Lately, I’ve been experiencing a bit of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in many areas of my life, including the value of continuing this blog. It may be an act of neurotic self-pity or simply be a part of reaching a certain age and taking a measure of myself and my accomplishments or lack thereof. I don’t know. But I had a very cool and personally-rewarding experience in my English 12/British Literature class recently that came along just when I needed it and that, at least minimally, restored a bit of my faith in young adult readers and in myself.
The class is composed mostly of — if I’m being honest — less-than-highly-motivated scholars. A handful of them are college bound, and I imagine a couple of those will actually survive the rigors of university-level academia, but I don’t believe any of them plan on being English majors; in fact, the vast majority are simply wanting to earn their final English credit and to graduate in May.
They’re all sweet kids, and I truly appreciate and enjoy all of them, but their interest in my lectures and in the readings I assign them is limited. Despite all of my desperate histrionics and pleas for them to “think” and to “read along,” their attention is very difficult to hold. Clearly, they would much rather be staring into their phones, out the window, at each other, or just about anywhere but at me or the texts I place in front of them.
Trust me; I get it. I understand their indifference. The vast majority of what I make them read was written by old white men about old white men’s problems and experiences. We’ve been in class for two months, and we’re still trudging through texts written around a thousand years ago, and I’ll be lucky if I can share something written by an English woman by sometime in the second semester, and I’ll really have to stretch the traditional English canon if I want to include anything by a minority author.
Their indifference is not their fault.
In order to address my students’ lack of enthusiasm for reading in general and in line with my school district’s push for increased literacy and installing a love of reading in our students, this year I planned to incorporate an independent reading period of twenty to thirty minutes into my Wednesday class sessions. On the Wednesday morning of our first such reading period, however, I woke up and realized I had forgotten to inform my students of the plan or to assign them to come to class with something of their own choosing to read for pleasure rather than classwork.
In a panic, I remembered that I had enough copies of my second novel, Goodness Falls, for each member of the class, so I brought the books with me to school. (As a side note, I have never before used my own books in school or even suggested to my students that they should read them. I’m pretty sure that most of them don’t even know, and much less care, that I’ve written any.) When I distributed them to the class, I asked the kids just to read from my novel for the time remaining in the period and, if they wished, they could continue in it the following week or bring in something of their own choosing. They would not hurt my feelings.
I was shocked and beyond validated when, for the next twenty minutes, they read with a rapt attention I had not seen them apply all semester. When the bell rang to end the period, it was like an alarm going off to pull them back into the real world. Several of them even expressed their excitement about continuing to read from Goodness Falls the following week.
It may have been the greatest compliment I have ever received as a writer, and as it is wont to do, the universe smiled on me just when I needed it most.
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