Years ago, when I was attending yoga classes regularly, we would often ask our teachers for heart openers. Yoga poses crack open the heart. They let the heart not just spill open but widen and grow.
This may sound odd or strange, but the biggest heart opener I have experienced recently was the NCTE conference, otherwise known as the National Conference of English Teachers.
A CONFERENCE opened your heart, you say?
That’s right. I spent the whole weekend talking with my hand over my heart. I caught myself doing it more times than I can count.
My school district sent me and an amazing friend and colleague to Atlanta, Georgia. And I hope we make them proud with what we do with what we learned.
All weekend, we talked about the power of words. Words we read. Words we write. Words we speak. Words we hear.
We discussed how books can be windows and mirrors. When books are like mirrors, we see our faces reflected back, and we might just realize something new about ourselves. And, when books are windows, we can look out, see the faces of others, and realize how our experiences, our meanings, and our souls diverge and converge with others. Then we don’t see ‘others.’ We see how we connect to other human beings.
Books can connect us in ways that are specific and unique and universal.
At this precise moment in our history, I believe it is more important than ever to put books in the hands of our children, to say, “This is good. Try it. Maybe you’ll like it.” It is more important than ever to seek those mirrors to lead to greater self-knowledge. It is more important than ever to remember to look out those windows and see how we are more alike than different.
I listened to a Palestinian author named Ibtisam Barakat discuss how Arabs invented numerals, how no one can pronounce her name and how few try, and how afraid she is right now. I listened to one of my son’s favorite authors, Jason Reynolds, talk about how he loves when his writing speaks to kids who never knew racism exists. He co-authored a beautiful novel called All American Boys. An African-American teenager experiences extreme police brutality and almost dies. A white teenager witnesses it and is afraid to come forward and share the truth because the police officer had been like a brother to him. Their book is all about the struggle to do what is right after horrible wrongs have been committed. Their story is about so much more than that.
I am not a bold person by nature, but know that I totally chased Jason Reynolds down in a hotel and said, “This is one of my son’s favorite books!” He smiled wide, asked my son’s name, and then fist-pumped, “Go, George, GO!!!” I was star-struck.
Right now, and always, students who struggle sit in my classroom. Students who are depressed, anxious, worried, stressed. Students who are lonely, scared, angry, frustrated. Students who feel different. Students who don’t feel accepted or included or loved. Books can reach out to that dark, scary, strange part of ourselves. They show us who we are, and who we can become. They remind us that there is hope beyond darkness. They bring us light if we allow it.
Since I’ve returned from my heart-opening conference, I’ve read parts of All American Boys to my seventh grade students during our study of stereotypes. I am trying to show them windows as well as mirrors. We have all been affected by stereotypes-that’s the mirror. And we have all stereotyped. And some of us are affected by stereotypes in ways that we cannot always understand or comprehend. Until we hear their stories. I keep gently suggesting. Hey, let’s look through this window. Now, how about this one? What do you think? Why do you think that?
For three days in Atlanta, I was not doing yoga poses. I was listening. I was thinking. I was absorbing. I was learning, growing, changing. Molecules, I swear, were shifting. When I was asked how my conference was, the only word to encompass it was this one. Transformational. I got what I needed. One of the reasons I haven’t written about it yet is because I am still figuring out what to do, where to go next, how to change, and why it matters so much.
And I can’t stop thinking about how books change lives, how books save lives. Stories about people like us or unlike us not only open hearts but widen them. Sometimes we are lucky enough to experience our hearts being broken open and filling with precisely what we need. Sometimes we are ready to hear the message we already know, as loud and clear as music.
My heart has grown, and I am ready for change. Now I am reminded of what I have always known since the moment over forty years ago when I learned to read.
Words have power.