Friday, April 4, 2008

Native Son

When people who are unfamiliar with the school where I work ask me to describe the kids, one of the first words on my list is “verbal.” My students are good with words. From day one in the preschool they are asked their opinions and they are pushed to put their thoughts, hopes, fears, and concerns into words. But I think that their verbosity is not something that develops solely due to attendance at our school. Rather, families who visit and see their own emphasis on words reflected by the school then choose to enroll their children with us. We simply continue children down a path they are already on.
As a result of this self-selection process, by the time the students get to me in fifth and sixth grade they are often capable of some very sophisticated writing. Their reading comprehension is also pretty consistently excellent. It is rare that a student arrives in my room without a deep-seated love of reading. So rare, that I am shocked when it happens. It’s a little like being a doctor in Miles City, Montana. If a patient comes in to the emergency room complaining of fever, headache, and vomiting the doctor will work through a mental list of possibilities. It may take a long time for the doctor to hit on the correct diagnosis if the problem happens to be malaria. Malaria is not endemic to Montana and so the doctors there probably don’t consider it right away. Instead, they probably start with known local causes of the above-mentioned symptoms and expand their circle from there, eventually getting to malaria.
When I come across a student who doesn’t want to read, I also start with the known local causes: bored with his/her current selection, feeling sick, choosing books that are too hard or too easy, not enough guidance choosing books, tired. It is rare that a student’s reason for not wanting to read is not on this short list. But once in a very great while I will meet a student whose reason for not wanting to read is NOT one of the above. When that is the case I am forced to practice the teacher equivalent of tropical medicine in Montana.
And when I then expand my search of possible causes, I am usually left with two explanations for the lack of interest in reading: either the student has contracted malaria and can’t read through the fever, headache, and vomiting OR the student does not like reading. Both strike me as equally unlikely, given the setting. In spite of the slim odds of it being true, I am occasionally forced to conclude that one of my students may actually hate reading.
It can sometimes take weeks of frustration to reach this conclusion, but when I do finally get there I am always surprised and a little relieved. “Surprised” for the reasons I have already given---students at our school almost universally love to read. “Relieved” because as I address each possible cause with the student and still meet resistance, I often grow more and more frustrated, perplexed, and driven to find the solution.
Once I realize that the particular student simply hates to read, that lifts a huge burden from my shoulders. My job at that point becomes simply to provide opportunities for that student to discover the joy of reading on his or her own. My faith is in the fact that s/he will come to love reading on a schedule outside of my control.
My faith is not the faith of the naïve, but rather the faith of the convert. I was an indifferent reader at best all through elementary school and I don’t remember a single book I read before the eighth grade. But then, in the winter of my eighth grade year I was assigned the novel Native Son. I had no interest in the book and refused to even buy it until the Friday afternoon before the Monday we were supposed to have read the entire thing. It was then I told my parents we needed to go to the bookstore to buy Native Son. We found it easily enough right where it should be under “W” for Wright. As we paid for the book I had no idea how much my life was about to change.
I went to my room, lay down on my bed, and opened the book. As I began to read I was unceremoniously yanked out of my comfy Long Island life and into the world of Bigger Thomas in Chicago in the 1930s. That book ate me up and spit me out two days later, reeling and amazed at what a story could do. From that moment, I have been a reader. Not before that moment, mind you. It is seldom so clear where the breaks in our lives occur between pre- and post-. But in this case, there really was the me that existed before reading Native Son and the me that was born as I closed the back cover.
So now when I finally think beyond the known local causes I am tempted to prescribe a heavy dose of Richard Wright, but he might not be what it would take to cure my non-reader. I have no doubts that there is a book out there that will do it, but my occasional book-haters need to find it for themselves.

Which book did it for you?

1 comment:

  1. funny--i just finished writing my blog entry, and then read yours. we have some similar recurring themes: running, words, and books!
    The Outsiders turned me on to novels when I was 14, but Grapes of Wrath was the first novel to really knock the wind out of me!