I wasn’t supposed to bring “The Magic Treehouse” to school, but first-grade Ariana thought that was a rule worth bending. As I sat down on the bus each day, I would pull the half-inch novel from its nook between my bright green folder and canvas lunch box and press my nose close enough to smell the crisp pages. Then, for the next 15 minutes, I was not on a bus on the way to school. I was in Ancient Rome or Pompei or Camelot, riding a camel or a horse and buggy with Jack and Annie on their latest adventure.
In my third year attending Andover, it has become clear that I’m not the only one who spent their childhood this way. At a highly competitive boarding school where students come from “every quarter,” perhaps the one thing we share is an early love of learning. And whether it was Jack and Annie or Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, for many of us that love also came with an insatiable desire to read. It’s not out of the ordinary for the mention of a childhood book in conversation to cause a group of Andover students to erupt in a chorus of “I loved that series!” or “Oh, I forgot about that one!” The way that these books unite us reflects something vital about the function of stories: connection.
In the most basic sense, stories connect by providing a common ground. Even among people from entirely different walks of life, characters, plot, and setting provide a common language that is accessible to all. There’s a reason that asking your favorite book or movie is a common ice breaker: our different reactions to plot twists, favorite protagonists, and most despised villains say a lot about who we are. Beyond being handy get-to-know-you materials, though, stories lay the groundwork for profound empathy. Stories give us access to the minds and hearts of people both remarkably similar and unfathomably different from ourselves. As much as reading can be a path to self-discovery, books also offer an incredible opportunity to see the world through another person’s eyes. For instance, I only began to grasp the complex impacts of drug addiction after reading David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy. Being inside someone’s head for 300 pages can offer access to the thoughts and feelings behind our world’s many struggles.
Unfortunately, as we grow older and busier, our time to explore these stories dwindles. We become so focused on our own stories, our own achievement and lives, that we no longer have time for others’— especially at Andover. Reading becomes something for English class and nothing more. I wasn’t quite sure when that change had happened, but at some point between those bus rides and English 200, I stopped being a reader. And, it seemed many of my peers were in the same boat. No matter how much my friends and I loved books, we arrived at an unspoken conclusion that outside of what was explicitly required of us in class, reading was probably a waste of time. Perhaps this says something about the achievement-centric culture of Andover, or perhaps it’s a natural product of aging and the high school experience. Either way, the loss of pleasure readers in a population of previously voracious story-consumers is a profound one.
Keeping this in mind, I believe Andover has a responsibility to ensure that students have the space and time to explore stories on their own. That we, as students, actually select the titles is crucial. While the English curriculum at Andover may be strong, the incredible breadth of unique stories available in the world ensures that the stories we study in class are not necessarily the stories that we want or need. And, while exposure to books that we may not like has its own merit, there is also something to be said for having the opportunity to read intentionally. Students deserve to make informed decisions about which stories they should (or would like to) access. Additionally, by choosing the stories that we want to find ourselves in or that we want to understand others through, we create a space where we are able to reflect and think critically without the background pressure of grades and school. We keep our love of stories.
Pleasure reading also offers the possibility of going beyond genres generally considered to be “academic.” A student struggling with their sexuality, for instance, may find themselves in the words of a romance novel. Someone inclined towards STEM may take comfort in the absurdity of a YA sci-fi book. These less formal texts, just like their more “respectable” counterparts, maintain the potential to build empathy. They can also function as outlets for escapism– a merit that becomes especially important during the overwhelming moments of boarding school life. Whether or not these kinds of books belong in an academic curriculum is another conversation, but they are indisputably necessary.
Regardless of whether we choose informal novels or cold, hard autobiography, pleasure reading on the whole is necessary. So, if it means taking half a day of English class to read what we want, or replacing the occasional All-School Meeting, Andover must make the space. We don’t have morning bus rides anymore. But I refuse to believe that means we can’t still have time for Jack and Annie.