CAPE ELIZABETH – Rain fell outside the walls and windows of the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth as a small group of people enjoyed the coziness of the resort’s indoors, as well as the company of “Finding Perfect” author Elly Swartz.

Throughout April, Cape Elizabeth Middle School took an unconventional approach to beginning the school day: Students spent the first hour of class being read aloud to as part of a school-wide initiative to recognize and support mental wellness. The book? Swartz’s “Finding Perfect.”

“It’s amazing. You walk in there and it’s quiet,” Principal Troy Eastman told members of the school board at a meeting earlier in April, according to a press release. “Like the whole first hour of school is quiet. You can hear a pin drop.”

By the end of the month, students heard all 51 chapters of “Finding Perfect,” the story of a middle school age girl struggling with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder who eventually learns that there is no such thing as “perfect.”

Each chapter was delivered through a YouTube video by a guest reader, someone whom the students may or may not be familiar with. They ranged from national celebrities, including Swartz and some of her peers from across the country; to local and community leaders – teachers, parents, fellow and former students, members of the Cape Elizabeth School Board and town council, a state legislator, the town manager and the superintendent of schools. Before each chapter, the presenter shares a bit of his or her own story and encouragement. There was also time for class discussion.

“I’ve had students come up to me that I’ve never really talked to and say, ‘This has been awesome,’” Eastman told the board. “I think it’s pretty powerful that the whole school and community can get behind that, and it’s kind of putting us out there as a leader, which I think, we want to do that: take risks, and support kids.”

The read-along has gained national attention, with interest inspired by Swartz’ social media posts and participation by other well-known authors and artists wo read chapters.

Eastman credited Jill Young, nurse at the middle school, for creating and making the read-along happen, but Young credited Eastman for the idea of a read-along. Initially it was just going to be a book to be read together in school, Young said, but the idea to embrace community readers and to incorporate the mental-wellness initiative soon took hold.

“We’ve been getting great feedback from staff and students,” Young said. “And we’ve already gotten some really positive feedback from families.”

Last fall, in partnership with the Yellow Tulip Project, an organization committed to ending the stigma of mental illness, middle school students and staff planted 600 bulbs at the school entrance as a Hope Garden. Each student and staff member placed a marker in the ground next to their bulb with a personal message of hope.

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