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I’ve always been fond of the 25 year test.  It’s one of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a young teacher and after decades in the classroom I always pass along this nugget to the many beginning teachers I’ve supervised and mentored.

Simply put, the 25 year test asks: What do you think you and your students will remember about this lesson/subject/day 25 years from now?  Sometimes this simple question helps put things in perspective in a hurry. 

One of my own 25 year test moments occurred at the end of a “Back to School Night” evening.  I’d given my spiel to a group of partents whose kids were in an Honors Jr.English class. Feeling satisfied that I touched all the bases, I thanked them for their attendance, invited them to look around the classroom, and mentioned that I’d be available for additional questions for the remainder of the evening.  Most folks exited the room, but a small line formed at my feet. Circumventing the line, a woman abruptly walked up, around, and behind me and then whispered in my ear.  

“Thank you for reading to them.”  

“Oh,” I replied, “I always read the first few pages of an assigned novel with the entire class.”

“But I’ve heard you sometimes read short stories, and I love that just because these kids are Honors students doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from being read to. Please keep doing it.”

With that she said good night.

I recalled that comment recently as I read to my 95-year-old mother-in-law whose eyesight is rapidly declining.  A lover of books her whole life, Betsy took particular pleasure in hearing F. Scott Fitzgeralds “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”  before our Thanksgiving dinner this year.  

As educators, we know that being exposed to books and literature is half the battle.  That’s why I now volunteer at a local elementary school in the SMART (Start Making a Reader Today) program.  My wife, Katie, has been doing it for awhile and at her invitation I became a reader this year. I knew this would be a different role for me but was fascinated that I’d be working with Kindergarten kids.  Like a baseball player who has an opportunity to hit for the cycle, the 5 year olds I’d read with would mean that I’ve worked with every level of student from K through post graduate. I value that accomplishment because working with them means learning from them.

The first day, I admit I’m nervous.  I fit my ageing body into a chair about a third of the size I’m used to and await my first “reader.”  These kids don’t read quite yet, but the idea here is that reading many kinds of books with and to them will engender the love of reading and motivate their learning to read even more.  I will read to and sometimes with three students for the next hour. At 20 minutes a session, I’ll see 3 students each time. The first line of “Smarties,” as they ae called, appears at the door and Sierra, a diminuitive Vietnamese-American girl answers my wave and takes a seat beside me.  She’s soft-spoken but very attentive. Sierra likes to point at the pictures on the pages and loves it when I use different voices for various characters. My nervousness ebbs. 20 minutes whizzes by and as one line of kids exits, another emerges. Emmy is my second student. She is very talkative despite her missing front teeth.  When the reading starts, Emmy is all business. Her concentration is wonderfully intense. Emmy reminds me of a face I’ve seen looking at me from a Dorthea Lange or Walker Evans Depression era photograph. I’m sure Emmy has more economic security in her life than her appearance might indicate, but I am reminded that this school’s population is underserved and from a low income, largely working class community with many struggling families.  

Emmy’s toothless smile and a quick departing wave leave me feeling content.  In bounds Nylia. She’s a little bigger than most kids her age and very squirrely.  In books with repeated sounds or rhyming words, Nylia likes to shreek them in my ear.  She rarely sits in one position for more than a minute. She turns around, she changes books.  She looks around the room, then scampers off to a corner to look at something on the wall.  

“Nylia, let’s finish this book,” I ask in an attempt to lure her back to the small table where we sit.  

“You can’t tell me what to read, Bro,” Nylia replies.  

“Oh I’m just suggesting we finish this book, if you want another book that’s OK too.  I just want you to come and sit with me so we can read together. 

I know this feeling.  In my 35 year career, I’ve learned to deal with reluctant and resisting students. There are more strategies than successes unfortunately.  Nylia returns and then, before I can figure out how to proceed, she sticks her face in front of me, grabs my face in both hands and smiles widely.  Then she hugs me. It’s a heartfelt, beautiful, if not appropriate hug. But we are to have no physical contact with the children. I freeze. Such an unnatural response.  I have no choice. I try to melt gracefully as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. We carry on.

The remainder of the time goes quickly and Nylia joins her classmates for the obligatory thank you to the readers and the single file march back to their respective teachers.  In time, I’ve learned to appreciate and look forward to the lines of kids at the reading room. I marvel at their energy, the stains they manage to acquire on their clothing, the runny noses, and the spontaneous movements, bits of song lyric, and mysterious oders they emit.  

The Fall semester passes with relatively the same pattern. Sierra has a cold and can’t stop sneezing, but her delight and inquisitivness continue. Every few pages requires another tissue.  Emmy still has no front teeth; her focus and interest in all topics continues. Her desire to tell me about her life remains strong. This week, she got lost at the zoo until “a very nice lady” helped her find her mom.  Nylia’s pattern is predictable. Her focus remains for a page or two until she fidgits and begins to look around. One day she picks a book called 1001 Wizards. It’s one of those kid’s books where you have to find various objects and characters on each pair of pages.  Counting 10 elves, or 7 gargoyls seems to hold her attention. Eureka! This is the ticket, I think. Not quite.  The ticket for today’s ride lasts only 10 minutes. I try shaking hands with Nylia to discourage the hugs and remain within the guidelines.  She’ll have none of it. She nuzzles close to me and coos, “You are my favorite reading teacher.”

I get that the time spent with and around books is important for these kids.  I get that as a volunteer, we have to be very careful about boundaries and touching.  Sometimes I think ahead to when these kids are older and what they might be like as high school juniors in my own classroom. I can easily picture them as 16-year-olds.  Would their success depend on time spent in a program like SMART? Should I be doing more? All the familiar teacher doubts return to my consciousness. On occasion they interrupt my sleep. I think too about how unnatural it is to accept and return any tactile feedback.  But, I understand how important that is as well. When the dissonance rises, I remember to stay in my lane. I realize my role has changed. I try to enjoy this huge irony on some small scale.

Recently, after another predictable session with my three young readers we were tidying up the room.  The final bell had rung and the hallways were crowded with scrambling children. Pulling down a window shade, with my back turned to the open door of the reading room, I sensed a presence at the door.  Laurie, our coordinator went to the door and over my sholder I heard Nylia’s voice.  

“Tell Bruce hi, she said.  “He’s my favorite reading teacher.”

 

©Bruce Greene, 2020


             Bruce Greene taught for 33 years at El Cerrito High School. As a teacher-consultant for the Bay Area, Oregon, and National Writing Projects, he’s offered many workshops on the teaching of writing and literature.  His specialty is using Blues music in Language Arts and Social Science curriculum.

           In his eclectic writing career, Bruce has been a correspondent for a national thoroughbred horse magazine and published everything from poetry to creative non-fiction and memoir.  Recent credits include the anthologies The Pressures of Teaching, and What Teaching Means:Stories from America’s Classrooms. He was the 2010 winner of WORK Literary Magazine’s memoir competition.  A founding member of The Guttery, a Portland- based writing group, he currently lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

 

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