When I step in to the morning class to make my announcement, there’s a buzz in the classroom. But it’s from people talking amongst themselves, as if the morning instructor, who guides a student through an algebra problem on the whiteboard, is in a separate room.
“How many you would like to win something free?” I ask. A few heads pop up. A few, but not all.
“I love to read so much, and believe so deeply in the value of reading, that I’ve been selected by an organization called World Book Night to pass out a whole box of free books to you guys. A fiction novel, to read just for fun!” I tell them they have to give an honest answer to these questions — “What was the last good book you read? When was it?” – to be eligible. That’s all they have to do. That and to show up in class tomorrow.
“Must be present to win” is an important addition, since this adult education center tends to be a place where, from one day to the next, the population of students in the classroom is never the same.
“What book is it?” one student asks.
Before I can answer, Sonja pipes in: “Is true story? I love true story. This my favorite kind of movie.” She says this with a dramatic, admission-of-sin eyeroll, as she often does when she talks about how much she loves coffee and chocolate.
“Remember?” I say with a smile, trying to be gentle. “Fiction means not true.” I don’t correct her (or other students’) grammar, not unless it’s on paper. (And even then it’s hard to know where to start.)
The students are all working toward the goal of completing a high school equivalency diploma at the center where I teach in Davenport, Iowa — a location which might conjure images of tractors and cornfields, but which is also a place where students are frequently residents of halfway houses or domestic-abuse refuges. Their chances are hindered by the plethora of immediate pressures in their lives: issues with transportation and child care; the need to work and pay bills.
And I stand in front of them declaring the virtues of reading for fun.
Sonja, who originally came to the U.S. as a Bosnian refugee, has four children, two of whom have special needs. And yet, in the three years since I began teaching here – working with everyone from beginning readers to English Language Learners to GED candidates seemingly bright enough to have been at the tops of their classes — she has been my most consistently attending student.
I want more than anything to not only give Sonja a copy of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette, but more importantly, for her to read it and understand it someday. I want to share laughs with her over the snarky comments made by the titular anti-heroine.
I want to know and believe for sure that if she keeps working at this center, keeps plugging away at the English language, she’ll get there.
I need to believe that she will, and that the other students in this room — black and white and Hispanic adults ranging from their early twenties to retirement age — will actually take advantage of this opportunity. That they’ll dig in and laugh aloud at this story, despite their usual admissions that they’ve never finished a book, that they hate to read, or that they would actually like to read but just can’t — house full of kids, third shift job, dyslexia, ADHD.
I give a little teaser about Bernadette, talking up its comedic value, its central mystery, its connection (via the author and her writing credits) to popular TV shows they may have heard of.
One young guy has his head down and texts through my entire mini-presentation.
From helping them draft essays about their future goals, I have learned that most of the male students want to get hired as welders or manufacturers for John Deere, or at the nearby Alcoa metals plant. A majority of the females plan to become CNAs. And if they say they plan to go on to school after the GED, they mean for cosmetology, not to study the humanities.
But I make this attempt at spreading the love of reading, person to person because books still hold magic for me. More specifically, books that fell into my hands at certain times have made small but magical changes to my life. This book I’ll hand to a student could be the very one they need at just that time.
These books could ignite a spark.
Maybe. Just maybe.
The night before the giveaway, I dream that I’ve gathered all the students in the building, telling them to head outside for a book giveaway. But it’s raining, and they stand in the rain for five, 10, and then 20 minutes while I search in vain for my Giver Box – which I then realize I’ve left at home.
The big day is nothing I should be anxious about. It is, after all, surely one of the most no-strings-attached, low-commitment volunteer obligations in existence.
There is no requirement for readers to report back, to indicate they’ve read the book.
The variety and quality of the book choices at sign-up time is remarkable. But I worry about the appropriateness of my choice.
Previously – I’ve been fortunate enough to be chosen three years in a row – I’ve given books with obvious societal, moral, inspirational “messages”: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Classics that I was required to read, and was moved by, in high school and college.
But with Fahrenheit, I worried: can any of these students grasp the vocabulary, the density of the prose on even the first page?
My first year, with Caged Bird, I worried about the fact that several of the recipients had tested at second-grade reading level or below. (But, I reasoned, isn’t there power for them in having something so lofty to aspire to?)
This year, I worry that the book I requested is less of a “message” book. But, maybe, I think, it could still be simply a reminder that books can be about modern times and people and be just sheer fun to read.
And yet, just as there is no requirement for recipients to report back, there is no guarantee that they’ll read it, either.
The morning of April 23, I tap on the first classroom door.
I’m saddened to discover that Sonja’s not there. (Later, she’ll stop by in a uniform to tell me she’s gotten a job.)
I get to hand out copies to other regulars like Pamela, the grandmother in her late 60s, and Curtis, who wants so badly to get a diploma and a job, but is struggling to read at the level required by the equivalency tests.
The sheer idealism of WBN is so great that it’s almost too much for a passionate literature-lover, English teacher, and writer like me. So I force myself to see it as scattering seeds and hoping the garden grows. A kind of faith that, even if the recipient doesn’t pick it up and read it, someone in their family or household will – and that it will have fallen into their hands at just the right time, just like magic.