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Friday, March 8, 2013

We Are "How" We Read

Last week, on my way home, I listened to an interview on the local National Public Radio station. A book reviewer was chatting with an author of a book (Gary D. Schmidt: Okay for Now) intended for middle school readers. The author was describing the plot of the book and fleshing out the attributes of its main character, a fourteen year old boy. As I listened I was struck by how the boy perceived a picture of an Arctic Tern in a book he was reading in a manner that few others would interpret. The perspective was based on his particular station or condition in life at that point in time.
I came to the conclusion that we are not "what" we read, but rather we are "how" we read. Here's an excerpt from the radio interview, courtesy of NPR.

"Fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. He has just moved to a new town, where he doesn't have any friends, and where his teachers — and the police — think of him as nothing more than a "skinny thug."
So it's easy to understand why Doug, the protagonist of our latest book for
NPR's Backseat Book Club, Okay for Now, is anything but a happy-go-lucky kid.
"He has a beat-up situation, a beat-up family, a beat-up house," author Gary D. Schmidt explains to NPR's Michele Norris. "And he comes to a new town, trying to find a new way to start. But he brings all of his beat-upedness with him."
Eventually, Doug finds his way to the local library, where he discovers a beautiful edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America. When he notices that nine of the pages with plates of birds have been cut out with a razor blade, he resolves to track them down.
"Doug, who is so beat-up, wants one thing in his life, just one thing in his life, that's whole," says Schmidt. "He has no resources, no way to do it, but he's determined to try and get all nine of those plates back. So this is a novel about this kid trying to do that, surrounded by people who come to love and cherish him."
One particular bird in the Audubon book, an Arctic tern, makes a profound impression on Doug:
The "Arctic Tern" from John James Audobon's Birds of America makes a profound impression on Doug, the protagonist of Okay for Now.

The "Arctic Tern" from John James Audobon's Birds of America makes a profound impression on Doug, the protagonist of Okay for Now.

Courtesy The Audobon Society
He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold, green sea. His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he was trying to turn but couldn't. His eyes were round and bright and afraid. And his beak was opened a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water. The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in. This bird was falling, and there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all.
Of course, Doug's hopeless interpretation is about much more than just the bird. It's a communion, of sorts.
"He looks at that picture and he sees his own life," says Schmidt. "He sees a bird or a living thing that's so beautiful falling out of the sky with nothing to support him at all. And in reality, the bird isn't falling out of the sky. He's going down to get something to eat. But Doug's perception is that he is alone and in trouble."

I found myself reminiscing of my favorite books as a learner and gregarious reader in middle school. The first two immediately popped up as an almost reflexive action without thinking. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, and Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. A moment later I realized the parallels between the two books. Each focused on someone being stranded on an island and enduring challenges to their survival.

At that juncture of my life, on the threshold of adolescence and mired in the confines of an impoverished family of nine, I felt that I was on an uncharted, isolated island of sorts fighting for survival. I certainly don't recall consciously being drawn to the books for that reason.

I did eventually persist and escape the deserted island of my childhood and enjoyed new vistas and expanded opportunities. Now, I have collected countless memories of serving others in a lengthy career centered on making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others through my efforts as an educator. 

Interestingly, that career arc began on a small island off the coast of Maine (teaching fifth grade in Stonington, a small village on Deer Isle) and will end on a small "island" in upstate New York (as superintendent of the school district in Green Island). In between, I worked as a principal in Amarillo, Texas, a veritable island of 200,000 people in the Panhandle of Texas surrounded by the vast and empty plains without another town of over 20,000 people within a hundred mile radius.

In a way, unlike Robinson Crusoe and Karana, I have chosen to remain and flourish on these islands.

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