At The Reader we’re constantly blown away by the personal stories our group members, volunteers and colleagues share with us. We’ve learned that you can never underestimate where your Shared Reading journey can take you, or where you can take Shared Reading! When Erin, our resident American returned stateside we knew it wouldn’t be the end of her Reader journey and we’re delighted to share her latest transatlantic update – Shared Reading hits Montana!
The three of us sit at one end of a long table in the public library in Missoula, Montana. We’ve just finished All the Years of Her Life by Morley Callaghan where the character Alfred has been caught stealing by his boss and has to be rescued by his mother. While trying to convince the boss not to call the cops, the mother states that “a little good advice is the best thing for a boy when he’s at a certain period in his life.” This line resonates through Naomi as we read the story and she gives a low hum. A homeless girl in her mid-twenties, Naomi has just hitched hiked from California and freely admits that like Alfred she is no stranger to thieving.
“There are times, I’ve had to steal a coat or freeze at night, I know it’s not right, but that was the choice I had to make,” said Naomi. “I’ve seen cops catch people for stealing before, I know they were doing something wrong, but I wish that instead of getting punished people would step up to help—advise instead of reprimand.”
At the end of the story, Alfred—who was not taken by the cops—reflects on his mother’s impressive ability to talk him out of a tight corner. As he goes to tell her what a swell job she did, he sees her trembling over her tea from the release of anger, anxiety, and fear over her son’s situation. For the first time Alfred realizes what his mother suffers on his behalf and begins to see her individually rather than through the context of her relation to himself.
Millie, who has high functioning Down Syndrome, claps onto the idea of being seen as an individual. Like Alfred’s mother who Alfred sees only as ‘mother,’ Millie feels categorized by her title of ‘disabled.’ She goes on to say that because of her Down Syndrome she often feels lumped into a category with all disabled people and is not given the chance to be known uniquely. People judge her before getting to know her and she feels unseen.
It’s the idea of being surrounded by community that resonates with us. We want people in our lives who will take time to give us a bit of good advice, and get to know us individually. What both Naomi and Millie want, is to be known as uniquely, not to be judged based on their appearance or living situation. It’s exactly this idea that led me to start Shared Reading groups in my hometown.
For me, literature has always been an important source of contemplation and growth, but it wasn’t until a summer afternoon two years ago, sitting on the porch of my Montana home reading over The Reader website that I realized how literature could be used as a tool to create a community of caring. With my family’s move to Liverpool approaching, I haunted the job listing page on The Reader website. Just before making the jump to England, I spotted a position open at the soon-to-be Reader Ice Cream Parlour.
Two days after landing—before we even had a flat to live in—I had an interview and I was in. The year and a half I spent in Liverpool, I worked for The Reader in a variety of positions, starting with the Ice Cream Parlour, then as a storysharer at The Reader’s Storybarn, as well as leading Shared Reading groups for both adults and school children each week.
The time spent in Liverpool was a season of learning about boldness. As someone who used to actively avoided speaking and reading to a room full of people, getting to the point of leading a number of Shared Reading groups a week was a huge step on this journey of boldness. I’ve learned so much about the importance of stepping out of my comfort zone and with this new boldness has comes the confidence to reach out to the people in my community and show them that I care. “We are Kind but Bold,” this one of The Reader’s values has become my life motto with boldness creating personal growth, while kindness creates relational growth. If you boldly show kindness, you are showing others that they matter and in the end, isn’t that what we all want to know?
So I’ve packed up this kindness and boldness and am planting it in the heart of Montana, watering it with the words and ideas that flow from the literature we read each week.
Reading groups are more than just a discussion about a story. For Naomi, they are a place to share her heart and struggles with people who will listen and not judge. For Millie, they are a place where her opinions and thoughts are equal to everyone else in the room. This is how we are build community, by reading, by sharing, by listening and by genuinely caring for one another.