The Non-Reading Reader

I have fond memories of junior high study hall.That probably puts me in the minority, but there it is. To be quite honest it was the best part of many days. Not that I was goofing off with friends (an understandable assumption) or using study hall to actually study (please). It’s because the study hall supervisor freely dispensed passes to the library, an opportunity rarely seized by most students.But one student took full advantage of the teacher’s generosity. Me. Daily. There was attendance, requesting the pass, receiving permission, and the walk upstairs followed by forty-five uninterrupted me-minutes. During school. Can you imagine? An adolescent boy, virtually unsupervised, allowed unstructured school time to pursue his personal interests? My memories of the high ceiling, ancient shelves, and near silence are still fresh in my mind. Just me, the library, and …

… Sports Illustrated and USA Today.

Needless to say, I have not been a lifelong member of the Nerdy Book Club. After twenty-four book reports in third grade (and still in possession of the dittoed certificate to prove it), I left books behind for the world of weekly sports magazines, baseball statistics, and the newspaper for people who lack the attention span for TV. I was a proud straight-B student. Many words and phrases were used to describe me from age ten to twenty-one. “Not working up to potential” was the report card’s way of saying “slacker.” One teacher told my parents that I “socialized excessively.” She probably told fellow teachers that I “never shut up.”

On the other hand, “reader” was never used. And I believed it. I was not a reader in the eyes of my teachers and therefore not a reader in my own eyes. But I was reading. My daily diet included award-winning authors like Frank Deford, Rick Reilly, Peter King, Paul Zimmerman, Gary Smith, and Steve Rushin. Not household names in the world of children’s literature, but in sports journalism? The cream of the crop. Was it my fault nobody ever asked?

I was a reader. I know that now. I was a reader even if I wasn’t a book reader.

But that would change. My membership in the Nerdy Book Club began the week I finished college, to be exact. All it took was a case of pink eye.

And now, here I sit. I am at a table in a Barnes and Noble coffee shop surrounded by people caught up in the pre-Christmas rush. (It is December 10 as I write.) I have been reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and I have been crying. Crying and not caring that I may have added an unwanted “bah-humbug” to the “ho, ho, ho” of these Christmas shoppers. Not caring that my sniffles are no doubt distracting the gift wrappers directly behind me. But this is what books do. To me. To us. This is what happens when a book matters.

I am hoping there is another member of the Nerdy Book Club amongst the crowd. Just one. One person who sees me and understands.

My wife joined me two chapters from the end, just as the monster insisted that Conor tell the fourth tale. Insisted that Conor tell the truth. That he must. My wife took one look at me and understood. She quietly said hello, got me a napkin, and said she needed to use the restroom – NBC code for “I’ll go away now and let you finish.”

She gets it. She’s been a Nerdy Book Club member since birth. She’s also the one responsible for both my college case of pink eye and entrance into the NBC.

My last week of college was spent student teaching. But while everyone else was taking finals, I got pink eye and could not go to school. I was bored and made the point clear to my future wife. “You whined,” she tells me.

“But you’re the one who gave me pink eye!”

“You whined.”

As Clementine would say, “Okay, fine.”

“Here,” she said that day, thrusting copies of Maniac Magee and Number the Stars into my hands. “Read these and be quiet.” And she left.

So I did. Read them both. Loved them both. For the first time I can remember, someone gave me books chosen specifically for me. These were books she loved herself and books she felt I would love too. She gave me books that mattered. To me. For me.

She didn’t try to convince me that the the next class novel on the approved curriculum was something I’d probably like. She didn’t find me an eight-pointer because I was six points short of my quarterly goal (and didn’t trust me to get 10 of 10 on the quiz). She didn’t choose randomly from a list of Best Books for Reluctant Readers. Instead, she chose books specifically for me. Books that mattered.

When she came to see me that evening, I told her I wanted more, that I needed another book as good as the first two. That beautiful, loving, kind, smart woman reached into her bag and pulled out The Giver. The first two books opened the door. The Giver shoved me through. Three months before my first official day in front of an elementary classroom and I was finally a member of the Nerdy Book Club.

So keep an eye out, everybody, for readers who don’t look like readers and for the books (or magazines or newspapers) that will help your readers love reading.

And try to keep the pink eye from spreading.

Brian Wilhorn

Brian is a grade 5/6 classroom teacher and reading teacher in central Wisconsin. He is @HelpReaders on Twitter and writes at Help Readers Love Reading.