I’m going through a period in my life, maybe it’s a stage or a phase, where I am addicted to STORY. We all are to some degree, even if we don’t read much. I have certainly been a story addict all my life to a greater or lesser extent. This blog is evidence of that.
My notebooks are filled with bits and pieces, the flotsam and jetsam of a life. Lyrics, fiction, images, characters, poems, memoir, letters. I’ve got two or three classroom notebooks, my car notebook (I only write at traffic lights or when I step out of the car), my backpack notebook, the one by the bed, the old ones in my bag of music. There are drafts of songs in my guitar case, in file folders and cabinets and drawers. There are classroom anecdotes that I keep on clipboards and in student files.
Then there is what I read. There are chapter books and picture books I read aloud to my students. We ALWAYS have a book going. Sharing books with my students is probably the most meaningful thing I do as a teacher instructionally. I say it every time we begin a new chapter book. One of the very best parts of being a teacher is sharing my favorite books with my best friends. And I mean it. Sincerely. I don’t remember who shared Charlotte’s Web with me the first time or The Wizard of Oz or Number the Stars but whoever they were they were my most effective reading teachers. Those books – and many others, are what made me a reader. It wasn’t the hundreds of pages of phonics lessons endured over the years (thousands?), or the fill-in-the-blank comprehension questions to the stories we read in our readers, or the color-coded tiny SRA “stories” with the accompanying quizzes. It was the giver of those books who taught me how to read. It was E. B. White, L. Frank Baum and Lois Lowrey. If I can do anything for my students, it is to give the gift of story that someone gave to me, that someone gave to them, that someone gave to them as far back as humans existed.
A couple days ago Kendall Haven visited our school. He is a wonderful story-teller and writer. He said that humans come hard wired for story. It makes sense. Humans have been writing for what, a few thousand years? Some cultures didn’t develop written language until very recently. Until written language came along, all of our history and culture and religion and heritage were passed through the spoken word. Story.
I always have a big fat fiction book going. Now it is The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. He wrote I Know This Much Is True – one of the best books I have ever read. I’m reading a fantastic non-fiction book by Greg Mortenson called Three Cups of Tea about his brave life helping to build schools in Pakistan where there were none. There are the blogs I read, the editorials I never miss (Nicholas Kristoff, Leonard Pitts). The newspaper.
In the car I’m stuck on books on tape or CD. I’m almost finished with To Kill a Mockingbird. Jem’s arm has been broken, Scout nearly killed in her chicken-wire-and-fabric ham costume by the dreaded Bob Ewell. The Sheriff, most often referred to as Mr. Heck Tate, is convincing Atticus that it would be a mistake to make a public spectacle out of how Ewell was killed (by Boo Radley, remember? Boo saved the kids’ from the murderous Ewell.). Wise little Scout explains that it would be wrong to bring attention to the shy, reclusive Boo Radley.
Atticus sat looking at the floor for a long time. Finally he raised his head. “Scout,” he said, “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”
Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might. “Yes sir, I understand,” I reassured him. Mr. Tate was right.”
Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Atticus put his face in my hair and rubbed it. When he got up and walked across the porch into the shadows, his youthful step had returned. Before he went inside the house, he stopped in front of Boo Radley. “Thank you for my children, Arthur,” he said.
It’s like all good books to me. There is this battle between wanting to finish – to know how it all ends up – and not wanting to finish because who knows when I’ll see these folks again? Atticus, the best father and friend a kid could have, and Jem and Scout who seem more real to me than some real people. I may never read that book again. I’ve read it several times with years between spacing out the readings. But I may never get back to Macomb County again. So many books – so little time, you know?
The older I get, the harder it is not to cry at good books. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because I know more about life now, not that I am wise, just older. Maybe it is because the more of my days have passed, the more precious the remaining days become. For whatever reason, it’s difficult not to mist up especially when I read something tender aloud. Our old friend and professor, Jerry Harste, told us years ago – when I never cried at reading - that if you can’t cry, you can’t read. I am now finding the truth in that statement more than ever.
A couple of weeks ago I gave a copy of The Education of Little Tree to Teresa, our student teacher. It was to celebrate her completing her first week of student teaching. She’s really busy now. Completely busy. I didn’t know when she’d ever be able to read it. But it’s an important book, one every teacher should read. So I gave it to her. A time capsule of brilliant writing and insight, a few ounces of paper and ink that hold so much wisdom, life, sorrow, joy. Perhaps she’d read it years from now and think back on our classroom and our beautiful, brilliant kids. Maybe she’d be retired before she ever got around to reading it. You give a book. You never know. Maybe she’d never get around to reading it. So many books – so little time, right? Maybe she’d schlep it around for a few moves and finally sell it in a yard sale without ever having read it.
But she came in one morning this week and said that she’d read the first chapter. I waited. Anxious. Well, she’d loved it. I knew she would. Maybe she’ll think it is as important as I do. Maybe not. But for her there’ll be other important books. Ones she’ll give lovingly to her own child – waiting to be born, her students and her friends. I think so. I don’t know her that well, but I think she’s like that.