Patience, Escape, and Learning to Read
At the beginning of second grade I couldn’t read, at least not well. I don’t remember what exactly I experienced when I tried to open up a book, but I vividly recall most of my classmates reading just fine. I was placed in the lowest reading group, a system that I look back on none too fondly. My second-grade teacher, on the other hand, was a lifesaver. She happened to be married to my grandpa’s cousin, but I like to think she would have helped me out regardless. She changed my life; she taught me to read. Well, she taught me to slow down, and all of a sudden I was able to read just fine.
Let me explain. Either through the repeated retelling of this story or because of what feels like a memory I can recall my “reading style” at 7 years old as being one of skipping words I didn’t know. So I’d be fine for the first half of a sentence, then I’d encounter one of those big six-letter words and simply jump over it. My teacher took the time to, first, realize what was happening. She noticed my leaps and impatience and encouraged me to slow it down, to occasionally accept that at my tender age I might have to sound a word out once in a while. On the rug in the back of the room, sitting in my little crisscross applesauce, it slowly started to work. When I encountered an imposing, unknown word I would go letter by letter, I would halt the flow of my reading to grapple with something unfamiliar, a word not already filed away as known chunk of information, something that needed to be broken down and approached piece by piece.
It wasn’t easy to slow down, but the reward was so great, so unlike anything my little mind had imagined. Accepting that there were words I didn’t know, that it was okay to not know, that it was okay to go slow opened up entire worlds to me. How could I have known I would be given the power to witness magic, to meet Merlin, to travel to future worlds that authors had hidden in the pages of these books? And yet by the end of that second grade year I had been granted access. I had slowly moved across that classroom carpet to the highest reading group, for whatever that was worth. Its real value was being able to read seamlessly, to dive into books and not need to come up for air. Before long I would wake up on weekend mornings and read until my stomach rumbled. I would lie awake at night immersed in a fantasy, and when a book ended, when my glimpse into a dream came to a close, I would immediately pick up the next portal. This would continue until I shifted off into my own dreamscape.
The space between these pages was, naturally, an escape. I had nothing to run from at that age. My life was simple and peaceful in so many ways, so I used to wonder why I gravitated so completely to these worlds of fantasy and fiction. But not too long ago I realized that it was the peace itself I sought escape from. Or not the peace, but the boredom. Reality was mundane when juxtaposed against the kids’ adventures at an interplanetary academy, or the battles of those with Gods for parents, or the day-to-day lives of children with magic in the tip of their fingers. Reality is mundane when you’re told in so many ways that you can be anything, do anything, that life is supposed to be something grand and wonderful, while your actual experience each day is constituted by math homework and soccer practice. So I spent a chunk of each day escaping, wandering, enjoying lives not my own.
Years later I found myself standing in front of a classroom, talking about Fahrenheit 451 and Purple Hibiscus and Othello and a whole raft of great books. I had become an English teacher sort of by accident, largely due to the fact that the school I had landed an interview at didn’t have any open history positions. My expertise and interest coming out of college were more in the history realm, but when they offered me English I couldn’t say no. Both because I had enjoyed so many of my teachers and classes and the books we had read over the years, and because I needed the job.
If you find this writing valuable, and are able to become a supporting reader, it allows me to write more for you.
Some of my students were elegant readers, soaring through books with ease. Others stumbled, balked, stopped before starting again. As a teenager and then college student I had lost some of my patience and redoubled my desire to escape. Now, as a teacher, I had no choice but to cultivate patience again, and to help students do the same. I also had to grapple with my students’ desire to escape, if not my own. One day after another I’d talk to kids who didn’t want to be in the building, who didn’t want to be in their reality. I think somewhat often of Will, a 5’7” sophomore who hadn’t even tried out for the basketball team because there was no chance he’d make JV, let alone varsity. But he would swear up and down to me that he’d be playing in the NBA one day. And it helped him feel just a little better about not doing his work and the bad grades that inevitably came along with that.
During those years of teaching high school, my life contracted in some ways. I no longer had time for the organizing that had inspired me at the end of college. And I no longer had the energy. My roommate, who also worked in education, and I would spend much of our Saturdays on the couch. She’d turn on Golden Girls or another stellar sitcom and we’d eat bagels and commiserate. Life got small in some ways. It fell into the routine that life falls into. The school I worked at was my world, and most of my waking hours were consumed with preparing to teach the kids I worked with, teaching them, and grading their work. I had little room for much else.
When I left that job it was to broaden my world as much as anything. There were certainly problems with the school, but there was also the fact that I wanted to engage with the world at large, I wanted the time and energy to think and act beyond my classroom. It was then that I was able to get back into politics in a more substantial way, into organizing, and into writing in the blocks of time that opened up around the part-time jobs I took. Before long, the summer of 2020 was upon us, and alongside so many others I joined protest after protest, march after march. Like the friends who marched alongside me, I held onto some hope during those vital and potent months that something would change with some fraction of the urgency the moment demanded. Hundreds of miles later, as summer eased into fall, that hope was largely gone, for me. The hope for change had not departed, but the hope that people in the halls of power would meet the moment and stop the police murders of Black folks and everyone else they kill with near impunity had evaporated. I needed to learn patience, again.
Or, rather than patience, I needed to learn to build. In a country of quick, cheap fixes I had fantasized about revolution. I had dreamed that millions in the streets would lead to decisive transformation. I had indulged in the intoxicating aura of mass collective anger and action. Yet nothing had changed. In one or two cities the police were defunded, temporarily. Then police killings continued to rise. So those of us who held out in the streets until the weather grew cold and drove us indoors pivoted to mutual aid organizing, then community organizing, searching for solutions that could work.
Today we see the streets flooded with protesters again. And again. Sometimes I am with them, marching across a bridge and feeling hints of déjà vu. But something is different now, with me if not with the world. I slip into fantasy, into escape and numbness from time to time, but today I crave intimate contact with reality. I want to be realistic and pragmatic and I want to change the world much more than I want catharsis. Or rather I have always wanted real change, but in years past I was impatient and naïve, blissfully so at times. Now I have a patience that has come largely from being thwarted, from being wrong about how the world works. There are, of course, moments of rupture, but underneath nearly all of them are years of planning and coordination and nurturing seeds of transformation.
So today, I nurture seeds. I write largely in an effort to help you plant your own seeds of long-term change, just as I plant mine, or play a small part in planting some collectively. It takes agitation and demonstrations in this moment, it takes shutting things down, but it also takes the building of relationships and the commitment to learning and organizing that must last a lifetime. Patience never came easy to me, and the world needs us all so urgently. But to build something that lasts we must have a strong foundation, and it's easy to forget how the foundation of the Left in this country was decimated, eroded, and weakened both at the institutional level and at the level of intellectual understanding. So we must start by planting seeds and building up a foundation. As Grace Lee Boggs said, some of that seed planting should be literal, “We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.”
But much of the planting and nurturing is more relational than literal. Crafting a better future will take all of us building networks and institutions and connections, simultaneously. Each project, each seed growing up into an organization that has real power to help others, provide for their needs, and build power allows us to draw closer to supplanting systems of extraction and oppression with systems of liberation and care. Engaging in this long-term work will take choosing to be present and engaged again and again, and opting out of the escapes dangled before us. It will take patience and fortitude matched with urgency and energy. I hope this writing helps fortify you in some way at this pivotal moment, and I hope you will join me in dedicating yourself to this work over the long haul. May we build a world with lasting peace and real justice. And may we do it together.
Thank you so much for reading. If you’re able to becoming a paying reader, it lets me dedicate more time to writing for you. In gratitude - Josh