Reading: The Great Escape

… all I can do is read a book to stay awake,
And it rips my life away,
But it’s a great escape …
BLind MeLoN, “No Rain” (1992)

Recently, I did something very unhealthy. It started innocently enough with picking up a book a student had pointed out to me last year (Papertowns, by John Green) finishing it, and then – this is where the trouble began – I immediately began another one, finished that one, and then I was on a binge, reading through a seven volume cycle, switching between reading paperbacks and my phone app, reading when I woke up at night, in the morning, after breakfast, and on the beach, neglecting, among many other things, my laundry, dirty dishes, and I think my husband. When I came out of this, I felt slightly dazed, disoriented, and kind of grumpy. Altogether, it was a very familiar feeling, because this is how I used to spend all my summers, ever since I had gotten up to speed in reading at some point in elementary school. Back then, we didn’t have books assigned over the summer, and perhaps a list of required summer readings would have stopped me from chain reading in this particularly unhinged way that seemed a bit too much even to myself. I mean, it wasn’t lost on me that none of the books I read featured people spending their entire summers reading book after book, while there were plenty of children, teenagers, and adults involved in all kinds of adventures – solving crimes, having complicated relationships, and going through intriguing and sometimes frightening states of mind. Even a fictional character with whom I could identify, such as the protagonist of “The NeverEnding Story”, whose guilty pleasure activity was hiding away with a stolen book in his despised school’s attic to read, undisturbed – even he got drawn into a very active adventure involving flying dragons and much else. I was perfectly aware of the fact that there was something called “real life” happening all around me that I was somehow not really getting to.

Why did I read so much? The question always stopped me in my tracks, and I was still quite unable to answer it when I once had to write an assigned paper on the topic: “Why do we read literature?”. What did I know about why other people take to books? Why read, indeed, at all? What good ever came out of my personal addiction to this activity? Instead of being able to answer the question of why “we” read, I wanted to find out about myself. Did I read because I am too afraid of real life to approach it directly? Because I like the way it makes me feel while I’m doing it, even though it removes me from reality a lot and often makes me feel cross and out of sorts for days? Or simply because I need this escape to survive? For my paper, I resorted to quoting a philosopher I had read about who seemed to express, in an academically acceptable fashion, some of the things reading meant to me, while veiling the “bad” escapist part of reading. But in essence, that was probably the most important part of reading for me: escape. Or, come to think of it in a more positive way: searching for something.

None of this, however, figured in a discussion on reading that I listened to on the radio the other day, where reading was unequivocally touted as a very good thing, no matter what. It was held to teach everything we need and are seemingly about to lose in education: not just vocabulary, spelling, and the ability to write, but deep critical thinking, making inferences, cultural knowledge, empathy and self-reflection, to name just a few of its benefits.

It was like hearing that eating ice cream and bagels (stuff I eat while I read, to enhance the experience, in case you wonder where this is coming from) is a perfect way to build muscle and protect me from all kinds of disease. I wish!

It was just a bit too good to be all true. I don’t want to dispute the many excellent things I got from my excessive reading habits (in short, pretty much my entire professional life), and it’s probably not a bad thing to have some of the good things associated with reading pointed out, but none of this makes me want to read one bit more, and it didn’t have anything to do with why I wanted to read in the first place, as far as I can recall.

It was hard for me to listen to this talk about winning teenagers over to reading and not perceive it as condescending. This impression might have been due to the fact that the radio discussion between David Denby and Tom Ashbrook, focusing on Denby’s book (Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twentyfour Books That Can Change Lives) about heroic teachers involved in trying to get their teenage students to read., did not feature many direct expressions from students about why they do or do not read, which I would have liked to hear. There was a young woman though, who said she liked reading as a way of finding characters in books that she felt in a way she could identify with, making her feel less alone, a fact that she said helped her get through the day. I was glad she said that; there is, somewhere at the core of reading, identification, a strange blending with some other. But what if the character with whom you identify was doing bad things, but reading it, you got kind of enmeshed with it? How about that Kafka quote:

… we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

How would I deal with that kind of book as a teacher? Is reading always so wholesome and simply edifying as Denby’s and Ashbrook’s conversation made it sound like? Or are we forgetting some of the more destabilizing, scary, and attractive aspects of reading? I wonder, is reading considered laudable behavior now, because the perceived collective disappearance of children – and often of adults – into cyberspace seems so much worse? Most people I know find the Victorian notion that reading novels would be harmful – even, especially for women, ludicrous. Will people in future years find such opinions on the evils of electronic games and the shallowness of social media similarly ridiculous and blinded?

I wonder. In the meantime, I’ll probably pick up Denby’s book, see what I’ve missed from the discussion, and perhaps check out some of these life changing books they were talking about. But then again, now I kind of like my life the way it is, and perhaps rather than going on another reading binge too soon, I’ll check if we have enough paper towels at school. You know, get the real world stuff done, so that when students are back, they don’t have to bug us about it, and I can perhaps get some more reading suggestions from them. While I sometimes ask myself whether anyone is ever going to read any of the thousands of books that surround us at school, I don’t think you will find me, or any other staff member at school, engaged in trying to make somebody read one or the other book that we have particularly strong feelings about, or that we feel will somehow open our students’ eyes about their lives.

