Rule Breakers: What Was I Doing with Those Books?

My first job after I graduated from college was as a sixth-grade science teacher. I was woefully ill-prepared for this position — I had limited passion for the subject of science, and even less aptitude. I struggled with everything from classroom management to balancing the seemingly never-ending piles of paper (the grading! the lesson planning!) to being on my feet all day. I didn’t last long in this role, and today whenever I meet educators, the first thing I do is thank them for the work they do because I know just how challenging, exhausting, and frustrating it can be.

I taught at a Title 1 school that was very under-resourced and had been tagged by the state as failing. I’m still not quite sure what it means for a school to fail, and what that label is meant to say about the teachers who work so hard or about the students. What I do know is that our school was a web of complicated rules. Rules about standardized testing (a subject that caused much anxiety for everyone); rules about what the students were allowed to wear; rules about how the students were allowed to move through the building; and rules about how and when to use the copy machine. You get the idea.

One of these rules was that students were not allowed to eat lunch in a teacher’s classroom unless they were making up a test. I broke this rule. Frequently. At first, I didn’t actively mean to break the rule; it was just that my heart couldn’t say no to students who were looking for a safe and quiet place to be. I was a misfit in middle school, and I painfully remember searching for any safe and quiet place that I could find. There was no way I was going to be able to say no to those kids — especially the ones who reminded me so much of my odd, shy, and insecure twelve-year-old self.

Most days, the kids would eat in silence while I caught up on emails and other administrative tasks. Sometimes they would chat with one another. One day, though, a student asked me about the pile of novels stacked by my desk. I was a science teacher, after all — what was I doing with those books?

Good question. What was I doing with those books? I had recently begun to get more serious about my dream of writing for young people. I often purchased young adult and middle grade novels and would bring them to my classroom to read before my students arrived. While the early morning light leaked in through the windows of the classroom, I would read those books and daydream about someday holding one of my own.

Most of my students, including the ones who ate lunch in my classroom, were at least one grade level behind in reading — many of them several grade levels behind. Reading was a source of continual frustration and stress for them, so I was surprised when one of the kids asked me more questions about the books. As I enthusiastically talked about how much I was loving When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, I could see more students becoming interested. It was then that I offered to read aloud to them. “Just the first page,” I said. “So you can see what I’m talking about.”


That one page turned into a habit. I somehow became the science teacher who read novels aloud to kids during lunchtime — kids who, according to the rules, weren’t supposed to be in my room. While I read to them, I watched as their eyes grew wide, as they fell in love with the characters and became captivated by the story. Their response to the novels intensified my own dream of wanting to write for young people. I also like to think that through this experience they were in some way dreaming dreams, too.

Jasmine Warga

Jasmine Warga wrote the Newbery Honor book Other Words for Home (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins).

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Jessica Sager

Incredible! So touching. It’s good to read-aloud and to be read to at any age. Keep breaking rules!

Posted : Jun 12, 2020 05:27

Lydia Kim

Thank you for this sweet, moving piece. I had teachers like this, and this was so lovely to read, to think of the path it opened for stories to come into everyone's life and do their magic.

Posted : Jun 09, 2020 11:29



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