Bits and Pieces Narratives

Reading is the Doorway to Liberation

IMG_2605I began my teaching career thirteen years ago at Hoover High School.  I first became passionate about teaching when my 12th grade English teacher inspired me to believe I could be somebody when I grew up – to have a vision for my future.  I read my first novel in community college, And the Earth Did Not Devour Him.  I understood the story, but the conversations my peers were having in class about the book seemed so beyond my reach.  I’d read the passages over and over, but my mind just couldn’t see beyond or within the stream of words on the page.  There were many times I came very close to quitting.  It was thanks to the patience and nurturing spirit of the instructors I came across, I was ultimately able to transfer to San Diego State University and embark in a life-long journey of learning.

Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his (her) deep and continuing needs, is good for him (her). – Maya Angelou

As I was struggling with reading at a more complex academic level, I was also nurturing the love of reading in my daughter.  The more I experienced feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, the more determined I became to ensure that my daughter had access to books.  Trips to the library became an all-day adventure accompanied by picnics at the park and ice-cream.  She had more books than toys.  The books and toys were impermanent, but her sense of self, her imagination, and her confidence in learning would last her a lifetime.  Every night before she went to bed, I read her a bedtime story, and no matter where we went, she carried at least one book.  When I’d go shopping to Target, she’d ask me to let her sit in the book section.  I’d come by to check on her, to find her sprawled on the floor with 6, 7, 8 books scattered around her.  As she became older, she continued to love reading. Once she stayed up all night and finished one of the Harry Potter books in the span of a day-and-a-half.  As a teenager, my daughter, my husband, and I spent many Saturday nights hanging out at BORDERS.  Reading had become a way in which we connected as a family.  On days when I had errands to run,  I’d drop her off at Borders, so she could spend her time reading.  Reading, as I had come to see it, was the doorway to liberation.

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me.  I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life.  As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.  – Malcolm X

After four years of self-doubt and determination, I graduated from college, and went on to become a high school English teacher.  I wanted to use the universal experiences of the characters in literature to help students have a deeper sense of themselves and inspire them to overcome the stories in their own book, just like I had.  Unfortunately, not too long after I began teaching, my inexperienced philosophies were assaulted by fallacies about student learning: lazy, apathetic, can’t learn, needs remediation, doesn’t follow instructions, doesn’t listen.  What I came to realize fairly quickly was many of the students I served could not read; could not access the very books I knew would change their lives.  My challenge became to get them to love reading by teaching them to become confident in their reading.  I could feel in them the same feelings of inadequacy I felt when I read my first novel.  My degree in English taught me a lot about literature, but it did not prepare me to teach high school students how to read.  It was then that I decided to go back to school to become a reading specialist and learn how to teach my students to read.

We read to know that we are not alone.  -William Nicholson

For more than half of my teaching career, I tried to inspire students to love reading, because only through reading, will they access anything they’ll ever want to do.  A student once suggested, “How can you expect to change the world, if you don’t know who you are?”  This is why many of the books and lessons I brought to the classroom reflected the lives and interests of the students I served.  It is only through engaging students through their own personal lens that they begin to expand their literacy to otherwise inaccessible great works of literature.  I could only hope that they be transformed through the love of Pablo Neruda, the soul of Rumi and Hafiz, and the courage of Sandra Cisneros and Alice Walker.

It’s hard to apply oneself to study when there is no money to pay for food and lodging. – Zora Neale Hurston

Growing up, the only books I read were the ones the teachers assigned at school.  I obtained my first library card the day I took my daughter to get hers.  I don’t even remember having a favorite childhood book.  Life was so unpredictable, never knowing where we were going to be, past a few months at a time.  All I owned, always fit into a plastic bag – we had to be practical.  I imagine for my mother and my grandmother, paying the rent and putting food on the table for five children was worry enough – books would have been a luxury.  In high school, I vaguely remember reading Romeo and Juliet, Lord of The Flies, The Pearl, and such.  While these books created opportunities for critical thinking and literacy development, they primarily reinforced White supremacy and did not reflect my experiences as a Mexican adolescent living in poverty in the United States.  The first time I was introduced to a book that made me realize I was parched for knowledge, was in community college.

By the time I gave birth to Carmen, our lives were much more stable, so I was able to envision a life beyond the day-to-day survival I had endured.  By then we were living in subsidized housing, and we could call a little corner of the world our home.  It’s incredible what a sense of place can do to awaken a person’s aspirations and desires. Witnessing the power of reading in my daughter inspired me to commit to my education, which was more far-reaching than the learning that occurred for me in school.  I wanted her to see that I valued reading and the learning that derived from it.  I knew that the only way to get her excited about reading, was if I was authentically excited about it too.

My grandmother was only able to complete an elementary education, though she was one of the wisest people I have ever known.  Growing up, my mother was often torn away from her friends, schools, and homes to pick the food that fed America.  My grandmother was a farm worker for fourteen years, and along with her husband, and two children, followed the farming circuit in California.   This often meant my mother worked along their side 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week, sacrificing her childhood and education to help her family.  Even if she had wanted to go to school, schools were too far from the camps the migrant workers lived in.  The gaps in her education made it so that she never became fully literate in either Spanish or English.    This experience, combined with very traumatic and violent incidents in her life, tainted her sense of self-worth and intelligence.  Her intelligence and perseverance have allowed her to work at the San Diego State University Pharmacy for many years now, but always with the burden of keeping an inconspicuous trail of her literacy challenges .

The impulse to dream was slowly beaten out of me by experience.  Now it surged up again and I hunger for books, new ways of looking and seeing.

-Richard Wright

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A few months ago, my mother attended her first session with READ San Diego.  For the first time she had the courage to reach out to improve her reading after living most of her life in the shadows of  fractured literacy.  I witnessed the pain and self-loathing that came with her inability to read at a level that permitted her dignity and pride.  No one should ever have to go through life experiencing that level of inadequacy.  She is finally in a place where she believes she deserves more for herself.   And I am in awe of her courage and determination.

I see the desire and aspirations in her eyes to accomplish all that she never imagined she could.  For the first time, I think, she believes deep in her soul that anything is possible.  This is a second chance at life for her, because she is finally starting to live for herself, to believe in herself, and to love herself in the most intimate way possible.  Her tutor told me that she looks forward to Mondays and Wednesdays because those are the days she meets with my mom. It’s beautiful that just as my mom is starting to believe in herself, the universe is sending her people who also believe in and support her.

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Reading inspired me to write my truth and tell my story.  I saw the courage and tenacity in the authors I read, and I came to see that my ultimate liberation would come only when I wrote and spoke my truth.  There is a shame and corrosive humiliation that comes from hiding our stories for too long.  As I stand in courage to tell my story in an empowering way, my story heals me, and in the process, maybe someone else. When my mom is ready, it will be my honor to read her story, and witness her liberation.  Her story will be one of courage, determination, resolve, and grit.  Each one of us has the divine task of liberating ourselves from all that imprisons us, for in doing so, we subconsciously give permission for others around us to liberate themselves, and we allow the pure energy of life to flow through us, unrestricted.

As my mother, Carmen, and I work to liberate ourselves, we are also liberating my Tita Carmen, our ancestors and the future generations.  We play the role of connection,  and as we heal,  we heal the suffering of our ancestors for they exist in us, in the encoding of our DNA.  We have to live in a way that allows our ancestors inside us to be liberated. In turn, we offer joy, peace, and freedom to ourselves and those who will come after us.

“Education does not take place when you learn something you did not know before. Education is your ability to use what you have learned to be better today than you were yesterday.”  – Iyanla Vanzant

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