All my life I have loved books. Three Nancy Drew books for Christmas was a treasure to be savored; three for my birthday got me through the rest of the year. In between there was the library where I took out favorite books and read them again and again. Gangly, with glasses and buck teeth, one might think I had no life. I’ve had many lives—lives of the imagination. Consequently, I believe in the power of a good story.
I now teach remedial reading. I believe that every kid can learn to enjoy reading, if I just find the right story to lure him in. Recently, I taught a group of 8th grade boys who hated to read. No one in their homes liked to read; no one they admired liked to read. They already had jobs, working on their family farms. They raised pigs to butcher and horses to ride. They milked cows in twelve hour cycles, one boy getting up at three in the morning to help milk over 200 cows, then staying up to come to school at eight, only to go home and start it all over again.
The more they talked, the more I remembered A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck. Earthy and profound, profane and hilarious, this was the story of a Vermont farm boy during the 1920’s. The youngest child of older parents, Rob learned wisdom from his illiterate Shaker father who could mend a fence, butcher pigs, carve a whistle, and recite whole passages of the Book of Shaker by heart, but could not write his own name. When the father was forced to kill Rob’s pet, Rob had grow up and accept the responsibility of a man whose family depended on him. This was the story for those eighth grade boys.
We read it together. Every chapter described their lives. When we reached the climactic scene where Rob offers his father forgiveness, I cried as I always do, and the boys stared at me solemnly, impressed that I would care so much about characters in a book. When they came to class, one of them would ask, “Can we read that book?” We finished in record time with no tests and no Cliffs Notes.
The story bonded us together. They trusted me to choose a good story and we laughed our way through James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small as the intrepid veterinarian treated farm animals and pets before the discovery of antibiotics. We continued through the rough lives of itinerant workers in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and we cried together when Lenny died listening to his favorite story about living off the fat of the land.
It is our stories that unite us and inspire us to do great things. I believe in their power and I hope I have passed that belief on to my little cadre of boys. Who knows where their stories will take them?
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