Pay It Forward: Lingering Lessons from My Reading Community by Valinda Kimmel
Literary giants C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met weekly with a dozen or more other writers for nearly two decades. The Inklings, as they were known, spent long evenings at The Eagle and Child pub critiquing each other’s unfinished works and discussing the importance of narrative in fiction. Can you imagine?
Room D107—where my office is located—is in no way as romantic or charming as an English pub, and we can’t boast the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, but here you’ll find that rousing, unscheduled discussions about books occur daily.
The open office space I share with eleven other brilliant colleagues lends itself to lively debates about current educational issues. But by far the most gratifying conversations are those about books. I worried that when I left the classroom I would lose touch with middle grade and YA literature. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded because I work with exceptional people who keep me reading and learning, changing and growing with their compelling book talks.
Terri Smith is our secondary language arts facilitator and an avid reader, and this year she shared with me several of Steve Sheinkin’s nonfiction books for young adults. She was finishing up his captivating book about America’s efforts to build the first nuclear weapon, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. I was interested, but I worried I might not be able to stick with a book that serious. I read the first page anyway, and I was absolutely smitten. Sheinkin is a master at delivering historical information (most often found in textbooks) in a riveting narrative fashion. I devoured it. At work the day after I finished Bomb, I asked Terri if she’d read any of Sheinkin’s other works.
She was just finishing The Port Chicago 50. I promptly downloaded the audiobook from Audible. Over the next few days, Terri and I carved out time to talk about the incredible story of brave U.S. sailors who stood up to injustice and were punished for their convictions. Terri’s recommendations and her daily conversations with me about the courageous men in these books profoundly affected me.
Melina, Bilingual/ESL facilitator in our district, also has a love for young people’s books. She finished The One and Only Ivan last year after I had recommended she read it. When I asked her what she thought about it, her impassioned response was, “It was a call to action!” I didn’t quite understand how she’d gotten that from a kids’ book about a gorilla kept in a glass enclosure in a shopping mall, but I knew I had to hear more.
Melina explained how the book left her with an overwhelming need to do something to make her world a better place. She told me she kept thinking about the strong connection to her faith, in particular to a quote by John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
She was compelled to find a cause that she could join in an effort to make a difference. I was struck by how a book written for children could have such a profound effect on an adult—so profound that Melina felt a call to action. Her fervent response to a middle grade fiction novel moved me to look for ways I can and should be changed by powerful narratives.
Earlier this year I read a review about Margarita Engle’s beautiful memoir, Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings. I bought a copy and was anxious to read it. Only a few pages into the book, I knew I had to give it to Loretta, the Bilingual/World Languages facilitator in our office. Loretta took it eagerly and began reading. Each day she shared with me a portion from the book that touched her.
Loretta was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. as a young mother with two small daughters to reunite with her husband who’d risked much to come to America before them. Loretta spoke of the language and images in the book that brought her to tears as she reached across the years to memories and familiar traditions from her childhood.
I am spellbound by Loretta’s experiences in Cuba—the hardships, the beauty of her culture, the food, the music, her friends, and her family. Getting the opportunity to read Engle’s memoir and broaden my understanding of my dear friend’s life in another time and place fills me with inexpressible joy. I can’t go with Loretta to her long-ago home in Cuba, but I can experience reflections of her rich cultural heritage through Margarita Engle’s memoir in verse.
This community of readers keeps me reading and talking about great books that allow me to flourish in mature adulthood. I’ve yearned to be a lifelong learner, and these reading peers—my own Inklings—have created an environment that nurtures that growth.
In our office area we have an anchor chart we share when we train teachers in our district. It’s a powerful statement about prolonging the power of a book’s message by talking with others about the beauty of characters and narrative. That chart is not just for kids. It’s also most certainly for me.
My esteemed colleagues help me to linger over the life lessons found in books. From rich discussions and constant exposure to great books, I’m changed. The change is so profound that I find I cannot keep it to myself. I am compelled to share with teachers and their students through planned and impromptu book talks. In that way, our reading community has a life beyond the walls of this office. Like the books we hold so dear, our own stories fuel us to be better professionals, better people.
Valinda Kimmel fervently believes in the transformative power of great books. She’s flipped through lots of calendar pages since beginning a career as a teacher nearly three decades ago. She currently works as a K-5 facilitator/instructional coach for the language arts department in a suburban school district in Bedford, Texas. After hours, Valinda loves lazy evenings and long conversations with her husband Mark, and spending time with her adult children, their spouses, and five of the most brilliant “littles” in her world. She hopes that you’ll engage in spirited conversations with her on Twitter (@vrkimmel) and on her blog at http://www.valindakimmel.com/