As a nerdy kid with a competitive streak, I thought of summer reading as both a sprint and a marathon. My local library didn't host a “summer reading challenge,” so my only competition was myself … but I’m sorry to say how much I enjoyed flaunting my long list of conquered titles. Now, as a nerdy proto-crone with a competitive streak, I still relish this feeling.
My “Must Read!” list got longer last week, after a spirit-lifting visit to Northwood High School in Nappannee. I passed two Amish buggies on the way to seeing someone I remember as a casually dressed, deep-thinking college student in my literature classes who has become a tie-wearing English teacher, Mr. Thompson. Now, he's the one inspiring his own students with the power of novels (when he's not also busy coaching football). He and some colleagues designed an ambitious book club on social issues for 9th graders, and the students’ presentations on what they learned have filled me with hope.
It was one of those unexpectedly blazing late-May days, and wouldn't you know it, the school's AC was busted. Despite the roaring fans in the hallways, it was hot enough that students had been allowed to wear shorts for the first time in 50 years. I felt lucky to serve as an audience for the students, along with local pastors, the mayor, a therapist, some non-profit leaders, and public librarians.
Moving through the classrooms, the weirdness of high school came flooding back. Next to hanging flags, aspirational posters were tacked on the painted cinderblock walls — everything from, “A negative mind will never give you a positive life,” to “Whatever you are, be a good one," to “Once you have wrestled, everything else in your life is easy.” In the jumble of expectations and worries of those years, there’s also the teenage genius for feeling social wrongs so deeply. I wasn't surprised, but I was impressed, to see these students dig right into the novels they'd selected that take on some pretty heavy issues, and to hear the connections they made to their own lives.
In teams of three and four, these slightly nervous but well-prepared young people taught us what they'd learned from these works of fiction: about racism from the novel The Hate You Give, about bullying in One of Us is Lying, about suicide in Bang, about social inequality in S.T.A.G.S., about sexual assault from the novel Speak, about discrimination in the novel Refugee — just to name a few. Their voices were clear. They connected the novels to research and data-rich infographics they'd designed that demonstrate the scope of these issues. They showed us short videos they'd written and starred in that brought the issues to life in a high school context. One featured a hallway bully stopped by a bystander, and ended with one young man throwing a friendly arm around the shoulders of another — the tenderness and empathy clear through the self-conscious acting.
After the presentations, we gathered in the library to discuss the common themes we’d heard. Isolation, and feeling silenced, came up over and over. A teacher asked what advice students would give to adults. “Listen to us,” they said. “We like it when you ask us how we are. Even if we don’t respond the first time, give us a chance.” “We have a lot to say.” I remembered how much it meant, at that age, to be taken seriously, to know my voice was valued on issues I was starting to tune into in the news. These young people are tuned in … and with the guidance of insightful teachers, they modeled how to talk about difficult issues with facts and empathy. Fellow adults, are we listening?
Writer Rebecca Solnit, who has been eloquent on the effects of the #Me Too movement, has said: “Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech. Even now, when women begin to speak of their experience, others step forward to bolster the earlier speaker and to share their own experience. A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth.” Read the books recommended by the Northwood teenagers this summer, and listen for those rushing waters.
Music: "Stand By Me" as sung by the gospel choir at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle