2017 has been a year of real challenge and struggle for me, for reasons I won’t put down here. However, it has led my wife and I to consider what sort of things we want to achieve in 2018. We agreed to reconvene on New Years Day to discuss three things we want from this year. Amongst other things, one thing that I knew I wanted more of, is reading, and lots of it.
I was born in America. My first year of formal schooling was spent at home with my Mum. In other words, I was homeschooled. When I’ve asked her about this in recent years she has talked about how her key focus was to teach me to read – and that she definitely did. I fell in love with listening to my Mum and Dad read and some of my fondest memories as a young child are of me listening to my parents and me trying to read to them. Without them knowing, they were truly amazing teachers who have set me up for life.
Without giving my life story, we eventually moved to the United Kingdom and I went to a South Wales primary school. Through no fault of my teachers or the school, I switched off from reading within a year and found better things to fill my time with. My late childhood and early teens were book and reading barren entirely, even though my Mum and Dad continued to try and encourage me to read. Reading was not something I enjoyed doing during those years; I remember feeling as though it was very uncool to be ‘into books’.
However, when I began A Levels, books and the love of reading began to sneak back into my life because of two key reasons, or should I say, two key people.
Firstly, during my mid-teens, I began to talk to my Dad about many ‘big questions’ and he would often engage with me by asking lots of questions, giving short and insightful responses that left me reeling for more discussion. After a few months and after long conversations that I am sure he grew tired of, he began to give me books, saying:
“Here, try this – then let’s talk.”
The thought of more conversations with my Dad and a genuine desire to make sense of the world in my late teens spurred me on to read more and more – it was a compelling, private exploration of theology, philosophy and psychology; I was completely hooked. Little did I know that my Dad had a semi-organised list of what he would give me next to read after our conversations…
The other person who was influential was a male English Literature teacher at AS Level. I had taken the subject because I had a good grade at GCSE and thought I might get a good (easy to get) grade at A Level too. My first lesson in September, after a summer of reading some of my Dad’s books, was on ‘Classic Fiction’. We were told we would be studying Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For those males who have read this at the age of sixteen and enjoyed it I applaud you, seriously. Within one hour, a lot of my newfound joy in reading began to slowly seep away as I realised that clearly, I didn’t enjoy reading at all. Surely, if this is ‘English Literature’ and I am bored stiff, then I must not really be a ‘reader’. If I find Jane Austen boring then there is no hope for me! I thought. Luckily, my ‘contemporary fiction’ teacher was a man who liked football and was slightly bloke-ish…I thought I’d give English Lit one more chance before I dropped it for some sort of manly science subject, like Physics.
We started by reading a poem by W.H. Auden called the ‘Unknown Citizen’. From this hook, we were introduced to George Orwell’s 1984 and our teacher asked us to read the first two chapters by next lesson. I went to the library and read the first five. After a few conversations once English lessons were over, like my Dad, he began to give me books. He started by giving me novels to read by dystopian authors, similar to the ones we had read in class: Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley and H.G Wells. Once I’d read a few of these (in a slight state of terror throughout each of their pages), he introduced me to some American authors like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. I don’t remember doing much schoolwork that year; I do remember reading and conversing with my Dad and my English teacher about the meaning of life and reading strange and fascinating novels.
Without my Dad and my English teacher I wouldn’t have a book by my bed that I read most nights – when I’m not too tired.
Without my Dad and my English teacher, I wouldn’t buy books every time I get a bit of disposable cash.
Quite simply, without my Dad and my English teacher, I wouldn’t love reading and I wouldn’t consider myself a reader.
Thank you, male role-models, for giving me the gift that keeps on giving.
More to come.
I am going to be embarking on a reading challenge this year. For updates, lists and reviews, please check out this page on my blog.
I no longer have the gender stereotypes that have been implied in this post, through this piece I wanted to merely explain what made me want to read. It’s clear now that I see it in writing how focussed I was during my teenage years on being cool, bloke-ish and masculine and making this a feature of the sort of educational activities I wanted to be seen doing. I hope this is no longer a life goal and I most sincerely hope this doesn’t spill over into my teaching!