Lessons in Reading and Resilience

Lisa Stepanski

“Life is a succession of lessons,” counseled nineteenth-century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, “which must be lived to be understood.” The Emmanuel community is being schooled in some difficult lessons as together we navigate the abrupt pivot to a remote campus and fully online teaching. Faculty and students alike mourn for daily routines now completely upended. Gone, too, are the face-to-face encounters that make Emmanuel such a vibrant place. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and disconnected when, to quote a student, “every day is just…day.”

And yet as Helen Keller noted, “[A]lthough the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” That “overcoming of it” is resilience. Defined as “a certain set of character strengths that enables an individual to adapt, cope, and thrive in the face of adversity,” resilience is an effective tool for weathering life’s inevitable challenges (The Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice). “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” (Japanese proverb). Or, as Winston Churchill observed bluntly, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

During the pandemic I’ve been thinking about how to do just that. Luckily, the post-break required reading for my ENGL 2309 class features two highly resilient protagonists who model how to keep going no matter what.

Eleven-year-old Francie Nolan, the protagonist of Betty Smith’s 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, lives in a crowded Brooklyn neighborhood at the turn of the twentieth century. The daughter of an alcoholic, Francie and her family live in grinding poverty. But Francie is not overwhelmed. A voracious reader, she is fueled by a steady stream of books borrowed from the local library. “There is no frigate like a book/To take us lands away,” Emily Dickinson observed. Books are Francie’s coping mechanism, an escape from the harsh reality of her Brooklyn childhood and a blueprint for a more hopeful future.

Lauren Olamina, the tenacious fifteen-year-old narrator of Octavia Butler’s prescient 1993 dystopian novel Parable of the Sower, lives with her family in a walled compound in California in 2024.  Acute water shortages, and rampant drug and gun use have caused a total breakdown in societal norms and political leadership. Sensing the imminent danger to her community, Lauren reads every book she can lay her hands on.  Knowledge is power—and the key to her survival.  When Lauren finally finds herself alone in a violent apocalyptic world, her ability to read and write saves her—and enables her to lead a small group of survivors to a more hopeful future.

My hope is that the timing of these two novels—the first readings on our syllabus after the pandemic emptied our campus—made that transition a bit easier for my students.  Books liberate Francie and Lauren. Reading helps them to adapt, cope, and thrive, no matter the circumstances. For as Frederick Douglass (another author on our syllabus this semester) said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Lisa Stepanski
Lisa Stepanski

Lisa Stepanski is the Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and a Professor of English. She teaches courses in writing and American literature, most recently, ENGL 2309 The Haves and Have Nots: Money, Class, and Power in American Literature. Her research interests include nineteenth-century American women writers, the Alcott family, Catholic writers, and early women aviators. She is the author of The Home Schooling of Louisa May Alcott: How Her Father and Mother Educated an American Writer. Not surprisingly, her favorite heroines are Jo March and Francie Nolan.