Books save lives.

quote-the-story-from-rumpelstiltskin-to-war-and-peace-is-one-of-the-basic-tools-invented-by-the-human-ursula-k-le-guin-3464651Years 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.

 

 

 

 

 

New beginnings

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For the first time in twenty years of teaching, my dear friend Kim is not teaching English by my side. This year, my childhood friend became our school librarian and turned a brand new corner.

Our mothers introduced us at the swimming pool more than forty years ago, and we quickly became close. Over twenty years ago, Kim and I moved to northwestern Montana on a whim, for lack of any better plan. We had both spent a summer living in or near Glacier National Park. After graduating from college in a slim job market back in 1991, we said, “Why not be ski bums for a winter in Whitefish?”

And we’re both still here, both married and raising our children in the Flathead Valley. We shared countless experiences outside of school, though that is a topic for a different day. Until this fall, we taught English together-the same junior high school, the same grade level.

During our first years of teaching, we would remind each other, “You do not have to sign your contract at the end of the school year.” We lived together and taught many of the same kids, and we’d decompress after a long, hectic day of teaching and spin out about all of the bat-shit crazy things which occur during a day of teaching hormonal eighth graders.

No matter how bizarre, crazy, heart wrenching, or exhausting our teaching jobs were, we chose it, and we could also choose to walk away in June. Neither of us did.

Kim and I collaborated for years. We could not even speak of school until August, and then, we would begin to throw ideas at each other. Six Traits. Peer evaluation. Parts of speech. Coats of Arms to hang in our classrooms. We didn’t always agree. I specifically recall our philosophical differences about the purpose of a writer’s notebook. The differences also made both of us better teachers. But the conversation underlying it, always, was, “How do I get the best out of my students? What did you do? Here’s what I did.”

Kim was itchy to move on after years of her media specialist program. I could tell. She would never ‘phone it in’ at her job, being one of the most dedicated and engaging teachers I know. But she needed change, and last spring, she joyfully embraced her opportunity to move on to a new challenge..

Now Kim is my sixth grade son’s librarian. She opens up the library every single morning so kids in our school have a safe, warm, beautiful place to gather. They can play chess or search for books, work on homework, or talk quietly with friends. Our library is filled with light. The mountains seem so close you could reach out and touch them. My son urges me every morning, “Can we please leave earlier?!” so that he can run into the library and begin his day.

Now Kim pops into my classroom to ‘drop off books,’ our euphemism for catching up. In the past, both of us were stressed out, frantically planning, thinking out loud. Now Kim is the perfect foil to my stress; years of rich experience and teaching wisdom accompany her newfound sense of perspective and calm. It is a different collaboration, but still, we move forward together, perhaps now on parallel paths.

Change is hard, and change is good. While I miss brainstorming with Kim about teaching strategies, or agonizing or sharing triumphs about our students, I also recognize all too well when it’s time to move on.

Now I recognize what a gift it was. Because of my decades of collaboration with Kim, I know how to share. I know how to listen. I know how to respect others’ ways of doing things and not take it personally. I know how to grow. I know how to trust. These are big gifts; I do not take them for granted.

I haven’t burned out yet. I’ve got a new crop of kids who keep me hopping, and I have a whole lot more to learn. In a few years, I may choose to mix it up and change job positions, or maybe it will get mixed up again for me, as it sometimes happens. I stay wide open to change and the movement it brings. The last thing anyone needs is a stuck teacher.

Now I can visit our library with its sky-high windows, with the peaks of Glacier and blue sky shining in, visit Kim, and visit a new life, a new way, a new road. We’ll keep on growing together, and I am lucky.

Lovers of Books

imagesBF2MJ5NJEver since I can remember, I have been a voracious, passionate reader. I walked around the house reading The Phantom Tollbooth. I read and reread series-Narnia, The Great Brain, Little House on the Prairie. I soaked in the language of a good story, and when it was a good story, I was always transported.

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The same is true today. I need to have a big book pile on my nightstand, or a list of books I want to read, scribbled on a scrap piece of paper, or fourteen books on hold at the public library. And now I watch my kids read at the kitchen table, in the car on a seven minute drive to the neighboring town, and at soccer games instead of watching a sibling play. Our kindergartner learned to read this fall, and now she joins us.  We filled a laundry basket with books which she drags around the house, continually grabbing piles of Berenstain Bears, Pinkalicious, and Mo Willems. All three children, like me, are voracious, passionate readers of books, all with discerning and different tastes.

