American student Lily Tupper of St. Olaf College in Minnesota recently completed an internship at the Verbal Arts Centre with our Reading Rooms program. She lets us how she got on in the program, which stories stirred her imagination, and what fond memories she has bought back to the States with her.
For two months this past spring I had the opportunity to intern at the Verbal Arts Centre, primarily with the Reading Rooms program. I came to this opportunity through my study abroad program with Ulster University. The program, “Democracy and Social Change in Northern Ireland”, allowed my classmates and myself – all students at American universities – to learned about the Troubles and the peace process, and to participate in internships in Derry/Londonderry and nearby towns.
My internship with the Reading Rooms Program was primarily divided into two sections: visiting Reading Rooms, and assisting the literary guide Susanne Stich. Additionally, I had the chance to get to know staff involved with administration, literary publications, and the journalism school. I also transcribed interviews done for the Housing Executive, a Union Learning Fund conference in Belfast, and was interviewed by a journalism student for his class assignment,.
During my visits with staff to Reading Rooms, I was struck by how each group had its own dynamic and relationship to communal storytelling the program was adapted to fit each group. One of my favourite memories of the Reading Rooms is from my very first visit, at the Ballyedenmore Lodge. While the group was reading Three Lambs by Liam O’Flaherty, I watched one older woman reach down to help the woman next to her turn the page of the photocopied story. This was a simple gesture, but for me it represented the feeling of community and care that can be built in a shared reading group. I read Three Lambs in three different care homes, and witnessed how participants pulled different and similar significances. It is a simple tale of a boy who witnesses the birth of three lambs, and anticipates receiving a pancake from his mother for each new lamb. For some participants, this story brought up memories of their own animals and chores, while others reminisced about eating pancakes for breakfast and growing up. Each Reading Room leader had a different way of drawing out conversation and guiding the group, and it was fascinating to watch them adapt to the needs of the group.
When I was not out attending Reading Rooms, I spent most of my time in the Reading Rooms office, working with Susanne, the literary guide. My two primary tasks were photocopying poems and short stories for Reading Rooms, and organising and relabelling the filing cabinets of reading materials. While both of these tasks could seem boring or menial in another context, they were actually some of my proudest accomplishments. I could imagine where each of the hundreds of copies I made of People Need People by Benjamin Zephaniah was going, and I knew that some copies would be taken home by Reading Room participants, so they could read the poem again. The personal connections I made while out at Reading Rooms helped to fuel my enthusiasm for office work.
While working with Susanne I also had the chance to read many short stories to evaluate them for use in Reading Rooms. One of my favourite collections that I had the chance to read from was Homesick, by Roshi Fernando. Each chapter tells a part of the story of a Sri Lankan family in London, focusing on themes of family, prejudice, and fitting in. Each story is beautifully written to connect to the other stories or to stand alone, and can often be used for a variety of age groups and interests.
Interning at the Verbal Arts Centre was an integral part of how I experienced life in Northern Ireland, and I am grateful to each person I met there for helping to understand a little bit more about myself and the people I was surrounded by for four months. I am in awe of how dedicated staff are to the vision of the Reading Rooms, and feel honoured to have had the chance to learn from them, and work with them. Even now, back in the United States, I get very excited whenever I see a short story anthology, and start to brainstorm how it would be used in Reading Rooms. When I think of Derry, the first image to come to mind is the sunny, warm office I worked in at the Verbal Arts Centre, and I could not be happier about that.