…is indisputable to me. It always has been. I mean, I LOVE to read. I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. Even as a teenager, living in a foreign country, I read religiously. And I have always believed that the right book can change someone’s life. This story is about witnessing such a transformation.
This must have been 8 or maybe 10 years ago. It must have been early spring because I had decided to give the students the journal prompt “What is the strongest you have ever been? Take it how you want it.” Without a doubt, this is my favorite journal prompt. I never use it at the start of the year; I save it for a moment when kids feel comfortable and are confronted with a fictional character who can be described as “strong.” I don’t remember what we were reading at the time–it might have been Romeo and Juliet, or Speak, or Tears of a Tiger.
Here is what I remember. As usual, there were a few responses about lifting weights, boxing, playing sports, or running. There were a number of vague responses about personal strength filled with platitudes but lacking depth or any meaningful description of the experience in question.
And then I read one response that broke my heart.
Angie (pseudonym) wrote an achingly straightforward journal entry detailing her example of personal strength. In it, she matter-of-factly stated that the previous year she had had to go to her middle school principal and tell him her stepfather was raping her and her younger sister.
She described why she made the decision to tell, how and when she approached the principal, what she said, how he responded. Then she recounted the consequences of speaking up: how she and her sister were summarily removed from their home and forbidden contact with BOTH of their parents; how she wanted to cry herself to sleep, but couldn’t because she had to comfort her sister instead; how exposed and vulnerable she felt at school; how desperately she missed her mother, her stuff, her sense of safety.
Near the end, she explained that she was surviving because she was a survivor. She believed wholeheartedly that she had done the right thing. Her conviction that it took strength to speak up, strength to survive, strength to move on was one of the most touching things I have ever encountered.
Not going to lie, when I read that journal entry I cried like a baby.
You see, Angie had hidden all year long. She wore over-sized hoodies and baggie jeans. She kept her hair long and greasy and hanging in her face. She had few friends. She was quiet and compliant and sweet.
She loved to read and she looked frighteningly similar to my little sister.
Reading had been the foundation of our learning relationship and after I read her journal entry, rather than trying to formulate a response, I reached for what I hoped would be the right read: such a pretty girl by Laura Wiess (a powerful, moving, and somewhat disturbing read about a teenage girl with a predatory parent and oblivious mother that ends rather violently).
I gave her the book with what I hoped was a nonchalant comment that I thought she would enjoy it.
And then I watched her absolutely BLOOM. She began talking to her classmates. The hair stopped covering her face. Her hair was washed, her clothes clean, her hoodie sometimes made it to the back of her chair.
She smiled, laughed, giggled, joked. She was still quiet, and compliant, and sweet, but instead of being those things in a shroud of sadness, her personality, her vibrance began to emerge.
A few weeks later, she casually told me she still had my book, and with a shy smile, asked if she could loan it to her sister…
I never saw that copy of such a pretty girl again and I could care less. That book was a step in her healing and her healing was a joy to witness.
It was the right read in the most profound way. It was a good thing.