Look at that cute man. That’s my papito. He’s just about the cutest thing there is in the world. But I am a little bit biased. Anyway, I spoke at a high school assembly in my hometown in South Carolina last week to celebrate their summer reading program. Here is an excerpt of my remarks
My family came to Columbia because of the army. My father was stationed at Fort Jackson and as an enlisted soldier, he didn’t make much money. But every single Saturday morning he and I did two things. We went to the grocery store together and then he took me to the library, allowing me to take as much time as I wanted to choose my books. I would leave that library each week with a stack of books that was almost too heavy for me to carry. And I read my way through every day of my childhood, coming to understand the world and what it had to offer. Reading created in me a thirst for knowledge, a desire to understand, and a love of listening to people’s stories—it is this that has allowed me to be good at what I have had to do in my life from battling my father’s cancer to keeping my students from dropping out.
If there is just one thing that reading has taught me, it is to believe in the power of a single voice. That in telling our stories, in giving voice to that which seems small and that which seems enormous and everything in between, we begin to claim ourselves. And in hearing these stories we begin to become better, we expand ourselves into being even more than what we thought we were capable of…
It is not the stories that I have heard before that profoundly change me, and I suspect that is true for all of us. It is the story that I hear or read for the first time that really has the possibility of altering my world. That’s why it is so important to reach for a book that is about something we would not customarily read. That’s why it is so important to sit for the telling of something you don’t want to hear.
When I was in tenth grade, my father made me go with him and my mother to Washington DC for veteran’s day. On a list of 1000 things I was willing to do that weekend, going to Washington DC for Veterans Day didn’t rank. I had a boyfriend. I had a job. Heck, I had homework. But nothing got me out of this trip to Washington DC and the Vietnam Memorial. I knew that my father was a Vietnam war veteran. I knew that he had done two tours and that his duty in the war was indescribable. And its indescribability was just fine by me. I had no desire to know about war, especially war with my father as a main character. So I was not prepared for DC. I was not prepared to arrive at the memorial and to have broken men all around me. I was not prepared for the oxygen masks, and the wheelchairs, and the amputations, but, most of all, I was not prepared for the tears. For the way these men- who gave their country so much- wept openly with one another. It was like they were being seen for the first time—like whoever they were back in their real lives was just an illusion—and this, this brokenness- was the truth and that the only people that could understand it were the people who knew the stories. And those people were fellow veterans. Maybe you have noticed this as you moved through your own life—that veterans have an affinity for each other that goes deeper than anything I have ever seen. The weekend destroyed the little bubble of understanding that I had of my dear, dear father but it also inspired me. I learned everything that I could about the Vietnam War. I read books and novels and watched movies and I became conversant in the defining event of my father’s life even though he never really talked about it.
I had no idea how important this would become almost fifteen years later when my father was diagnosed with an aggressive and rare lymphoma- a lymphoma caused by Agent Orange exposure. As I navigated my father’s healthcare, we could not help but talk about Vietnam because the war was the source of what we were fighting. Finally, all the reading I had done, was paying off. I could talk to my father about his experiences and understand. When I would bring him home from chemotherapy and the answering machine was filled with get well wishes from his fellow Vietnam veterans, I could put the name with a story. By being willing to take in as much as I could about the war, I was granted access to a part of my father that I had never known.
After the assembly, I went and had lunch with my parents. Over homemade vegetable soup and homemade tuna salad sandwiches (thanks, mamacita!), we visited. When my dad was helping me load my car (they can’t help but send me home with stuff, even now when I am a bonafide adult), he asked me what my speech was about. Inspired, I pulled it out of the folder and gave it to him, telling him he could read it if he wanted.
He emailed me the next day to say he loved the speech. All I could write back before breaking into tears was, “Oh good, I am glad you liked it. Thank you for taking me to the library every week. It’s the best gift I’ve ever received.”