could sit in a corner of a room with more books than imaginable and read and read and read. The matrons also gave her a little birthday cake; the only one of her childhood. Even now I know adults whose reading was Highlights for Children in the doctor/dentist office, who exploded into the world of literature when able to get to a library, find books at a relative’s house. It’s almost a sin to separate children and books. I wonder what happened to your young man, that he closed his mind.

  2. I made many connections to specific books that I read as a child. Some of them impacted me enough that I sought them out, purchased them, and am in the process of recording them for my grandchildren. It was the love of reading that was my own escape from feeling very invisible; a proverbial wall-flower to those around me. I close my eyes and remember reading under the apricot tree and resonating with characters such as Jo from “Little Women”, Claudia in “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler”, and Julie from “The Island of the Blue Dolphins”. Characters who were independent, strong, intelligent, and certainly NOT invisible. Perhaps if the young man doesn’t read, he would try an audio book.

  3. That’s a great question and great answers. In elementary school, early on, my kid was taught to think about the “text to self connection”. It sounds horribly jargony, but it’s the thing that gets you in the book.

  4. oh i feel your pain. i can’t believe how many people find out what i do for a living and gleefully declare themselves as never reading. it hurts my heart too. and i must say you handled pool player better than i believe i would have.

    but these two students. bless them both. may they ever find solace, encouragement, strength, and resonant truth in the pages of a book.

  5. Yes! This is why I read, I imagine this is why writers write. Those two students of yours-may life continue its upward path for them, and with many more books along the way. My husband struggles with reading. I think he was a never-diagnosed dyslexic of the mid-1950’s. It is one of the the things that I wish were different; I would love to read together, to discuss books together. My grandchildren are nearly buried in books. It is one of my greatest joys to see my oldest granddaughter, at age 7, devouring a book, then recommending it to me to read, “Because it is really good!” I have now added several Cam Jansen mysteries to my reading list.

  6. I read about two books a week, but I have time on my hands that most people do not. I love that you have the students make connections between themselves and literature. My daughter who has autism wrote a wonderful essay in college connecting her struggles with The Odyssey.

  7. I, too, love the books.

    And want to trip the student who has the gall to state — STATE! — that he hasn’t read a book and never will.

    Thank you so much, Citizen.

    The ones you reach? How wonderful.

    Pearl

  8. You know what I think is interesting about your “I’ll never read anything” student? He just HAD to share that in a place where he was sure you would hear. Am immature and grossly overstated comment meant to shake your confidence.
    I love your students’ thoughtful comments. Do you teach in an alternative high school? From your anecdotes in this entry and previous ones, I see that your students have a lot of baggage.
    The thing that intrigued me about Little Bee was her resilience and her ability to combine forces with her English friend to face their fears together. The unfortunate truth, though is that her fears, when faced, were manifested, and the men came for her in the end.

  9. First of all, kudos to you for turning those two into the Society of the Readerhood. I share your pain, I really do. At present I am delivering a programme to children from Years 4 and 5 who are reluctant readers. We’re trying to engage them through football. Slowly but surely we’re breaking through. It helps that they always see me with a book.

    Great post. I enjoyed it a lot.

    Greetings from London.

  10. I wanted two things for each of my children – to be readers of books, and to be huggers. One and a half are the first, and two are the second. I cannot imagine how different my own childhood would have been without the dozen books that my mother wheedled out of the librarian every two weeks. The limit was three, and Mom knew that would never be enough. Losing myself in stories was nearly an addiction, and I had nothing to escape from – just that the world within the pages was infinitely more interesting than my own.

    I understand why your heart sags when you’re faced with non-readers (especially stupidly defiant ones) and also the surge of authentic happiness you feel when you’re turned a student on to the power of books. (It’s not your power, dear Jocelyn, as you know, but your passion – a much-abused word that in this case is actually appropriate – that they succumb to.) Being the facilitator of someone’s discovery of the beauty of words (or music) is something to take to bed with you, and should keep you from ever doubting the reason for your existence.

    I admire your tenacity and your unwillingness to be undone by ignorance. I can see how dispiriting it would be to be faced with that, but you never know what unexpected spark you might strike in what unlikely mind.

    Thank you to your students for allowing you to share their words.

  11. You made me cry. Your students’ connection with literary characters is why I write. So that someone, somewhere may connect with my words and feel not so alone; because that is what books did for me. They were my friends and my escape. That you have been able to help to build the bridge between reader and book is truly awesome. They will never forget you; you have changed their lives.