On the other hand, you often will find us looking at books, processing and shelving books, talking about them, sharing from our reading experience, and yes, reading out loud, not at some particular story time or in English class, but when the occasion arises in the normal course of a day.

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Starting a Corporation

It’s funny how things happen at SVS. Conversation is always a huge part of how students and staff members spend their time. People of all ages are talking about interests, hobbies, and ideas. It flows without interruption. During one of these conversations, I was talking with a group about hair and make-up. While we were speaking, they were brushing and braiding each other’s hair. I was giving them a few pointers to make it easier for them. I asked, “Would you guys want to learn how to cut and style hair?” They looked at me and said, “YOU cut hair?!” I laughed and said, “I’ve been a hairstylist for eight years.” All of them looked at one another, and there was a resounding “YES!” That was it; our group was formed.

We quickly realized we needed materials and needed to fund-raise to get them. Hairstyling equipment isn’t cheap. About once a week we got together and discussed what to bake, checked the school for the supplies, and one of the students would go shopping for the extra things we needed. The next day, we were in the kitchen; cooking and enjoying ourselves! After three fund-raisers we had enough money to start buying the products.

I started talking with the other staff and it become clear we needed to form a corporation. Our group had money and we wanted to spend it! Once again, we got together to discuss the different parts needed in a corporation. Who was going to be a Director? Who was going to be Secretary and Executive Director? What were our by-laws going to be? We spent a good amount of time ironing these issues out.

This whole endeavor took some organizing. I would be lying if I said, “this was all tedious and a waste of time.” Also, I’d be lying if I said, “now the real work can begin.” We’ve been learning and working during this entire process. We covered many topics, got to know each other better, and had fun. The next step is to fulfill the purpose for which this corporation started; learn how to cut a “one length with layers”.

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When Artists Bake

When I was voted in as a new staff member last spring, I knew I’d be doing a lot of cooking. Since the school’s inception cooking has been a vital part of SVS’s culture. The seeds for my own career as a chef were sown in that same kitchen. I baked multiple loaves of bread with Danny; made moussaka, pastitsio and other exotic delights with Mimsy; and of course apple pies and countless yummy dishes with Margaret Parra.

Last September I volunteered to help with a series of fundraisers for the Art Corporation. Hundreds of cookies were baked with the efficiency of a restaurant staff. We also began making individual pizzas. On the third day of making individual pizzas from scratch, students decided to make each pizza in a different shape. There was a rooster, a candy cane, a heart, and snowman to name a few. These students not only worked like a well-oiled machine as far as preparing and cleaning up the kitchen, they were detailed-oriented, creative, and had fun from start to finish.

It dawned on me that what I had witnessed during “the pizza variations”, was something far more profound than having fun with dough. I wondered if they’d be interested in baking more “high-end” items to share or take home. They would need to pay for the ingredients and commit to six sessions. I ran the idea by them. Some students said “yes” right away, and others who were not part of the fundraisers joined in. Thus, Baking Mondays began. Over the course of six weeks we made Italian cheese cakes, French fruit tartes, brioche, flourless chocolate cakes, Julia Child’s apple custard tartes, and linzer tortes.

 

It was during the second week, when we made fruit tartes, when I realized that I was entering new territory. I approached baking from the perspective of a pastry chef. The students viewed their work as artists. In addition to mastering methods and techniques, each culinary creation was truly a work of art. After baking the crust and preparing cream filling, it was time to place fruit on top. There were strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and kiwis to choose from. Also, I showed them a color photo of a fruit tarte—not to imitate but to give them a general idea. The fruit was washed, and based on decades of making fruit tartes, I estimated that in 20 minutes they’d be done; they just needed to place the fruit on the tarte and glaze it. Voila: gorgeous and delicious tartes.

What came next took me by surprise. Students asked for large cutting boards, bigger than were needed to halve berries. They studied the fruit and began experimenting with designs, each developing a tarte concept. One student decided her sole medium would be strawberries. But unlike strawberry tartes I’ve made or seen in bakeries (halved strawberries in a circular pattern), hers was a delicate flower with paper thin slices carefully overlapping, with a perfect whole berry in the center. One student painstakingly removed the individual knobs of a blackberry and carved minute triangles of kiwi.

Together they became a stunning flower in the center. Rather than full coverage, he went for a minimalist style; carefully crafted shapes and colors appeared to float above the cream. Applying the glaze with a pastry brush so that the tiny fragments of fruit stayed in place was a trial of patience and perseverance. Over an hour passed since the fruit came on the scene before the tartes were complete. Why was I surprised that SVS students would glance at a photo of a standard French fruit tarte, shrug, and proceed to create stunning designs that expressed their unique vision?

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