It’s somewhat ironic that I ended up studying English in college, pursuing a PhD in literature, and teaching high school English. For, there was a moment when I hated to read.
Growing up, I was an avid reader. I read fairytales, Little House on the Prairie books, a few classics like Black Beauty. As I got older, I devoured mostly The Bible and novels published by Christian publishing houses. So I was a reader, at least of certain kinds of texts, and I believed I was well read.
Then I reached 8th grade. My teacher, Ms. Josephine Robertson, insisted (thankfully) that I take the SSAT and try for admission to Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the country (founded in 1635) and a high performance public exam school in Boston. To make a long story short, I earned a high enough SSAT score and GPA that I was invited to attend BLS. I was thrilled at the opportunity to join the Wolf pack and prepared for a summer full of completing required reading for 9th grade English.
I began with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one of the required books on the list. Honestly, I hadn’t read any Shakespeare before this point in my life as a student; I don’t even remember if I’d heard the bard’s name before. I jumped into the play like I had so many books before, eager to lose myself in the story.
And I did get lost — in a linguistic thicket. I had no way into what seemed, at the time, like a foreign language. I’d always been a strong reader, but suddenly I was faced with a book that, instead of allowing me to lose myself in its world, was alienating me.
So I turned to the lengthy summer reading list BLS had sent me for another option. I had to read 7 books that summer — some, like Julius Caesar, were required; others, like Treasure Island, were elective titles. Instead of quieting my anxiety, the list elevated my stress levels. Ms. Robertson tried to help me navigate the reading and told me to just stick with Shakespeare and, eventually, the language would begin to make sense to me. I remember thinking that there were so many books in the Summer Reading Packet that I hadn’t read, that my fellow students who had attended BLS already for 7th and 8th grade had already read and studied in their English classes. For the first time, I was playing catch up, and I felt like I was staring across an insurmountable gap.
I started 9th grade and, at first, was extremely quiet in English class. I was doing my homework, but I didn’t enjoy it. I was so worried that my teacher and classmates would find out just how much I didn’t know.
Then, one day, we were well into Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Those opening words captured me early on. But the moment when I finally spoke with confidence about anything in the novel was the day we discussed Sydney Carton’s words as he wanders through the streets before his death: “I am the resurrection and the life….” The English teacher asked the class about his mutterings and no one recognized these words as an allusion to the Bible. So, I raised my hand and shared my understanding of the lines. And my point was picked up and built on in further discussing what, for me, was a surprising connection between a book of fiction and a book that, until this point, I had understood only as a religious text, as a book that I was unaware had all kinds of connections to creative literature.
I began to become a confident reader again. And, equally important, I fell in love with literature.
What I loved then and what I love now about literature is this: that books talk to each other, often in provocative ways, across time, space, genre, and traditions. I’m fortunate to be able to enter their conversations every day.