Learning Life Lessons Through a Love of Literature: A Personal Essay

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In sixth grade, I was not social. Instead of making friends and participating in class, I lost myself in stories. Most of my mornings in homeroom were spent ignoring the other students and downing a few chapters of my latest read. My homeroom teacher, eager to solve this problem, interrupted the classroom conversation one morning and announced that I was in need of an “intervention” (her words, not mine). Horrorstruck, I watched as every young face in the room turned to

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find me slowly shrinking behind whatever was my current book.

“Kayla, we just think you shouldn’t read so much,” she explained before herding me to the middle of the room. She encouraged the other students to surround me, and they all began to chant. Really. The words “put down the book” are permanently stamped into my brain, as well as a burning feeling of rejection, surrounded by people who disapproved of me and my habits. I clutched my book

like a paper shield to my chest, wishing that the classroom would disappear, that my teacher had never spoken, that everyone would just leave me alone.

It was only when one of the students in the circle reached forward and ripped the book out of my hands, tearing a page, that the teacher finally ended the game. Her nervous expression told me she felt her playful “intervention” had stepped a bit too far. We all returned to our seats and I sat, tearful and red-faced, feeling the angry ball in the pit of my stomach slowly ebb away.

I don’t blame my homeroom teacher. She was a very kind, silly woman and only meant well. After all, I had the social skills of a toaster and was terrified to make eye contact, let alone strike up a conversation with my neighbor in history class.  However, I’m almost 21 years old and still in love with stories. At the time, I thought something was wrong with me. Why did I read so much? Now, I think my teacher should have turned her worry toward the other students.

Since when was reading so uncool? I hear more kids exclaim that they hate reading and would rather die than work their way through “Huckleberry Finn” or “Where the Red Fern Grows.” For me, reading provided hours of vivid entertainment that extended beyond the length of a movie or the battery life of a handheld video game. It showed me more than my small, Midwestern hometown of Hays, Kan., would ever have to offer.

Reading isn’t just the interpretation of letters on a page — it stimulates creativity. It’s a lifestyle, a learned skill. According to Scholastic’s Reading Facts, two thirds of eighth-graders don’t read at their grade level. In 2005, 12thgraders scored lower in reading than they did in 1992 in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Reading was once a privilege, only accessible to the literate and wealthy. I work at the KU Writing Center, and I frequently help native, English-speaking students who don’t understand where a comma goes, or how to break up a run-on sentence. What happened to literacy?

My schoolgirl days were filled with other kids telling me that reading was weird. They called me a nerd simply because I would rather check out books from the library than sit and watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (although that show ishilarious). That label followed me through high school, despite the fact that I graduated with average grades. I was no valedictorian, though some expected me to be. And for what? Because I remembered the big words I read and used them? I don’t really know. But I do know that reading helped me in more ways than I can ever understand.

I’m glad I doggedly stuck with my reading habits, encouraged by a few beloved teachers and many family members. Even at such a young age, I explored the world and saw so much more than what lay in my closed-in hometown.  I wouldn’t take back a second of it, not even the weird, cult-esque intervention in homeroom. The lessons I learned from my favorite story characters stuck with me; they carved a path for me, showed me I could face my demons and told me to keep going. They showed me where to go. All I had to do was follow.

(This was originally posted on the Political Fiber website on December 13, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can read the original here.)