I used to believe that reading could change your life. My parents, both avid readers, immersed me in books from birth. One of my first memories is of applying for my own library card. With my mom at my side that pre-school day, I felt the pride and joy of an immigrant taking her oath of citizenship.
Growing up, reading also gave me some control over my life. As a young adult, I lost this power when I moved to a country where I did not speak, read or write the language. Although I quickly learned it, I never forgot the helplessness and fear of being illiterate.
My experience motivated me to train as a reading teacher on returning to America, and now I work with struggling 7th and 8th graders. But nothing in graduate school or life had prepared me to defuse my students’ rage against school for years of failure. Every day, I try—without much success—to help them set aside their anger long enough to experience reading’s benefits. I still struggle, but my experiences with one student helped me to recognize the true beliefs that guide me in my life.
Nadine was much like all my other kids: angry and struggling. Her mother’s terminal illness made her especially vulnerable. She was enrolled in an experimental program that let me spend hours—not minutes—with my reading students each day. Our time together allowed us to make unexpected connections, and as our mutual respect and affection grew, Nadine—while still challenging –became a more willing, measurably more competent reader.
Then one day, her rage reappeared, replacing any learning. I discovered that her mother was critically ill, but couldn’t broker an agreement among school staff about how to help her. Finally, her behavior became so extreme that she was removed from the school. I never saw her again. She remained in my thoughts, though, a symbol of how inadequate a weapon reading is in the battles my students fight every day.
Months later, I received an e-mail with Nadine’s name in the subject line. I opened it with dread, but then read:
How are you? [M]e, fine. I go to [high school] now. … I miss those days when I seen [sic] you 2-3 times a day….Me, [I’m] still trying to make it. If you haven’t heard, my mom past [sic] away… I was just wishing I could’ve seen you, but I was thinking about you.
Reading this, I realized that love—not just literacy—can change your life. Thanks to Nadine’s letter, I finally recognized this, the very first belief my parents had instilled in me, one I unknowingly had acted out with my students. So, here’s a shout-out to Nadine. Hey there yourself. I’m so sorry about your mom. I wish I could see you, too; I’ll keep trying. Until then, know you’re in my thoughts. Love, Ms. Saurino. P.S. Keep reading.
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