Confessions of a Reformed Non-Reader by Jeff Downs
I was that teacher.
You remember the type. Stodgy, uncreative, skewed towards rude. I pushed Caesar over Christopher Paolini, As I Lay Dying over Ally Condie. What does John Green know about unrequited love? Read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to really see what that looks like. Why should a kid read Hunger Games when to really explore the desperation of a fallen society, Lord of the Flies would be a much better choice? Oh yeah, I actually had that conversation with another teacher. She casually nodded her head, silently thinking “Is this guy for real?” I abhorred YA Lit; it was everything that I pretended not to be. Dull, uninspiring, and well….not very useful in the classroom.
Here’s the sickly ironic part: I wasn’t reading myself.
Yep, the ultimate hypocrite. I forced what I thought the kids should be reading down their throats when I wasn’t digesting anything myself. Oh, I read To Kill a Mockingbird to six English I classes every year and a hundred short stories that were a hundred years old, but I never read anything independently. I never sought out new authors or new stories that would spark the fire in my students. I was the worst kind of teacher, the one who didn’t even believe in what was being taught.
I have always been a reader. Reading Encyclopedia Brown, Sports Illustrated for Kids or any Matt Christopher book was common place during school. Somewhere along the way, I disconnected from YA lit. As I graduated high school and began the transition to college, I felt that I “aged out” of YA lit. I still read, feverishly. My classes demanded that I did. However, instead of latching onto the new YA fantasy series that was just catching its footing (Harry Potter), my eyes and heart caught sight of more classic literature. I entered college and consumed the rich Southern charm of Tennessee Williams, the workman jargon of Arthur Miller and the florid diction of John Keats. I had never seen language that was so full, so genuine. No topic was taboo. I fell for the allure of classic literature. For the next four years, my days consisted of breaking apart Dreiser, Chaucer, Shelley and many other academic authors. The appealing addiction of college academia is the constant search for knowledge. It is easy to forget that 90% of college has to do with reading. While I loved academia and all the rabbit holes that it brought, I was slowly whittling away my love of reading and replacing it with a love of knowledge.
As I walked into my freshmen English classroom, attacking the speech of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, I once again struggled to understand why my students couldn’t love the speech. It is a classic example of persuasion, passion rhetoric and word play. As I broke down the speech, more blank stares filled the room than actual comprehension. For the first time in four years, I dealt with a culture that resisted reading. Kids didn’t want to read the classics. Hated them in fact. I loved my classics. Why should I give up my favorites? These kids didn’t know what they were missing. So, instead of listening to my students and searching for a cure, I hunkered down with my classics. Closed my eyes, plugged my ears and stamped my foot. This stupidity went on for seven years.
I had spent seven years fighting this useless, out-of-date fight. It’s amazing how ignorance clouds everything around us. While at Mabank High School, a fellow teacher finally broke through my beliefs. She forced Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper into my hands. She challenged my sense of literary superiority by forcing me to read this book. I didn’t want to be confronted with the idea that I could be wrong. Reading it (and liking it) would crack the already thin shell of my reading beliefs. Could I really be that wrong about everything that I had thought was true?
Tears of a Tiger rocked me. It latched onto me and wouldn’t let go. I remember reading Gerald’s essay “If I Could Change the World” and marveling at the words, the feelings, the heart of it. I gripped the pages during Andy’s suicide and the resulting fallout. As I finished the book (my first in probably seven years), I remember thinking “What did I just read?” First came the question, then the itch, that itch that I hadn’t felt in years. I wanted to read the next book in the Hazelwood High Series. I wanted to know what happened to Keisha, Gerald and B.J. I had to keep reading. I wanted to keep reading.
There isn’t a conclusion to my story. There’s more to it. More books, more characters, more reading. But, as I look at my wall where my What I’m Reading posters are stuck to wall, I smile. They are somewhat straight, definitely not in order. Twenty-two sheets, each for a different book read since August, fill the wall. My list of book talks, twenty-six so far, are written, most legibly, on the whiteboard. My library of YA, adult, and children’s books takes up an entire wall. My students ask me for recommendations; I point them in the right direction. I know the right direction. It’s laid out in front of me. I’ve lived it. Books are critical for us. Reading is life. It will now be my life from now on.
Originally from northwest Louisiana, Jeff Downs lets sophomores experience English at Wylie High School in Wylie, Texas. After graduating from LSU in Shreveport in 2007, he quickly moved to Texas, teaching at Nacogdoches High School and later, Mabank High School. His 12 years of teaching include English I, II, IV and one incredibly exciting Creative Writing class. An avid LSU fan, Jeff is a frequent reader, a sporadic grader, and a rare organizer. He has been married to his amazing wife Anna for 12 years. They have a compulsively reading 9-year son Logan.