  12. I wonder if the defiant male reader is actually such a poor reader that he finds the struggle not worth the effort. Just a thought.

    I loved reading your students’ often poignant resonances with what they read. Thank you for showing them the power of reading.

    Both my parents were readers, and I grew up surrounded, not by great literature, but at least by books and magazines — Readers Digest condensed books, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh mysteries, Life, Look, Readers Digest, Highlights for Children, Redbook, Field and Stream, Fur Fish and Game, The Farmer, to name just a few. I read them all, even that last one. Now I happily read 50+ books a year, some of them classics. One of my boys is an even more avid reader than I am, the other is a casual reader; he has found that he prefers reading on an electronic device rather than a physical book. That’s fine. The medium is only a tiny part of the message.

  13. Thank you for sharing those wonderful responses to your final–I got misty, too. And I know a few 20-somethings that read exactly nothing. It’s hard to be young, and being young without the lovely escape of a good novel is unfathomable.

  14. By the way, I just read a novel called “Shadow Baby,” by Alison McGhee, about an engaging eleven-year-old girl who is a true Word Person and born to be a writer. Both thumbs and my big toes UP!

  15. What great writing from those two students. ANd your obvious emotion about reading will surely have stuck with some of the students, even with the one trying to upset you. Maybe you’ll find him with his head stuck in a book one day. Even if you don’t, that kind of effort from a teacher sticks in the mind for years or life. So you don’t need to feel bad.

  16. Well Done!! Those students will always have some succour in their lives now, because of your passion and persistence. I think that opening someone’s eyes to another part of themselves is quite addictive:)

  17. My first love (and I cannot believe that we lasted for SEVEN years) was not a reader. At all. We found out late in the relationship that she was dyslexic, so that was why. But, I used to read books to her in the evenings because I couldn’t bear to think of her not reading all those books. Bing is not a fiction reader and it amazes me that she and I can live peacefully together. She likes to read how-to manuals, books about how to persuade others or deal with difficult co-workers (and I sort of wonder if there isn’t a book on how to deal with difficult wives somewhere in her closet), but she dislikes fiction. This almost kills me. She has no idea what an incredible book “Ellen Foster” is. Or how any sonnet by Shakespeare is almost unbearably beautiful if it is read aloud. That is the beauty of Shakespeare, it is meant to be said OUT LOUD. She shrugs. I am delighted that Liv is a reader, but she isn’t the rabid one that I was when I was her age and am to this day. I don’t get people who don’t read. I carry a book with me everywhere that I go. Everywhere.

  18. Those two must give you hope. But the non-reading guy? I think, “And. you. don’t. talk. to. your. English. teacher. like. that, you ignorant buffoon who doesn’t belong in college,” would have been the appropriate answer.

  19. So interesting that I visited your page tonight.

    I just posted about reading as well. Truthfully though I am not an avid reader and so perhaps, in that regard, I ironically received the English Literature award graduating High School.

    I suppose I compensate by being blessed with good reading skills, good writing skills and insight.

    Relating to another persons strife is powerful especially if the character is triumphant…so glad for the two students.

    The abrasive student is lost in other ways…changes on a first things first order seems necessary…hopefully he finds his way.

    I like the sharing of the books and conversations too…but sometimes I limit my expectations for ensuing closeness…as our viewpoints come from all different perspectives.

    Thanks and enjoy your reading.

  20. Daft young man ,,, such an attention seeker ! He will eventually turn up for job interviews wearing a tee-shirt with a rude message on it .
    I can’t imagine not reading … whatever would I do instead ?

  21. Wow. Amazing. I can’t imagine a life without reading. I think parents who don’t read to their children should be jailed–not really but something. I’m not a better person because I read so much. I throw out books. A friend told me that’s a sin. But I kept trying to give him books I knew he would like and he had no time. Some of my best memories are of stolen weekends spent reading

  22. Yay. For. Teachers. You make a difference in the world and I, for one, am glad to know you are in it doing your thing. Because you do it so awfully well. I never realized how influential most of my teachers were at the time. But I remember them all. Every last one.

  23. The scar passage is phenomenal.

    I must confess I didn’t much like to read in my high school/college days. Thankfully, I did recover from that. Well, obviously I did, else I wouldn’t be here, right? 🙂

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