Last year, I gave an assignment which required kids to classify the books in their homes. I went numb as I saw kids turn in pages with the names of only 2 or 3 books listed. When I questioned them, they explained that these were the only books in their homes. Many had none. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. I'd estimate that 30-40% of my kids had fewer than 10 books, and most of those books belonged to their parents or younger siblings. I have plenty of kids show up to my classroom, hungry for food, and it makes me ache. I was just as heartbroken by their hunger for words.
I have 7 books in my school bag right now. I have 2 stacks of books, begging to be read, waiting for me on my bedside table. I have a tiny bookshelf, overflowing with books that I've read but cannot bear to part with. When I think of their faces, I am embarrassed by my literary riches. Embarrassed, but thankful beyond belief.
Books were one of the few things which were never denied in my childhood home. Raising two avid readers, willing to entertain themselves with a story and a quiet corner, my mother was happy to indulge this behavior whenever possible. And while I adored the library and used it vigorously, the first time I realized that a book was mine -- all mine -- was a delirious and delightful moment. My brother now has an entire room dedicated to his book and comic book collections, and I am furiously jealous of it. For me, there is nothing like the possession of a story, of characters living upon my shelf, of plotlines untwisting before my eyes.
I've spent every day since that failed assignment trying to feed my students with words. It turned out, I wasn't the only heartbroken one in my school. At a literacy summit in April, one of our 8th grade teachers talked about how her church sets up book-laden tables on street corners for strangers to come collect their knowledge. The passion she felt for those few days, giving away what she loved so dearly, gave all of us an idea.
So, today, instead of collecting fines or scavenging textbooks out of lockers filled with gym socks and week old lunch bags, we gave away books.
You heard me. For the first time ever, we stopped clutching our text with suspicious hands and just let them go. In fact, we ordered them all with the hopes that no grown-up hands would ever touch them save to unpack the boxes. Brand new books. Gave 'em away. No cost. No strings. No test or required reading. Every 7th grade student at my school will travel home with one book of his very own this summer. That's 450+ books leaving our doors to live upon the bedsides and bookshelves of these homes. The idea of it leaves me breathless.
My 2nd period went first, and as it's primarily a group of rowdy and wildly inattentive boys, I tried hard not to set my hopes too high. We'd talked about the 18 available titles yesterday. They appeared disinterested and rather sleepy as I described each one, so I worried that I'd be picking up titles up all along the hallways as soon as the 3:55 bell rang. I worried that I'd have to beg and plead just to get them out of their chairs to walk to Mrs. Hines's room. I shouldn't have worried at all.
Have you ever seen a video of piranhas attacking? Because that's exactly what it was like. They picked that book table clean.
When we returned to the room, I gave the students the opportunity to spend some time reading their new books. After about 10 minutes, one of my boys announced to all the other kids, "This book goes HARD! I'm serious! I don't even like to read, but this book goes HARD!"
My first instinct was that he was joking, mocking my excitement over a dumb book until I realized that he was talking to no one and everyone in particular. And please understand that this is a child that literally could not read at the beginning of the school year and visited that lovely Mrs. Hines, our instructional facilitator, 3 times per week for tutoring. Today, he read 16 pages. I have never seen him read 16 words in front of anyone else. Ever. I'm glad he was enthralled with his book so that he didn't see me pick up my jaw off the desk. In case a child asks you why reading is important, please feel free to let him know that it's because, as E. would say, "Books go hard." It's the most rousing endorsement of reading that I've ever had in 2nd period.
And it continued on like that all day. Sure, there were a couple of kids who didn't want to pick a book. There were a few who picked a book only to turn around and give it to my classroom bookshelf. That was hard for me, but I reminded myself that there will always be those people who exercise their choice by simply choosing to not choose. Of 123 book shoppers today, they were in the almost extinct minority.
In 5th period, my first of two 29+ classes, I walked in after the bell to catch my two smallest boys talking in hushed and conspiratorial tones.
I asked, "What are y'all talking about?"
"Strategy," they whispered with a wise nod, as I bit back a giggle.
It seems that they had been the only kids listening the day before when I warned that there'd be just a few copies of each book... that not everyone would be able to get their first, or even second, choice. So as soon as I called the class to line up, they were right behind me, leading the way, and claiming the closest space to "The Hunger Games" and "The Lost Hero". Quickly thereafter, I walked in behind my last student to see a mass of sweaty and anxious 13 year-old bodies crowded around a single table, anticipating the shout of "3...2...1" to make their grab. And, sure enough, quick as a cat, my two smallest slipped out of the crowd with the most coveted bounty of the day.
I overheard one exclaim, "It's like a riot in there!"
And the other replied, in complete shock, "I know! Over a book!" As if they hadn't been plotting their attacks only moments before.
They were correct. It was a near-riot. Over books.
It was the most beautiful riot I've ever seen.