Reading: Exercise for the Brain

Nicole Gordienko, Guest Writer

It has been five years since I read a book for leisure and I am an English teacher.  In a normal school year my afternoons and evenings would consist of helping students after school, grading, planning, grocery runs, familial obligations, and working out.  When I would finally get a moment to myself around 7:30pm, my usual habit was to sit on the couch, turn on a rerun of The Office and stare at it until I fell asleep.  My weekends were focused on catching up on overflow grading and cleaning up the mess that piled up in my house throughout the week.  Again, this is my routine in a normal year.  We all know 2021 is not a normal year, so add about 10 more daily tasks to that routine.

I have never been a fan of the cliché New Year’s Resolutions, but instead, I have always set a challenge for myself to accomplish throughout the year.  In 2011, I vowed to learn how to ride a dirt bike.  In 2014, I set out to search for and purchase a home.  In 2018, I set a goal to squat 225 pounds and in 2020 my challenge was to explore amateur boxing.  2020 was the only year I was not able to follow through with my challenge and that was only due to Covid restrictions.  Each year on January 1, I reflect on the past year.  I contemplate what went well, where my life is going, and very carefully plan out a goal that I will not give up on.

This year, I decided to split my yearly goal into four smaller goals: physical, mental, spiritual, and career.    I decided that this year would be different.  I wanted these goals to be serendipitous and instead of looking for them, I wanted to let them find me.  Upon returning to school after winter break, my mental goal presented itself to me in the form of the 2021 Reading Challenge put forth by PHS Librarian, Lisa Maderic.  As I opened the email, it was at this moment, I realized I hadn’t read a book for leisure in over five years.  Teachers are selfless in nature.  We never take time for ourselves.  Most of our free time is spent focused on our career whether it is grading, planning a new lesson, or reading up on the newest and best educational practice.  I mean, we have mastered the art of shoving food down our throats in 20 minutes so that we can get back to our classes and teach our students!  The idea of sitting down and reading a book that was for no other purpose other than my own enjoyment felt selfish.

If 2020 taught us anything, it was to slow down, take time for yourself, and practice self-care.  I have always prioritized fitness in my life because you must take time to take care of your body.  Working out keeps you healthy and provides much needed stress relief, yet, I was neglecting to do the same for my brain.  A few days after receiving this email, a Journalism student of mine, Jocie Horan, wrote an article about how she challenged herself to read for one hour each night prior to going to bed.  She saw the importance of turning off her phone, her TV, and giving her brain the “exercise”, it deserved.  It was then that I decided to accept this challenge.

I reached out to other teachers who had joined the challenge and we decided to read different books but read something from the same category so that we could discuss.  The first category chosen was mystery; a genre that has never been one of my favorites.  When Lisa Maderic speaks to my classes for essays, she likes to use the phrase, “I’m a resource”, so I went to Lisa and asked for recommendations.   Lisa, being the fantastic librarian she is, asked me three questions: What kind of protagonist do you like? What mysteries have you read before?  What do you look for in a good book?  From three simple answers, Lisa returned in less than an hour with Linda Fairstein’s Final Jeopardy.  I started small.  Instead of turning on the TV at 730, I sat up in a chair and read a few pages a night.  By the weekend, I was reading a chapter a day.  I was ecstatic.  I found myself coming home at the end of the day looking forward to 20 minutes of “Me time” to read my book.

Almost two months later, I am onto my second book; I roped my family into a zoom book club, and my love for reading for leisure has been restored.  We need a daily reminder that self-care isn’t just physical, but also emotional and mental.  For me, this reading challenge isn’t a race, and maybe I won’t have time to read 24 books this year.  The important thing is that I am challenging myself, following through, growing my knowledge, and enjoying every minute of it.  Check out the reading challenge, join a book club, and start reading a little bit each day because your brain needs a workout too.