How one woman used reading for education


For a woman whose life took a different path, a teacher’s reading list taught her everything she needed to know.

Steph Clémence always intended to go to college. But life tends to throw obstacles in the way. Growing up, she led a nomadic life as her mother, who divorced and remarried several times, was always on the move. As a result, Steph attended five different kindergarten programs. By the time she was a senior in high school, Steph had lived in 25 places.

Still, she had good grades and considered herself college-bound. But when her stepfather tragically died in a car accident, leaving her mother to support three daughters on a modest income, paying for college became out of the question.

come across an idea

Around this time, Steph’s boyfriend, Gary Frye, enlisted in the Navy, a four-year enlistment that would send him overseas. Before leaving, the couple got married.

“We got married on July 7 and Gary left on August 18,” says Steph. “I dropped him off at the bus station and cried all the way back.”

With her husband at sea, Steph lived with her family, found a job, and tried to figure out what to do with a life that had strayed so far from the plan she had carefully laid out.

The answer came one afternoon as she was cleaning out her bedroom closet. Inside a box of files, she spotted a thick folder on which she had written “High School Keepsakes.” Tucked away among memorabilia and photos from her time at McKenzie High School in Vida, Oregon, Steph found two stapled mimeographed pages from the English teacher she had in her freshman year, Dorothy Clark.

Mrs. Clark was small and lively, used to waving her hands when she spoke. One afternoon, she walked into the classroom with a pile of stapled papers. She asked the students in front of each row of desks to take one and pass the rest to the students behind them. The document was titled “Mrs. Clark’s Book List. It wasn’t a homework assignment, the professor announced, but it could be a roadmap.

“Some of you might not go on to graduate school,” Ms. Clark said, “but you can keep learning.” She had spent months creating a list of 153 fiction and non-fiction books, plays and short stories from the United States and abroad, covering science, history, economics, politics and Literature. It would be, she believed, the equivalent of two years in a liberal arts college.

“She knew the income levels of the kids in my high school,” Steph explains. “Working families and lumberjacks. She knew most of us wouldn’t go to college. She was right. But she knew we could keep learning after high school. She was also right about that.

Steph studied the list. The first book was The Bulfinch Mythology. She turned the page to see the last book: The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.

And that’s how it all started. It was 1970. “I had hope and was determined to get better,” says Steph. She had always read for pleasure—magazines, mystery novels, mystery novels, and romance novels. Now she would add Mrs. Clark’s suggestions to the mix. Starting at the top, she read each book in the order in which they appeared.

A passion for learning

That night she wrote to her husband, who was stationed in the Mediterranean, telling him of her project. When she finally went to college, she told him, she would be ahead of the other freshmen.

Four years later, he left the Navy and enrolled in college while Steph held various jobs. She helped pay for her tuition and she continued to read.

The only other people she told about her goal were her mother, sister, and a few friends. She assumed that people would find little value in her trip. But she felt differently. Each of these books sparked his passion to learn more about the person, subject, or time in history. This led her to seek out other books that weren’t on the list, hoping to deepen her knowledge.

Illustration of a woman entering a book: Moby DickAndrea DeSantis for Reader’s Digest

Over the years, the Frye’s, who chose not to have children, moved around a lot, living in 16 homes in several states. Steph buried his mother. She and Gary lost a house, saved, saved and bought another. Gary retired as a hospital property manager in Portland, Oregon. Then Steph retired as an office manager for a dentist.

Through it all, the reading list was a constant in her life, traveling with her even on vacation so she could refer to it while prowling flea markets and bookstores used for the next book on the list. . (She never pre-purchased the books; she only looked up the title when it was next.) When the original list ran out, she typed up a new copy. And then another.

“Finding the next book on the list was fun, like a treasure hunt,” says Steph. Whenever she couldn’t find a used copy of a book, she dashed the title. If she couldn’t find it in the library, she would use a circle. While she was looking, she had read other books that weren’t on the list.

“The only book I skipped was the Bible,” Steph says. “I’d read parts of it in my life, and I figured I’d get there eventually. Then 9/11 happened. That day I started reading the Bible, and I read it cover to cover. I wanted to understand humanity better.

Illustration of a woman coming out of a book: Mill FlossAndrea DeSantis for Reader’s Digest

Unlike many people who open a book in bed before it’s time to sleep, Steph prefers to read sitting in a chair with a cup of coffee by her side. She doesn’t run through a book, because she wants to savor the experience.

“Reading these books is an emotional and intellectual experience,” she says. “What am I going to find out?” How will my heart change?

His favorite from the list was The human comedy by Guillaume Saroyan. It’s about a fatherless boy growing up during World War II. “It made me think and feel. It’s heartwarming. I’ve read it three times,” she says.

What she likes least: Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism, Capital (Das Capital). His review: “It’s so dry. Reading it was like working on a complicated math problem.

The list goes on

Now Steph is 70 years old, and she never went to college. But he only has four books left to read in the list. She hopes to complete them in 2023.

“Each of the books added something to who I am and how I see the world,” she says. “They opened so many doors for me about race, environment, history and politics. I’m no expert, but I now have the context to see why things happened and what it might mean.

She wishes she could thank Mrs. Clark. She would like to be able to share with her teacher how reading the works on her list has changed her life.

How Reading Taught A Woman About Life Quote 2

In Mrs. Curiethe author, Eve Curie, writes: “Each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all mankind, our particular duty being to help those to whom we think to be most useful . ”

According to Steph Frye, Ms Clark felt it was her special duty to help young students navigate a changing and increasingly complicated world. And thanks to a simple handout handed out in class, at least one young woman who couldn’t afford college got away with it.

“It was never just a list I got from a teacher at school,” Steph explains. “That’s always been Mrs. Clark’s list of books.”

Next, learn about this teacher’s brilliant strategy for addressing student mental health.

See the list of Mrs. Clark’s books


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