Here’s another excerpt from the speech I gave at Ridgeview High School’s summer reading celebration last week in Columbia, South Carolina…
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 so easy to be impatient with each other. To think that whatever we have planned to do next is so much more important than the person that is in front of us right now with a story to tell. When I was a first year teacher, I would arrive at school every morning at 6 am so that I could have a quiet hour before the first bell rang at 7:15. But about a month after school started, one of my students, John, discovered that I got there at 6 am and he began to come to my classroom every morning by 6:10. He’d come sit in his desk and talk to me. The entire time that I was writing notes on my board, collating papers, or recording grades in my grade book, John talked. I missed my quiet hour. I thought about telling John that I needed that time to quietly get ready or closing my door so he wouldn’t know that I was there. But something kept me from doing that. I’d like to say it was intuition. I think it was just that I didn’t want one of my kids to think I was mean. And then John’s dad called me. It turns out that John’s mother had died when he was a boy. “Thank you so much for talking to my son every morning,” John’s father said. “He told me yesterday that you have the types of conversations that he thought other kids have with their moms.” I was speechless. And you can bet that ever since, I have been grateful for every conversation that any one of my students wants to have with me. Being receptive to John’s stories—the ones he told me and the one that his father shared- made me an infinitely better teacher. Those mornings with John did not only impact him or me. They impacted every single kid that has ever walked in my door because John’s story made me want to be that person over and over again- for every kid that ever walked in my door. And that person is the finest version of myself that I can conjure up. There is not anything I wanted to do any of those mornings, it turns out, that was more important—for John or for me—than listening to his stories. I just didn’t know that yet when it first began.
I believe in the power of voice, yes, but, as John taught me, I also believe that we as people have a responsibility to give each other attention, to give each other respect as we unravel the meaning of our lives in the telling of each of our stories. Reading is one of the earliest ways that we can prepare ourselves for that act of unselfishness, for the act of patient listening that we must give to one another, for the understanding that we are each due. And it is also one of the first ways that we can experience new things.