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5 Things I Learned From a Year of Pandemic Reading

If you’re an avid reader, no doubt you’ve broken some personal reading records between March 2020 and March 2021. A year of a global pandemic will do that to a person. Maybe you also  binged on Disney+, learned to bake bread, did jigsaw puzzles, took countless walks, put in a home garden, cleaned and organized, or remodeled your house. But seriously, not if any of those things cut into your reading time, right?

It was a year of amazing reading opportunity. A golden permission slip, a guilt-free year of Nothing To Do and Nowhere To Go. So we stayed home. We rejoiced when libraries reopened, then closed again, then offered curbside service. And we read books that sustained us, comforted us, and kept us sane.

When we’re faced with an ever-shifting political and economic landscape, stay-at-home orders, and little to do outside our own small circle of home, it’s no surprise that readers turn to books for sustenance, comfort, and sanity. As we passed the one-year COVID anniversary this month, I thought back about my year with books and how it was different from others. I learned a few things this year:

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Growing Up Poor and Bernie’s Mittens

Childhood memories remind me where I came from and who I really am.

Unexpectedly, the #1 viral image from the 2021 presidential inauguration hit me right in the gut. Oh, it was definitely funny to see all the Bernie memes: the old man in a mud-colored parka, disposable drugstore mask, and bulky hand-knit mittens in front of landmarks and embedded in pop culture. But before the memes, I had an unexpected encounter with that image that stretches back to my childhood.

On January 20, I watched the inauguration from beginning to end, as I do every four years, with whatever children happen to be at home with me as a part of their homeschool day. This time I was accompanied by my 14-year-old son who was extremely interested in the proceedings and required a play-by-play from me as to what was going on. Not a problem—I enjoyed that.

But what was going on inside my head was a very different, and somewhat odd, train of thought. The first thing I noticed, and could hardly tear my eyes from, were the gloves.

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The View from the Middle Back Seat

Remember the ride to school on the bus every day? Or maybe you’ve taken a public bus lately and can picture this in your head: The long, narrow aisle, the many seats on both sides, and on some buses, the special seat in the very back of the bus, right in the middle, at the end of the aisle.

I like that seat. In fact, I like it so much I’ve been sitting in it for more than 20 years.

Let me back up a bit and be very clear: I used to sit by a window. A window on the left, in fact.  Like others who had window seats, I’d stare out that window on my left, completely oblivious to those next to me and especially those way on the other side of the bus. Partly this was my youth, my need for excitement, and my self-centeredness, but partly it was because my view was ever-changing, ever-fascinating, and ever so much more interesting than the interior of that bus and the others along for the ride.

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A Teaching Story of Race, Reliability, and Regret

In the mid-‘90s, I taught English in an upper-class suburban high school. In my first year of teaching, I was assigned one class of “English Basics,” a class for students who were far behind their peers in their ability to read and write. Basics was a small class, usually only around 10 students, and in the class of sophomores that I was given, the kids were reading on about a second grade level. I was never told the educational or personal background of any child, and I had no special training to help these students, but like all new English teachers, was expected to teach one class of Basics for a couple of years. The positive side, I was told, was that I would only have the class for first quarter and then again for third quarter. Another teacher would take the class second quarter and fourth quarter, so we would each have a “break.”

This staggered-teaching arrangement, especially for a class of kids who were far behind academically, seemed odd to me. I wondered if it had the inadvertent effect of instability and impermanence for the students. The teachers seemed to like it, though, and who was I to say anything—me, a brand-new teacher? Still, I had nagging doubts about this set-up and how beneficial it was for the kids.

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Why “Great and Noble Tasks”?

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” —Helen Keller

One day back in the late 1990s, I typed Helen Keller’s famous sentence into my PC in my favorite font, printed and cut it out, and glued it to a piece of red construction paper (because with two children under the age of four, that’s what was available at the time). I taped this masterpiece over my kitchen sink and it remains there to this day.

And here I am now using it for the title of my blog. Why?

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