A Must Read: A Letter to my Students

Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden
Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden

Dear Students,

Recently, I’ve asked you to read for at least 20 minutes a night, and not just any type of reading, but books, preferably fiction – novels.  Some of you have balked at this, rolled your eyes, sighed heavily, screamed bloody murder, and likely cussed me out behind my back.  None of this bothers me, by the way.  But I did feel like I should explain to you not just why this is so important to me but why it is so important for you.

I initially thought I’d overwhelm you with all the statistics that back up my point.  I’d share some of the research that proves the amount of pleasure reading done in the past 10 – 15 years has dropped significantly, directly impacting college readiness. I’d cite the information from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide that: “Reading for sustained amounts of time is essential for building the parts of your brain that think deeply” and discuss how online reading does not build these skills.

But then I thought to myself – you won’t care about the research.  That won’t make you listen.  You’d just think you’re the outlier – that this doesn’t apply to you.

So I knew I had to take a different approach. I knew I had to somehow show you the power a book can have, how 250 pages could, quite literally, change your life.  And then, as I was sitting watching talk shows with my grandmother, it hit me…Still Alice.

About five years ago, I picked up a novel at Barnes and Noble with this title. Now I’ll be honest, I initially picked up the book because it was on the buy three books get one free table, and I was short one.  Little did I know how consumed with the book I would become and how, five years later, it would constantly be on my mind.

In her early 50s, Alice Howland, a brilliant Harvard professor, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease – a quick-moving, insidious condition.  Alice goes through her daily life knowing that her memories are dying, knowing that she will not get to see the milestones of her family, and knowing that she may have passed on this horrific gene to her children.  This is Alice’s story told from Alice’s perspective.  It is her struggle to live, and it is heartbreaking.

Never have I been so connected to a character in all my life.  I felt what Alice was feeling; I laughed with her, and I cried with and for her.  It didn’t matter that I had never directly known anyone with Alzheimer’s.  The story was so heart wrenching and the character so vivid that it was impossible to finish without feeling like I was losing a friend.   In fact, I was so moved by the story that I actually remember posting on Facebook that everyone must read this book.  Yes, this is what English teachers sometimes post on Facebook, although it was the only time I ever did.

As many of you know, my grandmother was recently diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease and she has begun to lose her memory.   Like Alice at the beginning of her journey, my grandmother is still aware that something is amiss, yet she’s not completely gone.  She can’t understand why her memory fails her or why she cannot live the life she’s used to.  And although she remains good natured, I know that at times this is frightening for her, more frightening for her than for me.  I know this because of Alice Howland.

Alice’s struggle has helped me support my grandmother’s struggle, and ultimately my own. Alzheimer’s is a frustrating disease for all involved.  But when I find myself starting to get angry, or tired, or sad, I take a deep breath and remember Alice, what it was like for her, and what it may be like for my grandmother.  Sometimes I don’t feel like I picked up Still Alice off that Barnes and Nobles table.  Sometimes I think it picked me.

At the time, I had no idea what this novel would give me beyond a well-written story.  Sure, I could read loads of articles and message boards online about Alzheimer’s, and I do, but none will ever compare to Still Alice.  Alice gives me strength.

You see, novels don’t just build critical thinking skills; they allow you to fall in love and become friends with a character, help you see things from a different perspective, teach you about life in a way that an article cannot.  Novels can, as cliche as it sounds, touch your heart.  This novel, like many others, touched mine.

Will this happen with every book you read? Not likely.  But I can almost guarantee you it will happen with at least one.  Maybe you’ll remember Atticus Finch and Boo Radley when you need to be courageous.  Maybe thinking of Steve Harmon will help you make a better decision. Maybe reading Ishmael Beah’s story will ignite your passion.  Or maybe reading a book about a woman with Alzheimer’s will help you cope .

This, my dear students, is why you must not just read for 20 minutes, but must read stories…why you should try to find a book and a character that grabs your heartstrings and attaches to your soul.   This is why you MUST read.    Because, really, you’ll never know what book will pick you, until  you do.

One thought on “A Must Read: A Letter to my Students

  1. Nicely put — and a powerful last line to boot! It’s tough to explain this to reluctant readers, but you’ve surely made inroads in some difficult terrain.

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