A wren flew into my house not long ago, through a door I unwisely left open. The little thing was banging around the sunroom, panicking – and I was too. I called my neighbor, Elizabeth Hawkins, who came right over to provide emergency assistance and a happy resolution for all parties. We would have been fine even if it had been a chipmunk, raccoon, deer, coyote, or vampire.
I’m convinced there is no situation Elizabeth couldn’t handle. She is smart, calm, and capable; organized and decisive; strong in mind and spirit, but gentle of heart. I’ve seen these qualities for years now in her parenting, her friendships, and her volunteer commitments.
Elizabeth is also a passionate Vanderbilt baseball fan, a serious gardener, and quite a good cook! Her kids say that her best dishes are macaroni and cheese and meatloaf, made using her grandmother’s recipes. Elizabeth is proudest of dishes like fettucine and chocolate mousse made from French cooking class recipes. Her most ambitious project to date has been a bouche de Noel, meringue mushrooms and all.
When you love to cook, it’s also very handy to enjoy exercise. You can often find Elizabeth hiking the red trail in Percy Warner park, attending Julie Haffner’s class at the Green Hills YMCA, or working out at Bar Method.
You can sometimes find Elizabeth in the neighborhood trying to track down one or both of their British labs, Rosie and Otis. “Rosie is 9 years old and is extremely well behaved and trained,” she says. “Otis, however, has been a mess. He barks. He digs. He chews. He sheds terribly. But he has the sweetest disposition and is a love!”
On a rainy day, you’ll find Elizabeth sitting on her screened-in porch, reading. As a child, it would have been the Chronicles of Narnia or the Little House series; in college at Vanderbilt, she fell in love with Jane Austen. These days, if it’s summertime, it might be the Harpeth Hall all-school read. Today, I’m so happy for her to share her thoughts on this year’s read, The Running Dream, by Wendell Van Draanen.
I have enjoyed reading my children’s all-school summer reads over the years – notably Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis. I had the opportunity to meet both Louis Zamporini (of Unbroken fame) and Jennifer Davis (aka Odyssa/Appalachian Trail conqueror) personally as special guest speakers at all-school assemblies. Both my son, while at MBA, and my daughter, currently at Harpeth Hall, read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys as their all-school read – a fabulous book – already reviewed by Bacon!
With two out of three children now off to college, my all-school read has boiled down to just one this summer: The Running Dream, by Wendell Van Draanen. First, let me say that I am not a runner. I would rather walk ten miles than run two. The runner’s euphoria is something I wish I could achieve after a walk in the park. However, my appreciation and respect for those who run is immense! Both of my daughters have the talent to run and to race and I have spent many hours traipsing through cross country fields and cheering for them on the track.
I have observed that special bond created as a result of grueling training amongst runners. In this regard, The Running Dream hit close to home as I was introduced to Jessica Carlisle, a sixteen year old junior in high school, whose reflections on running and how it shaped her identity are similar to what I have observed in my own daughters’ experiences. Jessica describes herself: “I am a runner. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. Running is all I know, want, or care about…sailing over dots of blooming clover. Beating all the boys. I love the wind across my cheeks, through my hair.”
Tragically, Jessica’s track career comes to an abrupt end as a result of a bus accident in which a fellow teammate is killed and she is seriously injured. She had just run the race of her life only to wake up in a hospital bed with her leg amputated below the knee. While Jessica has the support and encouragement of her family and friends, it is her private grieving over the tremendous loss of a teammate as well as the loss of what seems to be her hopes and dreams that I found most poignant. The emotional pain is so severe that she wonders if she would be better off dead. She says, “Running aired out my soul. It made me feel alive. And now? I’m stuck in this bed, knowing I’ll never run again.”
Throughout the story, Jessica is tortured by a recurring “running dream.” The ecstasy she feels as a runner in her dream comes crashing to a halt repeatedly as she grimaces at the reality upon waking that she will never run again… similar to the tension of phantom pains she feels in her now amputated “leg.” Depressing, right? Hold on! Jessica’s rehabilitation and recovery has many twists and turns as she deals with her fears of abandonment and loss, her longing for her leg back, facing a former competitor, processing the impact of her accident on her family’s finances, juggling the nuances of teenage friendships and romance, adjusting to being labeled with a disability, and, maybe most important to her healing, developing a friendship with a very special student in her math class, Rosa.
Rosa has cerebral palsy and attends the same math class as Jessica. Jessica had hardly acknowledged Rosa before her accident and yet Rosa’s kindness and compassion towards Jessica after her accident facilitate Jessica’s recovery in a very unexpected way. Their friendship begins to blossom as Rosa tutors Jessica in math. Jessica is embarrassed that before the accident she was hardly aware of Rosa – or the fact that Rosa lives in her neighborhood. Rosa, confined to a wheelchair, peppers Jessica with questions about what it is like to run. Rosa becomes the catalyst to Jessica’s transformation and ultimately the friendship reveals to Jessica the true meaning of the “running dream.” She realizes that her dream of running again isn’t just an escape from her reality. Her circumstances aren’t the “finish line” to all of her hopes and dreams after all but rather her “starting line” for a new beginning.
The author Van Draanen develops Jessica’s voice with an enlightening (dare I say refreshing) teenage perspective as Jessica describes her anger, fears, and sadness as well as her hope, grit and ultimate triumph over her circumstances. The themes of perseverance, humility, selflessness, kindness, resiliency, and the potential for transformation through hardships make this a heart-warming read and a great conversation starter with your teen!