Take Brittney as a prime example of what time and patience can accomplish. This slightly built young lady had scars from “cutting,” a new pastime of students who are disturbed about their lives but have no one and/or no way of expressing this, so they use sharp objects to cut their skin. Her father had been in jail for most of her life, and her mother held a job in the “entertainment” field. The sneer on her face the first day was not unlike most of the other students in the class; our work was cut out for us. Mistake number one: making assumptions about what Brittney would want to read based on her turbulent past.
The university provided us with a very comprehensive list of books on the students’ level and that appealed to struggling high school readers. I did as I was taught in graduate school: analyzed my students’ data from the state test and informal assessments, determined their reading levels, put together big crates of books based on high interest “concepts” (based on a reading interest inventory), and set off to conquer the world of failing readers. I took my time to get to know about each student and included books that that I “knew” would appeal to them. I was determined to find a book Brittney would love; young adult (YA) literature (lit) that was a bit edgy with main characters who experienced hardships, but who persevered in the end. Surely, this young lady could and would “relate.” Wrong.
After reading the first chapter of a carefully-selected-novel-just-for-her-by-me, Brittney threw the book at my desk, and said, “I am not reading this.” This went on for a month. Then, I became ill. I was out for a week with the flu, and when I returned, Brittney was found sitting quietly in her chair with a book in her lap. I was tempted to rush up to her to see what she was reading, but was aware of her growing aversion to me. I knew that if I showed any sign of excitement, I would most likely get another book thrown my way, so, I kept my distance.
Being sick for a week is what, ultimately, opened the literacy door for Brittany. My substitute teacher read a passage from a book out loud, and Brittney immediately “rented” it, as she called it, from my classroom library. To my surprise, Brittney really was reading the book Twilight. I chose not to say or do anything, but when she returned the 400+ paged book to me two days later and asked for the next book in the series (New Moon), I high tailed it to the nearest Barnes and Noble and bought it (along with the third book in the series, Eclipse, that had just been released). In spite of the fact that vampires, werewolves and teen love were not my thing, I read the book anyway. Not only did I end up enjoying the story, but Twilight allowed me to have discussions with Brittney that formed a bond–a shared love for literacy. This young girl taught me some of the most crucial lessons in my 17 years of teaching.
Brittney went on to read the entire Twilight series, and I knew I had a lifelong reader when she looked at me and said, “Come sit next to me. I am going to read them all again, and I want you to help me with the words I don’t know and talk to me about the stories so I can understand the books better.” The first word she inquired about: “pew.” Brittany had never been inside a church. After working with her for just a few seconds studying context clues, she arrived at the answer herself. Two thoughts for the day that seem to have a running theme in the trade of book dealing: 1) There is so much that teachers don’t know about the lives of their students, and 2) the only way to connect and develop a strong rapport based on trust is through the immersion of high quality literature that appeals to our students and allows for discussion. These books level the playing field for students and teachers. The university researchers’ hard work and dedication to locate current YA Lit based on difficulty level and interest is what made our program so successful the first two years.
Brittney is just one of many success stories. I spoke with her this past year, and she told me that her boyfriend bought her a book for her birthday, despite his limited funds. Later, she posted on Facebook: “I got a new Kindle. I am so freakin’ excited. I can read all day, every day, for the rest of my life.” Brittany is now a young woman who is able to articulate ideas clearly, not just about books, but about other aspects of her life as well. She confided that she learned so much from the characters of the books she has read over the years, and, at times, stated that she is a better person because of them. She, too, is a Book Dealer, and a powerful one at that. She opened our trade up to a whole new clientele, who, in reality, would have never been enticed by the Cartel Kingpin.