My daughter and son do not like to read. There I said it. First time I saw those words on the screen of my laptop, I looked down at the keyboard, expecting to find another pair of hands, not my own. While some new moms shopped for cute sleepers or researched car seats, I purchased armfuls of board and picture books. I’m an educator, a writer, and my apartment looks like a small bookstore.
My daughter, Holden, named seventeen years ago after one of my favorite characters in modern literature, has often explained to me how she reads—preferring articles over books, listing off recent statistics on mass incarceration and evidence of climate change. Recently, I nodded absentmindedly, looking past her to my copy of The Kite Runner. I suggested she read it weeks ago, but it remained unattended on her DIY vanity. Shoulders stooped, gaze to the floor, and with the slow limp of someone grief stricken I shuffled out of her room. Why can’t she love books? I console myself with the thought of the many students who, over the years, have cited me as the reason they love to read.
My soon to be thirteen-year-old son, Ruben, was named after his father, but I took solace in the fact he also bore the name of a Central American poet. Ruben does not like to read, which he states as a matter of fact, despite the clasped hands over my chest. His words so piercing my heart folds and halves to a sharp point of pain. My son has his own list of things he prefers—soccer, robotics, and video games. Aware of the absence of reading on his list, I try to pin the moment where I failed my kids.
Days before New York City, along with the rest of the world, shut down due to the COVID 19 pandemic, I had a copy of A Wrinkle In Time to read with Ruben—required reading in the spring of his seventh grade—and also a copy of Looking For Alaska, Holden’s English teacher was planning book clubs. These were titles I wanted to read myself, and now would read alongside my children, encouraging book conversations, watching the movies, but only after we turned the last page.
The world seemed to be coming to an end. Waves of worry flooded me, sitting statue still on my bed staring at the white doors of my closet, a thought came to me: I would use the quarantine to get Holden and Ruben to love books. It would be my own DIY project.Soccer, lacrosse, hanging out with friends would all be on pause. I’d have more time to work my magic with my own children, like I did with the students in my classroom. I’d have more time to cast a spell to make my two teenagers fall in love with reading.
Then. COVID 19 struck a match to life as we know it, and it blazed, ambulances blared all day long, and words like apex, antibodies, infection, and mortality rates became part of my lexicon. Online teaching soon had me traversing between Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams with the agility of a Silicon Valley millennial. When I wasn’t hunched over my laptop, I watched CNN and read the New York Times with the fervor of a zealot. When I was ready to unplug at night, my children crowded on my bed talking til late, my husband posted in the living room watching every bit of news. Tired, I listened, and I learned about the podcasts they tuned into, the memes that were circulating on their social media, and we came up with a list of movies we wanted to watch. As the weeks waned, I discovered my son’s love of documentaries, and greater was his love of conversations, often talking for hours about nature and religion, he soon began to ask questions about his ancestors and the history of Colombia.
Then. George Floyd was murdered, a police officer mounted him, a knee on his neck. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds for the world to see. My daughter insisted we head to a protest. We marched with signs she created, and instead of looking past her when she ticked off statistics of police brutality, I asked more questions, and marveled at how her voice filled with passion.
The pandemic has proven to be relentless. Like any catastrophe, it has unfolded one devastation after another, exposing truths no one wants to look at, and there seems to be no end in sight. Life before COVID seems so distant. I watch my children forced to grow up faster, unable to shield them from what the future holds, I’m reminded of the truth that was always there, but I happened to stumble upon it during those late night conversations with Holden on one side and Ruben on the other. It’s settled now, my favorite age range is six to twenty-five. Seems like the magic is there, ready to burst into the world like the last appearance of Hailey’s comet did when I was nine years old in 1986. In their world everything is possible, and it reminds me of my long ago self who too believed.
I continue to offer Holden and Ruben books to read and, while they still decline, I’m comforted by how I have succeeded in having them fall in love with words. I note the smile spread on their face, a softened glance, a deep sigh, as they marvel at how they are made to feel when words are arranged in just such a way. A quote I shared, a line in a song they have just heard, the conversation between two characters in a movie, and the words in social media posts or memes. More and more, they tell me, Mama, stop, and listen to this. I think about all the times I told my children to stop and listen as I read them a line of an essay, a page in a novel, recited by heart a poem, and replayed a song because it was breathtaking.
I always thought reading made me a lifelong learner, but lately, I have wondered if that spark was there before, and reading bellowed it to burn brighter. I like the possibility of this other way, how literacy can live outside of a book, and nevertheless the spark grows.
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