The Sound of Navigating

by Gabriela Garay

Throughout the pandemic, our participants had to navigate a lot — online schooling, work, at times dealing with the COVID-19 virus themselves, and sometimes their own children’s online schooling.

But no matter how small or sporadic attendance has gotten, I was happy to be able to continue this work, and provide an hour a week of space to process our collective and individual realities while diving into some literature and creative writing with youth. In some cases, the smaller sizes of book groups gave me an opportunity to get to know people on a more intimate level than would have been possible with a group of 12..

Generally when only one student comes to book group, I give young people a choice: they are invited to stay and have book group with just the two of us, or they are welcome to leave and do some other school work they might have. And it really varies by student – some feel uncomfortable having a one-on-one book group and this is totally understandable especially if they have never attended before. But at one alternative school site, I’ve had a single participant consistently show up to our weekly virtual group.

This reoccurring student, Cruz, has been coming to group since the beginning of the school year but has been more consistent for the past three months, and he always chooses to stay if he’s the only one. This changes group quite a bit since it’s just the two of us— we are more engaged in conversation with each other, versus having other participants sharing their thoughts and ideas too. But this never phases Cruz; he always shows up as his most authentic self, volunteers to read, and shares his ideas, thoughts, and questions openly.

One of the great things about this dynamic is that I always give Cruz the option of what he wants to read and talk about when it was time to switch books. Recently we’ve been reading Citizen Illegal and The Rose that Grew from Concrete, which allows us to explore topics such as identity, police brutality, racism, immigration, vulnerability, masculinity, and growing up in Chicago. Since Cruz is passionate about music, I was even able to find a short story featuring a main character who plays in a metal band. He especially loved this story since he has been learning how to play the electric guitar (and several other instruments) since the beginning of the pandemic. This sparked conversations about his future and considering what he wanted to study in the future. He even played his guitar a few times as he’s learned new songs and shared some of his own music that he’s made!

Reflecting on my book groups with Cruz, I’ve been able to see that although we faced many challenges this past academic school year, we were also able to lean into the aspect of our program that work well amidst all the challenges — and which is at the core of our mission: creating connection through literature.