I’m stuck in Truth or Consequences, a high desert town of about 7,000 people in southeastern New Mexico with hot springs and a small community of artists who hold an annual New Year’s celebration. Unfortunately, the subfreezing temperatures displeased the diesel engine in my Jeep and I’m here long after my scheduled departure date until an auto mechanic repairs my transportation home.
The town is poor. About a quarter of its population lives below the poverty line, most residents rely on government subsidies to survive, and methamphetamine use is rampant. Several locals informed me that car trouble is a common reason for moving to “T or C.” Vehicles break down and their owners never leave, as if the grim “truth” of their lives finally catches them and they must surrender to its consequences.
As I walk by the enclaves of trailers and tents that shelter many residents from the 11 degree nights and brutal winds, I’m glad that Victor is living in a homeless shelter in LA rather than here. Why? Because Victor lives in a culture which communicates to him in many ways that life can be expansive, dreams can be realized and that he has agency – a role to play in creating his life.
In the past year I have seen Victor recover from some trauma and regain his bearings. Reading is one way he has done this. A year ago, reading for Victor was an unwanted task – colorless school worksheets with words to memorize and sentences to slog through. He had no books of his own nor a bedtime story ritual. Now, a year later, he has experienced the thrill of success in learning to read (especially via the Reading Kingdom); he has fallen in love with a few books (especially Unlovable and Captain Underpants); and he has aspired to read on his own books that are currently beyond his capacity (particularly Harry Potter). Reading for him is now multidimensional – it can be a private or shared experience, assigned or elective, play or work.
When I used to hear the adage that reading improves lives, I thought that the improvement came because of the information that people learned inside the books and the worlds that the books exposed them to. This is, of course, true. But in tutoring a struggling reader, I’ve realized how tremendously empowering successfully learning to read can be. For someone still learning to read, the mere act of reading communicates that you don’t have to end up where you break down.