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April 27, 2015

Life imitating fiction

by Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti, Senior Regional Site Coordinator at PS 175 in Manhattan

There is truth in the aphorism, “It takes a village to raise a child.” As children grow into capable and established individuals, their success is a testament to the people who care for them along the way. Students are a product of their communities, and the adults who foster their potential.

Lee Rogers is an actor and regular volunteer with Reading Partners at PS 175 in Harlem, where she serves as reading partner to her student, Brandon. As an actress, community activist, and volunteer, Lee is keenly aware of the value and strength of community.

Inspired by community activism

Lee found Reading Partners after having spent time with the “Occupy” movement. Her motivation is fueled by by national stories of inequality and injustice. Lee said that she needed to find, “something concrete to do to get involved.”

Her experiences as a community activist have shaped her as a tutor. She believes working with children in low-income schools is an active way to address systemic systematic inequality in our society.

Life imitating fiction

In her “day job,” Lee played the matriarchal character, Beth, in the smashingly successful New York production of Tribes. The play, by Nina Raine, explores the act of listening and the function of communities through the lens of an unconventional family. Topics that parallel Lee and Brandon’s relationship and how they work together each week.

Lee shows up to tutor Brandon twice a week, and occasionally comes in for a third session. Brandon is overjoyed to see Lee during their sessions. He enjoys their time together so much that he often asks if he can stay after their 45 minutes are up. Their relationship is special and important to both of them. Brandon has often said that he doesn’t like reading—except when he reads with Lee; and Lee hopes to encourage Brandon to find his own love for reading.

A central character in Tribes is Beth’s son, a deaf boy named Billy who has trouble fitting in with his loud, perverse family. Billy’s character brings to life the challenges of feeling different or separate from the rest of a group and feeling unheard.

Contrary to the portrayal of Billy, Lee enjoys bringing Brandon into the conversation. In a scenario where Brandon could easily begin to separate himself from the literary and academic sphere, Lee finds potential and an opportunity to empower Brandon to succeed.

The pair can often be found engaging in deep and insightful conversations about the books they read. Lee does an exceptional job of encouraging Brandon to consider the implications of each story, asking him open-ended questions and thinking about character’s motivation.

“Why do you think the character feels that way?”

“Why do you think the character did that?”

Brandon, who has great ability to make text-to-text comparisons, asks empathetic questions about texts and loves learning about different cultures. Together, they have formed a bond where each respects and values the other as a part of a conversation.

Lee’s job as an actor is to communicate, listen, and challenge; Lee’s gift as a tutor is the same. Bringing her sense of enthusiasm and dynamic joy to their lessons has inspired a student, who otherwise does not enjoy reading books, to relish his Reading Partners sessions.

Much like a great performance that inspires you to dream larger than you had before, Lee has ignited a love of stories in Brandon that will be with him for a long time to come.

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