one of my apprentices brought me a gift. She simply handed me the sunny little
package and smiled. Actions really do speak louder than words, but in this case
the action was sparked by the whisper of words. And that whisper was echoing
all the way from Elizabethan England, a whisper from the Bard himself.
particular apprentice has been part of my high school literature and
composition workshop for three years. When her parents came to me for help at
the beginning of her sophomore year, she was on her school’s “at risk” list. But,
after meeting this girl, I knew she was not at risk. This girl was not
interested in words—not the reading of words, not the writing of words, not the
speaking of words. This girl was not interested because she could not imagine what
in the world words had to do with her.
receive calls on a regular basis from parents deeply concerned by apathetic,
and often dangerous, behavioral tendencies in their uninspired adolescents.
heart breaks each and every time.
solution to this dilemma is a complex choreography that can only be
accomplished longitudinally, one step at a time. But the dance can’t begin
until I teach the dancer to read. I’m
not talking about phonics—this is not about learning to decode language on the
page. Truth is, illiteracy is much more than an inability to decipher letters
on a page. I’m talking about the insidious kind of illiteracy that begins with
three small words, “Books are boring.” This is the kind of illiteracy that
to read is courageous.
than one parent has asked me, “What have learning to read and write got to do
with promoting individuality?”
stories are chock-a-block with possibility.
has the potential to spark curiosity.
leads to imagination.
the years I’ve mentored countless young people whose GPA does not reflect their
potential. And this particular apprentice was no exception. So I began as I
always do, I handed her a book.
stories contain the potential to be instructive and experiential. For those who
know how to use them, books will spark curiosity, evoke imagination, and foster
creative critical thinking. Because the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual
components of a story are inseparable, a single story can profoundly impact an
individual. A great story may encourage us to revel in the beauty of creation,
coax us to embrace heroism, fight injustice, may inspire us to love our
neighbor as ourselves. No matter the case, great stories hold the potential for
the reader to glean wisdom. Great stories encourage us to persevere in the
complex tasks we encounter while reaching for life’s potential.
took this high school sophomore by the hand and stood with her at the first
page of a book, “In this particular story, as seventh grade comes to a close,
Allegra Leah Shapiro has been selected as a finalist in a prestigious violin
competition and this stirs up all sorts of inner conflict…”
does summer have to be so hectic?
does it mean to be half Jew and half gentile?
is soprano, Diedre, crying?
can I be a twelve-year-old violinist and have time to be a friend?
is my brother so annoying?
has Mr. Trouble lost his song?
is this gift from Bubbe
what of this great-grandmother I’ve been named after?
I be able to dig deep enough for Mozart?
I undo what has been done?
read this to my apprentice believing with all of my heart that Allegra, might
be able to inspire her, if she dared to read between the lines and listen, “You
are not alone.”
“The Mozart Season,” I tell her, “is a
quiet story, one filled with resounding music that just might change your
life.” I leave it there, hand her the book and ask her (well, okay, require her) to read a bit so we can
discuss the story in a week.
always hopeful, but when a week has passed, I know she might still be at the
starting blocks. This particular type of race is never a sprint.
week later I ask, “So have you completed the reading?”
no, not really, I mean, well…”
was required reading.”
just really don’t get it.”
this is not about decoding the words on the page. This girl knows how to read, thing
is, she has no idea how to be inspired by a story, has no idea how to embrace
the universal truths, let alone apply them to her life. This girl has no idea
how to animate a character like Allegra.
I read the opening paragraph on the first page of chapter one: “In Mr. Kaplan’s
studio is a needlepoint pillow, on a chair. On one side of it is a violin. The
other side says, A teacher is someone who
makes you believe you can do it. Somebody who took lessons from him a long
time ago made it. When I was little, I couldn’t read it clearly because
needlepoint letters have odd shapes.”
to me Virginia Euwer Wolff is using pretty plain language. This is not
I don’t know.”
anyone ever told you that a great story is a mentor?”
is about to roll her eyes, but surprisingly trusts me instead, “What?”
I sigh of relief, I don’t miss a beat, “If we dig deep enough into the heart of
a story, dig to its very core, we always discover a treasure. And I believe
that this treasure has the power to inform our life. A book leads us by the
hand on an exploration of discovery that will make us a richer person.”
my mind wanders when I read.”
I’ve worked to slow down when I read, worked to build habits that help me ponder
words, phrases, passages, peculiar shape, sound and meaning. And this work,
this habit of being, has enabled me to value reading. Truth is, I’ve learned to
love stories because I’ve discovered that stories enrich my individuality. I
know you can too. I want to help
you through this book because there is embedded treasure just for you. I want
to help you do the work of extracting that treasure because your individuality
matters. You matter”
is beaming, but only for an instant. Then the work began.
was three years ago. We made it though The
Mozart Season in much the same way that Allegra got through the violin
competition, gathering strength along the way. We read Pictures of Hollis Woods. We read Milkweed. We read another and another. Last fall we read The Screwtape Letters. This fall we
tackled Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.
when my apprentice handed me the bag of snacks smirking the slogan, “Much ado
about Mango,” I know she’s learned to read, really read. I hear the violins and
see Allegra smile, “Remember,
what’s down inside you, all covered up—the things of your soul. The important,
secret things . . . The story of you, all buried, let the music caress it out
into the open.”