Ana Veciana-Suarez

After teens vandalized a school, a judge ordered them to read. Will it teach empathy?

A woman reads ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee in this 2006 file photo.
A woman reads ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee in this 2006 file photo. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Amidst the chaos in Washington and the ricocheting anger around the country, the following item should supply most of us — book lovers especially — with a level of comfort that is hard to come by these days.

A Virginia judge recently ordered five vandals to read 35 books as a punishment for covering a historic African-American schoolhouse with racist, obscene and anti-Semitic graffiti. The teens also must watch 14 films, visit two museums (including the U.S. Holocaust Museum) and write a monthly book report or film review. The ruling isn’t the first time a judge has issued a sentence of mandatory reading, but some speculate this list may be the longest and most varied.

All the assigned books deal with issues of racism, religion or gender equality, including such older classics as “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok, as well as newer tomes like “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead.

For those who think this was a namby-pamby decision, consider some of the surrounding facts that mitigate the perpetrators’ despicable behavior. None of the five teens had a previous record. None knew that it was a school or that it was a historic property. And while this doesn’t make the swastikas and sexually explicit pictures any less heinous, I can understand why the county prosecutor saw the potential for a teachable moment.

Alex Rueda, the deputy commonwealth attorney for Loudoun County who came up with the sentence, is the daughter of a librarian. She — like me, like so many avid readers — knows that reading can be a transformative experience, and books, both the dark, frightening ones and the light, humorous ones, can change a life. Sometimes, in turning the world upside down, in offering a voice with a different perspective and characters with varying experiences, the best books force us to pause, to open our eyes (and brain), and think.

“I wanted them to learn about race and religion and gender and war,” Rueda told NPR. “I mean, the books cover a whole gamut of topics. So I wanted them to read about oppression all over the world. And … I want them to understand that this can happen anywhere and that these kinds of symbols can be very, very hurtful.”

Frankly, such a sentence would’ve been a gift not a punishment for me. As a child, and then as an adolescent, books transported me to exotic realms where I saw my experiences both challenged and mirrored. Back in the day, with fewer electronic intrusions, my choices were eclectic, and I read as much for entertainment as to satisfy a hunger. Even now, losing myself in a book is like opening a window to opportunity. It’s a way of raising the shade or turning up the volume on a stranger’s hopes and anxieties.

There’s empirical data to prove this, too. One recent study of more than 1,500 readers by Durham University researchers in England found that fictional characters and their reactions lived on long after a book had been finished, suggesting that the voice on the page sharpens our empathy.

We don’t know how these five teenagers will react to viewing their environment through 35 different lenses, but I suspect that reading these books, a veritable kaleidoscope of emotions and reactions, will develop into a journey of discovery — of themselves and of the world around them.

Ana Veciana-Suarez: 305-376-3633, aveciana-suarez@miamiherald.com, @AnaVeciana

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