Reading To Evolve, To Connect, and To Share

By Dawn Miller, Head Teacher at Lindsay Community School

An image of Dawn with her students as they hold up copies of the book,  Pride .

An image of Dawn with her students as they hold up copies of the book, Pride.

Twenty years ago, I was approached by my then principal Tracy Thompson and Leslye Lyons about launching a book club for my students at Lindsay Community School. Books and reading had played an integral role in my own survival as a child and young adult, and this fundamental understanding of the undeniable power of words naturally translated into my classroom at Lindsay, where we try to provide any and every opportunity for our students to latch onto a book and fly

So of course, when I met Leslye, we jumped at the chance to work with her and her new Words Alive project. And for any of you who have ever met Leslye, you know that she has that twinkle of the eye when she’s talking about books -- the one that tells you she doesn’t just read for leisure or entertainment, Leslye reads to evolve,  to connect, to unlock and share the secrets of our own humanity.  This rare and discerning awareness provided the foundation for Words Alive, and has guided the powerful work that has continued to come out of this project for the last 20 years. I recognized that twinkle the moment I met her, like when pain sees pain, or struggle sees struggle, with no words spoken -- and we couldn’t wait to begin the work.  

For the past 20 years, Words Alive volunteers have come into our school space, each month, to engage in the sparring of book talk. If I could give a quick shout out to our current volunteers - Mona, Geri, Sally and Jean - these extraordinary women also go around flashing that eye-twinkle-thingy and they share so much of their hearts with our students — we are deeply indebted. 

I’m assuming that most of the folks in attendance here today, also have a passion for reading, and you all might think that conveying that passion to and with a group of young folks might be challenging, but ultimately doable because you just know they’re gonna love that right book so much because your own love of books - it’s just a matter of getting that right book in the right hands . . .   But with our students, both at Lindsay and JCCS-wide, sharing this love requires you to put in work - real work - sometimes uncomfortable, often gut-wrenching and always formidable, work. Because as you may or may not know, the students of Lindsay are young mothers, and this already exiled status is compounded by homelessness, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, family separation, system brutalities and endless other traumas and tragedies that the very best of us here, could not withstand.  BUT they make their way, each day - and I share their struggles with you now, not for sympathy (for sympathy does not empower), but to highlight their extraordinary resilience and undeniable courage in a world that works daily to smother them.

So when our Words Alive volunteers come monthly to spar - they come armed with books, of course, but more importantly, they come armed with compassion and understanding, without judgement or verdict, ready to learn and listen to one another in endless acts of patience and love. The girls also come packing - with sharp and quick-witted tongues, astute analyses, profound reflections, and grand criticisms. And somewhere in the middle of this motley crew, a million magical moments of hope are born. Books and reading are already mighty in their own right, but in the right context and wielded in a righteous way, they are also transformative.

What is borne of those monthly book circles is hard to describe, but what I witness can most aptly be called a political act. Sometimes the students are emboldened by stories of rebellion and insurrection, led by stronger-than-life women characters, real and unreal. Other times they are enthralled by collections of poetry that rip their already broken hearts out, but also remind them that through their pain comes strength. Often, they are so moved by a story or character battling similar Sisyphean struggles to their own, they become immediately resolved to pen their own stories of inequity, but this time, and in real life, with endings of justice and liberation.

Regardless of the book, it is in these moments that reading becomes an emancipatory act - a momentary vision of what is possible and how to get there. These students, who have been systematically stripped of their dignity, are suddenly circled in a space where they find themselves, their dreams and their words, ALIVE.