Reading on the Go

Some of the titles I read during my ten years commuting by train in Orange County, California, 2007-2017. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Effective teaching depends in large part on continual learning. The demanding duties of being a teacher sometimes make it difficult to find time to be a student. Yet the mind of the educator must always be honed by exposure to new material and methodology. I often told my students that reading is the key to succeeding. Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, I realized that it was important to take my own advice. Consequently, I determined to augment my social science curriculum through reading in subjects that had hitherto escaped my attention.

This proved easier said than done. For the first nine years of my teaching career, I commuted back and forth to school by automobile, as did most of my colleagues. My time on campus was dominated by lesson planning and classroom management and my time at home by grading, particularly when I was teaching middle school by day and community college classes in the evening. On weekends I participated in living history programs. On winter and summer breaks I traveled or caught up on rest and errands. There was little time for reading. I owned an extensive library in my chosen subjects but was unable to make much use of it. I was simply too busy.

I had not always been too busy to read. As a college and graduate student in the 1980s I read hundreds of pages a week. I did not own a car in those days and took public transportation back and forth to school. I rode the MBTA while earning my M.A. at UMass/Boston and the BART when I was studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In Washington, D.C. I took the Metro and in San Francisco I took the Muni. Whenever I boarded a bus, shuttle, train, or plane, I took a book with me. Reading occupied much of my free time. I even read during breaks when I began working full-time in the early 1990s. But when I began my teaching career at the end of that decade, my time for reading disappeared.

The irony of this dilemma did not escape me, and I wanted to do something about it. By my tenth year I was teaching high school in a tenured position and weary of commuting by car. The opportunity then arose to travel back and forth to school by train and I decided to take advantage of it. Gas prices were high at the time and the monthly train pass was cost effective. I had to leave home a half hour earlier and returned a half hour later, but I would have time during the thirty minutes in the train car to rest, catch up on the news, or read. My school was only a few blocks walk from the train station and I could use the exercise.

Here is the shoulder bag I carried with me on the train from 2007 to 2017. Some books would fit in one of the three interior pocket sleeves. There were also smaller pockets for office supplies and a mesh bag for my water bottle.

That walk exposed me to the elements, and I learned by trial and error how to adapt my wardrobe. I carried my papers in a shoulder bag and wore a wool hat in winter and a broad-brimmed straw one in summer. I brought along a portable umbrella, sunscreen, a water bottle, and proper footwear. I kept my work shoes in my classroom and changed into them when I arrived on campus. I also had to be mindful of heavy automobile traffic when I waited at lights to enter crosswalks. Traveling to school this way had its challenges, but I enjoyed the adventure of it and the opportunity to catch up on reading.

I began with the books I already owned and then added what I needed to my home and classroom libraries by ordering new material online or making purchases at local bookstores. Any expense that related to my career as an educator could potentially be counted as a tax deduction, so I kept meticulous records of receipts for my accountant. I focused on authors whose work highlighted the subjects I was teaching. United States and world history formed the bulk of my material, but I also explored studies in geography, religion, political science, current events, and economics.

Some of my favorite authors included British geographer Simon Winchester, American journalist Rick Perlstein, and historians Candice Millard, David McCullough, H. W. Brands, and Donald L. Miller. I read biographies, memoirs, dispatches, regimental histories, classic novels, anthologies, textbooks, travel guides, illustrated atlases, collections of speeches, and autobiographies. I obtained a library card and checked out whatever my local branch had to offer. Some books were heavier than others, and I had to be careful not to take on too much weight for my walk from the train station to school and back. On rainy days I had to carry my books in a plastic bag in one hand and my umbrella in the other.

I purchased this portable umbrella from a shop near Trinity College in Dublin during my Ireland trip in April of 2000 and carried it with me on rainy days over the ten years I commuted to school by train in Orange County, California. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

My commuter train had seating areas with tables and electrical outlets, and I sat in these seats as often as I could. This allowed me to charge my smartphone and use it to look up information. I could spread out paperwork on the table and take notes on what I was reading or catch up on grading tests, homework, classwork, and essays. I often wore earbuds and listened to music and other audio files. The train was punctual most of the time, but the inevitable delays due to rail traffic, accidents, or mechanical trouble provided extra time in which I could work. I also read while waiting on the platform for trains to arrive. My latest book became my constant companion during my daily commute.

This was a welcome respite from the thousands of miles and many hours I had to drive during my first nine years as a teacher. For the next ten years, I took the train almost every day, unless I had to remain at school after the last train because of extra-curricular duties. My car sat safely in the parking garage at my home station and I enjoyed walking through the restored historic downtown district in which my school was located. My monthly pass allowed me to ride the local commuter rail service as well as the Amtrak trains that used the same routes. I made new friends and acquaintances among my fellow commuters, some of whom shared my reading interests.

My colleagues in the Digital Arts and Humanities Program helped me plan an annual field trip into downtown Los Angeles to visit the museums there, and we decided to ride the train as a group. I was able to secure a school rate for the three teachers and thirty or so students we took every year. Many of the kids had never traveled by train before and enjoyed the experience immensely. I even inspired some of my other colleagues to begin commuting by rail themselves. My social science colleagues in particular were intrigued with my return to regular reading and began finding time in their own schedules for new books.

Technology changed the nature of reading as an activity over the course of my decade on the rails. The decline of local bookstores and newspapers as part of the “retail apocalypse” of the new millennium made it more challenging to obtain new reading material, at least in traditional form. Amazon became an excellent resource for rare books and educational videos I could use in class. I incorporated new material I was reading into my slideshows and lectures and came up with new lesson plans for my students. The rise of smartphones and online classrooms allowed for new ways of learning. I tried to make connections between these innovative digital platforms and traditional books and magazines.

When I retired from full-time teaching last year, I gave away much of my collection of books to the local public library. Many of them were volumes I enjoyed reading during my years on the train. I was happy to share with others the resources I had used to augment my own knowledge and understanding and that of my students. Websites, podcasts, sound bytes, downloads, blogs, and online forums have their place, but none can substitute for the experience of holding a book in one’s hands and turning its pages to follow an engaging story. I tried to teach that to my students and continue to support the work of public libraries through my donations and patronage.

Read what you can, when you can. If you commute to school using public transportation, bring a book along with your other personal effects. There is always something new to learn, especially in the study of history and the other social sciences. If you still drive or walk to work, find time elsewhere in your schedule to sit down with a good book. Follow book reviews online. Experiment with new authors. Reread old classics. Check out books from your local public library. Reading is indeed the key to succeeding, in personal as well as professional development. In our busy, distracted, digital world, taking quiet time for learning and reflection can make a positive difference.

Sign on the train platform at the Irvine Transportation Center in Orange County, California. I commuted by rail between Irvine and Fullerton for ten years and led an annual field trip by train from Fullerton to Los Angeles Union Station. Photo Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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