As an educator, there’s almost nothing more freeing than the month of July. School is freshly out, the sun and surf are readily available, and you finally have time to tackle those projects you have been neglecting during the craze that is the end of the school year. This newfound free time also affords for some exploration in the pursuit, we hope, of some personal freedom. Do yourself a favor and make time for it!
Being introspective by nature, I have never had difficulty thinking, reflecting, and changing; however, I realize this is not an easy task for most people. In my eight years working with children, I have come to know students from ages two to eighteen who fight even engaging in conversation that puts the spotlight on them. We seem to spend more time building up our walls than enjoying our freedoms and rights to life and the pursuit of happiness. After recognizing this, I have made it a personal vendetta, in a sense, to help combat these defenses and have found a pretty successful tool to help me do so – literature.
I always tell my students a true statement from my older brother. He came home from his first year of college and proudly declared, “I never knew people wrote books about the things I like!” As an avid reader, books have always provided me with an escape – exploration of other countries, cultures, cuisines, and challenges. It makes our own personal struggles seem relative, in a sense. In times of stress, struggle or sensitivity, I have found myself pouring into a good book only to come out feeling refreshed. I try to share this with any student who will let me.
No one ever told me before I became a teacher that I was going to learn things that children go through that I would never wish upon anyone. I have taught orphans, homeless children, victims of neglect and abuse, and students with a plethora of other difficulties. I always admire how they persevere. How they show up to class with more tenacity and focus than I know some of my own peers to have. This year was an especially enlightening year because I had the pleasure of teaching Sarah and Veronica.
Sarah and Veronica represent two opposite ends of the spectrum. Sarah comes from a broken home – an abusive alcoholic mother and an absent father took turns running in and out of her life. As an eighth grader, she was still the most mature student I have ever had, probably because she was forced to grow up too fast. We shared quotes, lyrics and other meaningful words that we felt connected to. I recommended some books for her to read as part of her independent reading project. Sarah chose a book called The Fault in Our Stars about a sixteen-year-old cancer patient. She flew through the book in a few days and came to me crying after finishing it during her lunch period. She told me the book made her realize that there is always good in this world and things to be thankful for. This experience helped free her a bit. Through literature, she realized that she was not alone and that she could overcome the obstacles that came her way. There is almost nothing more freeing than discovering this realization yourself.
Veronica, on the other hand, has a family who is very present in her life. Her mother and father celebrate her openly, attend her sporting events, and always cheer her on. They introduced themselves at Open School Night and told me that their daughter was shy but always made them proud. Now, I did not even really know Veronica at that point of the school year. Her meek personality was overshadowed by many other students in her class of thirty-one; however, the beauty of interacting with children is you don’t often realize when they are listening and when you are making an impact. I casually recommended a book to her for her project but did not realize until the end of the year how much that had transformed her. Her mother wrote me a letter this June thanking me for how I influenced her daughter. She told me that Veronica, who was never a reader, came home from school one day and asked to go to the library to pick out a book that I recommended. Since that day, she opened up in class, started participating more, and actually emailed me today asking for summer reading recommendations. Her family is so proud of how much more confident and open she has become in just a year’s time. They believe that her positive school experience and new interest in reading have allowed Veronica to make great strides. I firmly believe that she will continue to now that she has the right tools to explore.
As a society, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be the best, work the hardest, and earn the most. Sometimes we need to connect back and realize that allowing time to escape and enjoy a good book can be all the freedom we need. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Isn’t that what we are all aspiring to do?