Lorene Cary: A reading life

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The morning newspaper. A collection of African-American short stories. A book about teachers’ unions. Yesterday’s mail.

The stacks on Lorene Cary’s dining room table hint at how thoroughly reading is woven into her everyday life.

"Reading nourishes me," says the celebrated writer, educator. and member of the School Reform Commission.

"I need it to be alive and growing."

For a week in March, Cary shared details and reflections on her reading life with the Notebook/NewsWorks. Not surprisingly, she reads a lot, mostly nonfiction. She also reads actively, constantly looking for meaning and connections.

That’s exactly what experts say high school students need to learn in order to succeed in college and careers.

Before sunrise each morning, Cary’s husband, the Rev. Robert Smith, assembles a pile of reading material for his busy wife. On this day, his suggestions include articles by education researchers Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond, a New York Times book review, and a Philadelphia Inquirer story about the previous night’s SRC meeting.

Cary skips the Inquirer story: "I was there." But as she putters in the kitchen, the meeting is on her mind.

Earlier in the week, Cary slogged through over a hundred pages of SRC-related memos, testimony, and PowerPoint slides – documentation of the pain caused by deep budget cuts.

Now, she’s reminded of a recent email about Sunday school, then of the biblical story of Jesus feeding thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish.

While making her daughter breakfast, a connection snaps into place.

"The crazy miracle was getting all these people to share," says Cary.

She breathes.

The Bible story, says Cary, reminds her to keep pressing for ways to run the District better instead of settling for more cuts: "It keeps me thinking: Don’t give up."

On the SRC, Cary explains, reading helps her integrate different ways of knowing the world – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, even financially – to make hard decisions.

But the self-described "introvert" also misses the luxury of reading solely to nourish her inner self.

In her 30s, says Cary, she might rise at 5 a.m., write until 11, then read for the rest of the day.

As a teen, she might park herself in the Yeadon Public Library and get lost in a James Baldwin novel.

"Right there in that little public library, I was in the bigger world," she recalls, smiling.

Reading that way now, however, makes Cary late to meetings. In fact, that’s a very real threat on this morning. Her daughter is off to school, and Cary is due shortly at District headquarters.

Just as she begins to hurry, she finds a fortune cookie left by her husband.

Cary cracks it open and, of course, reads: "You must be tired. You’ve been running through someone’s mind all week." She and her husband laugh at the play on words.

"If you get the joy in reading, then you have this thing that can affect your mind, your heart, your spirit, your gut," says Cary.

"It’s what I want every kid in Philadelphia to have."