“The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
In August, a unique approach to education and community engagement called Literary Lots will offer Cleveland area children a chance to learn in a setting unlike any other experienced in this city or around the country. Kauser Razvi, the creator of Literary Lots, envisions the program as an opportunity for local artists to leverage themes from several children’s books and transform Novak Park in Ohio City into a cultural and creative center for learning.
To promote an imaginative environment for kids, Literary Lots intends to host writing workshops and reading expos, initiate interactive art projects based on scenes from each book, feature speeches from authors, and engage with community leaders. With its ambitious goals, Literary Lots shows what is possible when individuals conceive and execute original ideas with the public’s good in mind.
I first learned of this arts education program several weeks ago when my employers tasked me with finding an organization for our firm to support with a small donation. Following a brief search on Kickstarter for Cleveland focused projects, I found the Literary Lots page and pressed play on the overview video. Excitement, like the boom of red and blue fireworks erupting into a July night’s sky, sparked inside me. I then stared mesmerized at my computer screen during a second viewing. And when I finished the video for a third time, I realized how much I cared about the project’s desire to “bring books to life” for children around Cleveland.
“Yes!” I shouted while seated at my desk imagining this learning-based adventure in action creating an “educational space to engage local youth in art and culture.”
The focus of Literary Lots on education, creative enterprise, and the nurturing of reading and writing skills through innovative, engaging projects meshes with my own values in so many areas that I wanted to support the project in any way that I could. I am thankful to co-workers and my firm for sharing in this wish by making a generous gift that underscores their commitment to learning and the surrounding community.
My interest, though, extends beyond the creative coolness of the program and into reasons far more personal. The story, for me, reaches back to 7th grade football practice and a time in my life when uncertainty swirled everywhere I turned.
I didn’t transition well from elementary school into junior high. Everything about 7th grade felt wrong, and different, as I suppose it does for most boys willing to reflect on their adolescence with a pair of honest glasses. I lacked close friends and preferred to stay home and avoid any junior high parties where I just felt like an outsider looking in on a place not meant for me. The mere hint of a conversation with a girl morphed me into a tongue-tied, palms-sweating, heart clunking 13-year old looking for a sandbox in which to bury his head. I was a shy bookworm who enjoyed reading over socializing.
Worse, playing football intensified my youthful insecurities. My dad had starred in the game. He was a high school and college All-American and scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XII. As I grew up, I did so thinking that I should love the sport as much as he did. But the truth was that I hated football in 7th grade. From the one-mile walk I made every day between the junior high building to the football stadium, to the inane ritual of plopping oversized pads on my shoulders so I could ram them into other kids I didn’t want to hit, nothing about it felt right or fun. I cried at home on most nights after practice, confiding in my mom that I needed to quit. Every day, I endured a new series of taunts about not being as good as my dad or carrying favor with coaches solely because of my last name. These words hit harder than any collision endured on the field.
One part of the day brought peace, though, and it occurred after my practice ended while I waited for the high school team’s practice to end. My dad helped coach the varsity team and most nights I hitched a ride home with him once they finished their work. During this time, I could sit alone and read whatever book I had just borrowed from the local library. I would plop on the grass away from the action, drop an oversized backpack next to me, and sit with my legs crossed and my eyes glued to pages of constant creativity. Surrounded by the screams of zealous coaches, the shrill of blown whistles, and the thump of padded bodies smacking each other, I let my imagination sprout word by word and line by line.
On these afternoons, I found perfection by sitting with a book in my lap and drifting into fictional adventures that calmed the undulating waves of apprehension and unease that threatened to overwhelm me.
I discovered solace in books, then, much as I do today. Along with writing, reading forms the foundation (and often the crutch) I rely on to express the emotions and ideas that I otherwise might bury, afraid to share with myself, let alone others. Loss, joy, grief, want, excitement, pain, pleasure—I understand what it means to live for and through these feelings because I grew close to them in the books I’ve read and the words I’ve written.
What I know now that I didn’t in 7th grade is that the creative expression of words, whether written or read, sustains me. I needed books to grow and think as a young kid. And I need them now as an adult.
When I watched the video for Literary Lots, I identified with its goals to stimulate learning, bring books to life, create, experiment, and build something new through sheer imaginative effort. The project enticed me from the moment the animated figures first appeared on my computer screen.
A deeper interest, though, arrives from a more personal place. When I picture Literary Lots, I do so with the heart of a 7th grade kid confused by his school and his sports and his life. I found my place in the company of good books and creative thoughts. Now, I want to support efforts that strive to help kids achieve this same result at a much earlier age.
In my mind, Literary Lots is such a chance to help.