I was a small and skinny girl with dishwater blond hair. Life was ok but I struggled in so many ways. Fitting in was not something that was coming easy for me. I also was not standing out. I just floated somewhere in between all the other junior high kids.
Home was hard since I lived in a single parent family in a double parent world. People didn’t know what to say when I responded I didn’t have a Dad. In those days it was a dad’s name that when on all forms and papers.
“Well sorry, I don’t have a name for you – he can’t help you since he is dead.” Ok, so it wasn’t the most graceful way of explaining the situation. It was either be snarky or not say anything. Since snarky wasn’t really working for me I decided to say nothing. It kept me in that in-between place. Safe.
School was a struggle – math hard, reading hard, writing hard -home economics class of sewing and cooking was not where I wanted to be – why couldn’t I just take shop? I wanted to work with wood and metals. I was not even allowed in the door.
Reading was happening but most teachers were not engaged in what they taught until I reached ninth grade. Where two teachers on opposite sides of the building fueled the soul of this ghostly child by creating a reading community. They weren’t actually thinking about reading communities. It was just how they taught their subject.
One was a Speech teacher, who was “old” and worked in the basement in the old section of the school. She decided we would read plays all year. We created radio shows with sound effects, read aloud poems and stories. We ended up creating a play where she cast this skinny little girl in the lead role with the most popular boy in school. (Wow – gusty lady)
The other a young man who was a new teacher, in the new part of the building, on the third floor. We did the usual English Language arts activities each day -everyone almost falling asleep and I feeling very lost in the diagraming of sentences. Then one day a tall stool arrived in the class.
He put grammar away, closed the door, and turned off the lights. He climbed upon his stool and began to read. He read daily, in voices that still haunt my thinking. He read stories I would never have dared to look at or even begin to try and read.
I know he got in trouble for “wasting” our time. He read stories that were dark, deep, confusing and scary. I know he read Poe’s short story The Cask of Amontillado which we discussed in hushed tones in the hallway. We were sure he would get fired for reading such stuff. We were not going to tell any one. We did not want him to stop and we did not want him to leave.
Rumors ran wild about what went on in the dark each day. Everyone wanted in his class. They would hang by his door hoping to see what he was reading and find a copy at the library. We had copies – but they never left the room for fear “others” would learn what we were really reading in there.
A world of literature opened up for us. A community of unlikely friends developed. He had created an “in” group around reading. The skinny shy girl found herself among friends both real and imaginary.
I was no longer floating between friends but was using the word We. I, the skinny shy girl, was reading, writing, acting and becoming a life long learner.
No, life was not clear sailing from there on. There are always ups and downs. School was still hard but I had reasons to read, to try and work harder.
So don’t underestimate the importance of reading aloud, of reading books that are hard and confusing (and scary). As a teacher you might never know if you are changing someones life. Just know you are!
(Wish I had returned to those teachers to say thank you. They are both gone now. They never knew the difference they made for me.)
P.S. Thank you to Tony Keffer over at Nerdy Book Club today who sparked this memory and writing. – A long Road to Nerdy Book Club.