Freedom Readers: The Redemptive Qualities of Discussing Books with My Student
As an educator, dean of students and systems of support advisor, I have sought to instill a love of reading in children who have not been read to by their parents or who have not had close literary role models. I have shared many books from my office and home libraries with students facing personal, academic or behavioral difficulties or just exploring their identities or their place in life in general. One of my favorite endeavors is to bring a troubled student to the library to search for a book - any book - that might speak to their heart, that might reflect in one way or another their life odyssey; that tells them that someone out there has experienced similar journeys.
I have always intuited that the most genuine and enduring kind of teaching involves the simple, metaphoric act of cultivating a seed. Cultivating the seed of love for reading in children who lack cultural and social capital does not always come easily but may be of great consequence. As Doris Walker-Dalhourse and Victoria Risko write: “…who can deny the power of a teacher who makes students fall in love with learning?” In highlighting the power of literacy, I would like to replace the word “learning” with “reading”. I passionately believe that instilling a love of reading in children can indeed bring about their liberation.
In “Diverse Learners, Diverse Texts” (1998) Steven Athanases suggests that literature that mirrors minority students in a positive way seems to have a positive impact on their sense of identity. In an ethnographic study that examined the implementation of a multiethnic literature curriculum in two urban 10th-grade classrooms, Athanases found that students often experienced identity validation and a heightened sense of pride when they could identify culturally with people and themes in literary works.
As you read this, you may be thinking of the one teacher that planted seeds of liberation in you. However, my experience has been that some of our students reverse the equation by being the ones who instill seeds of liberation in us. It is often the teacher who is ultimately the most enriched in the teacher-student relationship. In my thirty years of mediating between children and books, one girl, whom I first met when she was in ninth grade, is forever stamped in my memory. While I have had close-knit relationships with many students, my relationship with this young lady was particularly special because of our transcendental love for books. We also shared being bilingual, immigrants, Latinas, seriously impacted by suddenly losing our fathers in our teenage years - but these were secondary to our common ground as readers.
I met this young Central American student in my classroom and the homeroom I supervised about nine years ago, a year I was both dean of students and teacher. I was teaching two Spanish for Fluent Speakers classes, while also conducting my doctoral research on how to improve Latino/a students’ reading motivation through the exploration of identity-related literary topics. As dean one of the students I was working with had severe attendance issues due to the emotional consequences of her father’s recent tragic death. I soon learned that this young lady was the older sister of my student.
My daily classroom and homeroom interactions with my student were some of my most rewarding daily experiences. She was uncompromisingly candid, witty, spiritual, resilient, brilliant and original. She would demonstrate her originality every day with the unique ribbon bows she made to display over her hair.
Besides monitoring their academic engagement, I led reading-aloud sessions and discussions with my five homeroom students. I told them that whoever was present in my homeroom was required to read. I often took them to the library and checked out books with them, whichever books spoke to their hearts. Doing this came naturally for this young lady since she already had the predisposition to become an avid reader. My conversations with her were mostly about books and how life related to those books. Just as I have always done, she read several books at a time – reading one or the other depending on her mood, interest or need at that time of day. She would often greet me by saying: “Ms. Cabrero, I just finished my book!”
Her life, like the lives of the characters in the books she read, was challenging. What I admired the most was her unrivaled capacity to associate the lives of book characters with her own life or with the lives of people she knew. She tended to gravitate towards books about characters with difficult lives - about a teenager who was abandoned by her mother, or a woman whose husband abused her and did not tell her he had AIDS, or a young lady who started self-mutilating after a tragic event. While often about tragic circumstances, the books she read were striking in that, even though most of the characters lived marginalized lives, they could often find a sense of liberation.
Surprisingly, this avid reader slept a lot during my class when we read or discussed the assigned class textbook readings! She had to wake up early each day since her recently widowed mother had moved the family far from school to find affordable housing for her children and herself. Moreover, as she often told me and tests reflected, she did not pay much attention to the textbook readings because she simply found them boring. In contrast to her personal reading choices, they did not reflect much about her life or the lives of those around her. Neither did they involve any redeeming qualities. In other words, she did not identify with the characters or their stories. Nonetheless, as my research reflected, her interest in reading increased significantly that year. While she had always enjoyed reading, the high quantity of books that she was exposed to and could identify with helped her become such an avid reader that school year that being a reader became a more potent part of her identity, as demonstrated in an identity-based project I asked my students to complete. She also became quite close to me. On a questionnaire about how my role as her teacher had impacted her interest in reading, she indicated that I had had a lot of impact on her interest “because we both like to read, and she’s the best teacher ever.”
This young lady understood human nature with the wisdom of an old soul. While she identified with the lives of characters who endured hardships, she also found redemption in themes and characters that reflected her spiritual perspective on life. Once, when I asked the class if each story had a theme, she answered with a look of conviction in her eyes: “Yes, every story has a theme because every author has a message”. At that moment, she was fully awake.
I feel quite fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from and share my love for books with this young lady. After ninth grade, she moved to another school closer to her new home. I am grateful that we have remained in contact ever since. Our relationship transcended the more ordinary relationship between teacher and student, adult and child, Latina and Latina, immigrant and immigrant, bilingual and bilingual, female and female, orphan and orphan. What mostly bonded us was our understanding of how books represent who we are and how we experience and interpret life; how we can be transformed and liberated through them; how they help us connect with one another. Our shared perception brings to mind the following line from Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa: “In a very real sense people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read.”