THE CLASSROOM IS THE FIRST BOOK CLUB

Blogger Becky Brothers and I met in a bookstore in Chattanooga. Sadly, the indie store has since closed but our friendship has only thrived!  Becky is one of those amazing young women whose thirst for knowledge  and whose love of books is absolutely voracious. She never ceases to amaze me with her energy and sharp wit.

When Nashville flooded in May of 2010, Becky (also a mother, English teacher and tutor) spearheaded a campaign to put books back in Nashville’s affected classrooms. Her campaign, A DRY READ, was a huge success with hundreds of books being donated.

Here Becky shares her thoughts about the definition and power of book club.

Like most people who love to read, I spent long hours of my childhood with books.  My fondest early memories of my parents are those precious story time minutes before bed: my mother laughing so hard at Ramona and Beezus or Bunnicula she couldn’t keep reading; my father home from work, just out of the tub, smelling of Lava soap and aftershave, reading Charlotte’s Wed to me while I cried big, silent tears into his clean white T-shirt. I actually had trouble learning to read because I loved being read to more than anything in the world. It felt suddenly very unfair, very cold and lonely, to be asked to read a book alone, and in silence.

But just like learning to ride a bike, once I could do by myself, there was no turning back. I read with a voracious appetite everything I could get my hands on. To this day I think my own writing has been permanently helped (and hindered!) by Anne of Green Gables and three back to back readings of Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl. I was content to read by myself, happy to have my books and those worlds all for me. But in eighth grade I had a wonderful English teacher who saw something in me; she nurtured my love of reading and did the unthinkable: she let me choose whatever I wanted to read for credit at school. That unthinkable freedom, paired with her careful responses in the reading journal I did for her, sparked something new in me: reading wasn’t just  good, it was empowering.

Everyone who knows me says they’ve always known I would be an English teacher, despite my thoughts of law school and journalism. My dabbling in music school was short lived; you can’t exactly curl up with your piano on a rainy day. It’s nearly impossible to keep an afghan on your lap while you play Beethoven. And a warm cup of cocoa? No way. It’s cold before the first movement of the sonata is done. Books were friendly things, even when the reading was hard or slow. But it was still so lonely when the book was done, the class discussions over.

Author Kelly O'Connor McNees with Blogger Becky Brothers

But at the end of graduate school,  I finally found a reading home with other teachers, the wonderful and dedicated teachers of Central High School in Louisville, KY. They face many challenges in their jobs, but they’ve never accepted the idea that reaching their students would include anything less than authentic reading and writing experiences. They are pressured every day by the state and local school boards to raise test scores, raise test scores. An endless parade of dumbed down reading curriculum is thrown at them. They are threatened. But they stand by their ideals; they know their kids aren’t fooled by programs and phony workbooks, bubble sheets and stats. These kids don’t buy what the system has to offer them, not believing in the promise of a diploma. So these brave teachers dig deeper into what really matters: Reading (with a capital “R”).

We would sit around the lunch tables in our break room, stuffing our lunches down for our 20 minute break, and talk books, non-stop. I was the new kid—a 23 year old teacher fresh out of grad school in 2001. I was overwhelmed by all of the stress every new teacher faces. My department chair looked at me and said, “Read something.” She was right. In the next few months, I read everything in our book room, a tiny store room stacked floor to ceiling with titles hand-picked by the teachers, not the school board, bought with money we raised ourselves. The school’s funding ran out in April. We were out of toilet paper and light bulbs. But we kept reading and buying new books and talking books at the lunch table and carrying over those authentic, grown-up conversations into our classes.

My classroom became a real reading group. I knew I had found a reading home because the other teachers, all of them, embraced what Mrs. Doctorman had let me do: kids in our classes also had the unimaginable freedom to choose whatever they wanted to read. And we let them have at it. My biggest challenge was scarfing down everything in the (then) tiny Young Adult section of Barnes and Noble and the great local indie, Carmichaels. I read Patricia McCormick’s Cut, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Walter Dean Myers incredible book, Monster, and countless others. I lay in bed at night worried about certain students, wracking my brain, “What would finally get Marcus to read?” The very best moments were when one of my students, especially when it was one who struggled to read, would be so moved by a book that he would jump in front of the class, voluntarily, and witness about what an amazing story he’d just read. One student was in a terrible accident while I taught there; she came back to school with mild brain injuries. She read Sharon Draper’s Tears of a Tiger, cover to cover, in 2 days. When she came back to school with it finished, she told me, “I’ve never read a whole book in my life. This is the first one I’ve ever finished. For real.” She was almost 19.

Our lunchtime round table was a place to really debate books. I’ll never forget coming to them all fresh off of reading Sapphire’s book Push. This was almost a decade before the movie; I’d never read a book so awful, so dirty, so honest. It was the perfect portrait of everything wrong with the world: incest, abuse, illiteracy. Some of my colleagues were scared to put it on their shelves. I told them they had to. We did. We almost got fired for it. We fought for it. Parents threatened us when we put books with gay and lesbian characters out for our students. We knew it was worth the risk.

I miss that book club, that breakfast club, the club of my kids and colleagues. I witness about books everywhere I go now. Finding the right book club is hard, just like finding the right book can be hard. Now that I use Goodreads and Facebook and Twitter, I’m connecting with like-minded teachers and readers everywhere and it’s a good fight. I know there are lots of struggling kids out there searching for something; they just don’t know it’s a book yet.

Posted August 12, 2011 at 8:13 am · 1 comment · Leave a Comment

Comments

  1. Susan Gregg Gilmore to the rescue! (AGAIN!) « Reader with a capital "R": Rebecca Brothers, August 12th, 2011, 12:21 pm

    [...] incredible friend, author Susan Gregg Gilmore (Looking For Salvation at the Dairy Queen; The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove–just out in [...]

Leave a Comment

Susan Gregg Gilmore