Reading with Rihanna

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On Life:

Sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan. Among the places I chose to volunteer, the Reading Mentor program appeared the most promising. I began with the highest of hopes, which meant potential for grand disillusionment.  

If there’s one gift I wish I could give everyone in the world — besides an intimate spiritual encounter — it would be a genuine love of reading. The simple habit of reading books has enhanced my life in profound ways, which I could never express in a handful of words.

Instead I’ll share a story about the first time a book improved my life. As a young boy I tried a new sport — roller hockey — after enjoying the greatest sports film of all time, Mighty Ducks 2.

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I was still a beginner (perhaps the worst player in the arena) when the first hockey tournament began. Back then I was fond of a children’s series called “Macdonald Hall” by author Gordon Korman. In one of the stories a boy in a similar situation scores a winning touchdown by carrying the football in a helmet. The lesson? 

Always have a plan in case things break your way — and — have courage to stick to your plan no matter how it sounds.

In a crystallized moment I’ll never forget, I found myself standing alone near the goal, while other players scuffled in a corner for the ball. With the Macdonald Hall book fresh in my 9-year-old mind, I thought “if the ball rolls over here, my plan is to lift it above the goalie’s shoulder.”

And then it did. And then I did. And that’s how the worst player in the arena scored the first goal of the game.

Reading has been changing my life ever since. The anecdotes and pearls of wisdom found in books have played a major part in so many of the good things I’ve experienced, and that awareness is precisely what I hoped to bring students in the Reading Mentor program, including a young girl named Rihanna.  

I thought — perhaps naively — that if I could do something to bring my stories to their stories, if I could somehow spark a love of reading, then seeds would be planted that would grow to positively impact their lives, long after the program ended. But how?


From day one it was clear that Rihanna and her classmates (at an underprivileged city school) had been dealt a tough hand. I witnessed many examples of broken window theory, and some days held such chaos I would’ve gladly dropped all reading goals for a few minutes of quiet.  

The experience did bring good moments; whenever a child appeared to enjoy reading it gave me a glimmer of hope. It also kindled lots of gratitude: for the parents who raised and read to me, the place where I attended elementary, and things I never had to endure (which some students revealed when asked about their weekends).

I also found a deeper appreciation for teachers — particularly at underprivileged schools — and the incredible amount of energy it takes to run a classroom. Positive energy is the only thing that seems to work consistently when kids are misbehaving — which drained me quickly (and I was just a volunteer!). So if you know a teacher who manages all this effectively they are truly a hero, and the least we can do is tolerate their grumblings 🙂  

But now that the program has ended, I have no idea whether my time there made any difference at all. If the goal was to inspire kids to love reading, then on some level I have to consider it a personal failure.


The only way I could think to make things better was to leave a message inside a book, during the last week of the school year. Maybe Rihanna will keep the book around, and perhaps the future will bring a day when the words resonate with her own life story. Isn’t that what all writers hope for?

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The message inside the cover is below:

Dear Rihanna,

Together we read some of your favorite books,
including “Fancy Nancy” and “Pinkalicious.”

This book, “Maniac Magee,”
was my favorite when I was your age.  

I hope one day you discover
the value of reading books —
they truly have the power to change lives.

Reading helps you learn from mistakes
without having to make them first.

And if you learn to read & write well,
you can do anything in this world.

Perhaps when you’re older you’ll discover C.S. Lewis,
or the best book I’ve ever read,
“The Little Book” by Selden Edwards.

And don’t forget The Bible,
which may be the most interesting book of all,
when you consider who the author is.  

For now, enjoy your youth,
and Maniac Magee!

— June 16, 2018

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