Reading is a privilege: A young teacher’s open letter to his reading and writing class 2
Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash
Culture

Reading is a privilege: A young teacher’s open letter to his reading and writing class

As we commemorate World Books Day in a most inopportune time, a young teacher tells his Grade 11 students to read better, not just read more, and to never take the little things for granted. By JADE MARK CAPIÑANES
ANCX | Apr 23 2020

Dear students,

On the first meeting of our Reading and Writing class this semester, I shared to you my admiration for the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. I’d brought my copies of his short story collections and talked about how magical and otherworldly his tales are.

I emphasized, however, that what’s truly astounding about Borges was his love of reading. His writings could only be a product of a mind that had encountered almost all books out there, including those that people no longer read, or even those that never existed at all.

“And he was blind for almost throughout the prime of his life, guys,” I told you. “What’s our excuse?”

Reading is a privilege: A young teacher’s open letter to his reading and writing class 3
Borges was blind for almost the entire prime of his life. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Borges, of course, lived in a time when people had less distractions. They didn’t have to fight the urge to try Tiktok—and eventually succumb to it. Moreover, despite the apparent hermetic simplicity with which he lived his life, Borges was bourgeois as could be.

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He was the son of highly educated people. He discovered his love of reading and writing at an early age, due largely to his father’s massive library and his mother’s storytelling gifts. He grew up surrounded by people, resources, and circumstances that nurtured such passion. Even when he lost his vision later in life, he had others, especially his mother, to be the eyes through which he saw and reimagined the world, fictional or otherwise.

Let’s think of Borges whenever we think of reading, and how privilege, just like in everything else, plays a crucial part in it. Especially right now that the COVID-19 pandemic besets the world.

True, now might be the right time to catch up on your reading. I know also that your conscience is clear because you’ve hoarded books, not alcohol and face masks. Newton and Shakespeare, as some popular online posts you’ve probably seen lately say, did their best works while working from home during a bubonic plague. If it seems so assuming to compare yourself to them, though, just think of the lowly characters in Boccaccio’s The Decameron: escaping the Black Death, they find a shelter where they tell one another stories of folly, romance, and everything in between.

Reading is a privilege: A young teacher’s open letter to his reading and writing class 4
"Reading, for most people whose conception and means of survival are more immediate and urgent than ours, is a luxury." Photo by Robin Worrall on Unsplash

Equally true, then, is the claim that reading is in itself a personal act of survival, now that we’re stuck at home, bored to death, desperately looking for ways to pass the time. But I’m afraid that saying so might come off as romanticizing it. What’s worse, it might come off as ignoring the truth that reading, for most people whose conception and means of survival are more immediate and urgent than ours, is a luxury.

Books are relatively expensive, for one, and you need to be lucky enough to have a good haul at secondhand bookstores, not to mention lucky enough to have the time to rummage through the random titles in the bookshelves. Others simply don’t have that. Besides, even if you have books within your reach, you will often end up having so little to no time actually reading them. Just look at the book you decided to read last month but remains unopened to this day.

Make no mistake: if you can do it, then you should, by all means. (And I urge you to, particularly because our final requirement for this class is a book review.) But let’s not forget that others can’t. Books may bring us to worlds we can only imagine, but the real world, so uncaringly busy and fast, always pulls us back every time we try to escape from it.

Borges might have been blind, but he sure saw a lot. Remember when I told you last time that the point of reading is not to read more but to read better? This is it: when our reading helps us see the world outside the books we read, outside the fragile little bubbles we enclose ourselves with and often mistake for safety, the world in all its beauty and ugliness.

Please don’t ever forget that you’ve lived through these trying times. You might get tired of all the Google Classroom tasks, the online readings and discussions, but they may be nothing compared to what others are undergoing right now. You’ll make sense of it someday.

You will be Grade 12 students in a few months (if our educational system doesn’t collapse or something because of the protracted class suspensions), full-fledged adults in a few years. If there’s only one thing I want you to take away from this class, it’s the acknowledgment and the appreciation of what you have, no matter how little.

Unlike Borges, I grew up in a Catholic house virtually devoid of books, except for the Bible. The one we had was the pocket-sized blue one you could get for free from your friendly neighborhood Protestant missionary or steal from hotel rooms. However, I don’t remember reading it as a child, nor do I remember seeing my parents reading it. It just lay next to our Santo Niño, gathering dust and lost time.

What I have are hardworking and understanding parents, who allowed me in my fourth year in college, when I discovered my love of books, to shift from a business to an arts degree, even if that meant additional two years in college, as well as two years’ worth of expenses and opportunity costs that we could barely afford.

If there’s only one thing I want you to take away from this class, it’s the acknowledgment and the appreciation of what you have, no matter how little.

You see, my privileges are not as glamorous as Borges’s, and they might as well be the bare minimum, but they’re privileges nonetheless, privileges I have to be forever thankful for. Such privileges have helped me build my own little library, books enclosed within a TV cabinet my father reconstructed into a bookshelf. And such privileges have led me to you.

I’m reminded of Borges’s short story “The Aleph,” which talks about a “small, iridescent sphere” that contains “every angle of the universe… the teeming sea… daybreak and nightfall… bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam… equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand.” Aside from the topics the Department of Education has included in the curriculum of our Reading and Writing subject, what I’ve been trying to teach you all this time, perhaps, is that little things could hold so much.

Hold on to them, those little things. You’ll always go back to them, especially when all else fails. “My solitude,” to echo Borges, “is gladdened by this elegant hope.”

See you all again soon.

 

Sincerely,

Sir Jade