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Many teachers, one lesson: love of reading

I want my students to emerge from my college introduction to literature course as eager readers, in tune with the pleasures of fiction, poetry, drama, and the essay.

I want them to rise with Raymond Carver's cathedral spire, to hear the tragic rhythms of Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "We Real Cool," to suffer the driven life with Arthur Miller's salesman, to float on E.B. White's prose as he returns yet once more to his lake. In the future, I want them to frequent libraries and bookshops, stash poems in their pockets, welcome long waiting lines because of the chance to read, and fall asleep with novels resting on their noses.

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Early in this course, I always ask them to write a short history of their own experience as readers, and the results are always mixed. They range from "I don't like to read - never have, never will," to "I love to read; my plan is to become a writer," and from "My parents never read a word to me," to "My mother told me Shakespeare's stories before I could read by myself."

But even taking into account the failures, the possible exaggerations, and maybe some wishful thinking, I never cease to be impressed by the devoted efforts of my predecessors - those mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends, and schoolteachers - who did their best to nurture a love of reading.

I laugh at the account of the mother who could always be lured into staying longer at the mall, but only in the bookstore. I read of the father "who let me stay up as long as I wanted, as long as I was reading," the aunt who always slipped in a book among the Christmas toys, and the grandmother who maintained a cross-country book discussion with her grandson.

I sympathize with the Korean mother whose American daughter, disappointed at not getting a Barbie Dream House, roughly tossed aside her box of new books. "You must be good to your books!" her mother warned.

What I often witness in these essays are countless hours of bedside tales, shared repetitions: ("My father and I read 'The House That Jack Built' over and over again, until I could read it on my own"), and proud recitations of lines, paragraphs - whole books - to admiring listeners. I tour bedrooms lined with homemade bookshelves, make emergency runs to the library, and meet parents who financed the weekly bookmobiles.

I also read of teachers who led these young readers to Dr. Seuss or to Charlotte, the spinner of webs and stories: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." I meet the teacher who dressed up like the Cat in the Hat, the one who staged a Mad Hatter's tea party, and the one who invited a plump Mr. Fig to class. I take field trips to "Walden," to "The House of the Seven Gables," to Emily Dickinson's desk. I sit in on Shakespeare classes followed by live performances, or go whale-watching accompanied by "Moby Dick."

Of course, the problems are here, too: "Although I loved reading as a child, it wasn't 'cool' in high school, so I let it go. Maybe I'll get back to it." "My teachers didn't stay long in our school. I don't remember much reading." One student complains, "I stopped enjoying reading in high school because I had to read assigned books like 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', 'Hamlet,' and 'The Scarlet Letter,' " then adds a begrudging afterthought: "Actually, I enjoyed these books."

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But in spite of the negatives, I always discover some true pleasure in their reading, especially in the early years. They remember the seduction of the sounds ("The frog jumped, jumped, JUMPED!"), the fun of the puzzles ("I liked guessing 'whodunit' "), the sharing of favorites ("I lined up my dolls and stuffed animals on my bed and read to them"), the comfort of privacy ("I love a snowy day, when I can settle down with my hot chocolate and a good book"), the recognition of the link between literature and life ("Granted, I also wanted to make my brother disappear, but after reading 'If I Had One Wish,' I thought twice about it").

And so, as I work through another semester of "Intro. Lit.," I remain grateful to those who have built a foundation for my hopes. In these times of tests and measurements, of accountability for both parents and teachers, I remain grateful to those who worked so hard to help my students find joy in their reading.

On an index card above my desk is a quotation from essayist John Burroughs: "Knowledge is only half the task. The other half is love." I like this thought, because it reminds me daily that I must continue to make time for the love, a response difficult to measure by multiple choice and one that may take years to come to full bloom.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor