(Bookworms are volunteers from Valley Grange who visit school to listen to second and third graders read. The program has been ongoing at Piscataquis Community Elementary School for nearly ten years.)
There’s a well-worn couch at the head of the stairs where Bookworms sit with a second or third grader and listen to those children read from a book they’ve selected. On this day I was alone because I wasn’t bookworming, I was substitute teaching Kindergarten. It’s also a good place to wait and meet the class when they return from lunch.
A tall young man shuffled down the hall, heading for the library. I immediately recognized him as an “old friend” – one who truly taught me a lot about kids. I remembered how when he was in second grade I dreaded discovering that he was going to be my reader. “Johnny” was just plain annoying and seemed to take pleasure in being so. He was an angry child who frequently lashed out at his classmates and teachers. I was not the only one who tended to avoid him.
There’s of course more to the story but thankfully I started seeing him differently and treating him differently. I ended up enjoying spending time with him. I think he found me as much a challenge as I did him. I especially enjoyed those times when he found it hard to suppress the fact that he was actually enjoying our time together even as he groaned and rolled his eyes.
He’s a lot taller now and his voice is considerably deeper now that four years have passed. A groan still accompanied his rolling eyes when he saw me. But as he reached for the library door he smiled his little smile and said, “Mr. Boomsma, are you sitting there waiting for me to read to you?”
I replied “Would you like to?” He didn’t respond but continued on his mission. (The older kids are allowed to print their work to the printer in the library.)
He came out of the library with the page he’d printed, walked over to the couch and sat down so his body was pressed against mine. “We’re working on poetry.” There was no groan and I sensed he wanted to share.
I looked at the words and started reading aloud to him, thinking I was reading his work. That meant, of course, that I added some editorial comments about how good it was. By the time I’d finished I was thoroughly impressed. I noticed he was smiling again—that little smile that says “Gotcha.” He always did enjoy thinking he’d pulled one over on me. (Truth be told, sometimes he did.) So what was it this time? I looked at the paper more closely and realized I wasn’t reading a poem he’d written—it was a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In an attempt to diminish my error, I explained, “Well, no wonder I liked it so much. Longfellow is one of my favorite poets.” We shared some thoughts about some of Longfellow’s work for probably longer than we should have since he was due back in class. It felt right and was reminiscent of conversations we’d had a few years ago when he couldn’t pretend he wasn’t interested. I also wanted to prove to him that there was a time when I could recite one “The Children’s Hour” from memory. He explained the assignment was limited to “eight to twelve lines.” Darn. It was my turn to groan.
If you met Johnny, you wouldn’t immediately think he’s the sort of kid you’re going to sit with to read and discuss Longfellow’s poetry. For that matter, I’m not sure he actually sees himself that way, at least not yet. But for those few rhythmic moments, we connected. We shared something of each other and I was reminded again that every kid deserves to be loved and every kid has love to give back. We are supposed to connect, help and teach each other. The line between teacher and learner is meant to be fuzzy.
In her TED Talk about teaching, Rita Pierson reminds us that “Every kid needs a champion.” She’s got it right, but I would add “Every adult needs a kid.” Kids should be seen and heard. Adults should look and listen because those kids have a lot to offer—even when they try to hide it. I want to believe that in some way I have helped and inspired this small person by being one of his champions. And, yes, I want to believe that he is one of my champions—even when he groans and rolls his eyes.
As a bonus, this recent encounter with Johnny has inspired me. Maybe the next time I see him I’ll again be able to recite that poem from memory. He’ll probably groan, but I’ll bet by the time I finish he’ll show me that little smile that says, “You thought I wasn’t interested but I was. Gotcha!”
But when I get to the end, it is I who will be saying “Gotcha.”
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!
And moulder in dust away!