My mom let me read Jaws when I was seven. I didn’t understand a lot of it, and skimmed a lot of it, but even then I knew it meant freedom. I could handle it. I was trusted.FINAL_NG_PASSING_TIME_FREE_DIVE-HD_00_00_18_00_Still001_640x360_453950531970

When my kids started reading,  I caught myself wanting to ‘direct’ their reading to certain books. My mom (another lover of books, a former elementary school librarian) said, “Your reading life is your own.” I catch myself repeating her words frequently. When someone steps in and tells you what they think you should…  or shouldn’t… be reading, maybe, just maybe, it takes away a little bit of the transport, a little bit of the mystery, a little bit of the fun and the journey.

I am not talking about recommendations from friends or from librarians, which is different. And, as a parent, sometimes my kids reject suggestions because I am their parent. When I see what books my children are reading, I occasionally bite my tongue. Then I remember my mom’s wise words. Your reading life is your own, and I honor it. This reading life is also a hard-fought freedom.be-free_wallpapers_1008_1280x960

My middle daughter reads graphic novels over and over again. Sometimes I catch myself wishing she’d finally finish the Harry Potter series after ditching it at Book 3. Then, I tell myself, “Her reading life is her own.”

My oldest son, is plowing through Warriors books. To his credit, he knows to tell his writing teacher mother, “Mom, they are VERY well written.” It’s kind of like when you dread that your kids will ever be toilet-trained, and some parent with older kids reassures you, “Don’t worry. They won’t go to kindergarten wearing diapers!” I remind myself to honor where my children are, not where I want them to be or think they should be.

When you find your own book, when you sit down to read it, and you love it, the experience  resonates. You may forget the words, but you don’t forget the feeling you had reading that particular, specific combination of words. You carry it with you, and sometimes, it even changes you. It is empowering to discover a beloved book all by yourself or, sometimes, with a hint of guidance.

Perhaps luckily for my children, I am terrible about recommending books. For me, reading is such an independent, situational experience. Books I read in my twenties resonated for me in specific, momentous ways as I navigated life as a free, searching, single person, as a thirty-something mother of very young children who barely had time to read, and today in my forties, a mother of three. As a result, sometimes I read my book club books, and sometimes, I do not. Sometimes I read classics that I was supposed to read back in high school where I faked my way through a literary analysis. Sometimes excellent books sit on my nightstand table for months because it  didn’t suit my mood at a particular moment.

One of my  colleagues teaches Title Reading next door. One day, she ran into my classroom, beyond excited, because one of her kids found a book he loved and spent all weekend reading. We talked about how sad we were for people to go through life unable or unwilling to lose themselves in books. I keep thinking that one of the greatest gifts I can pass on to my children is a love of reading. It is one of my greatest joys.

My kids and I will continue to transport ourselves in many unforeseeable ways. I am grateful they’ve found reading to be one of the great pathways to freedom. free-hd-desktop-wallpaper-background

I am still thinking about books

English: The Beautiful Humpback Whales off the...

On Sunday morning, like many mornings, my three year old quietly pushed open our bedroom door and crawled into bed with me. It was very early, and the sky was still dark as a chalkboard. We could hear the rain falling, hitting our metal roof like a mallet hitting a xylophone. My husband had been awake for an hour and was downstairs reading the newspaper, sipping his morning coffee, enjoying some of his own quiet reading time.

“Go in your room and read for a while. Then come back and we’ll read together, “ I urged her, as I often do. And she did! I love it when that happens.

I pulled out my book, snuggled back in under my down comforter, and read for a few precious minutes. Then Ella returned, hauling a Diego book about humpback whales, which I’ve read many, many times over the years with all three of my children.

As we read, I thought about how reading is such a gift. How you escape from your life and come back to it. How you change your thinking or understand a very, very different experience from your own. We read about humpback whales, and now we know that they are the acrobats of the ocean, that they can hurl their thousands of pounds of bulk and fat and muscle out of the salty ocean, airborne. I knew it, but now I’m thinking about it with my little daughter, who I hope will continue to think about such dazzling things her entire life.