I love to read aloud. It satisfies a need for performance art, and I can wrap it in the glittering paper of altruism. Education is an honorable endeavor. Reading aloud was a wonderful activity I shared with my sons. At twenty-plus, I can’t glue their feet down any longer, though.
Today, I participated in the 109th celebration of the birth of Dr. Seuss by reading to children in the Read Across America program at Cherokee Point Elementary School. I am writing this post mostly for myself, because sometimes I forget the things I do that make me happy or proud. I invite you to reminisce with me.
The teachers were exceptionally well prepared with meaningful selections for each age group and helpful handouts for the volunteers. Gina Celaschi, the coordinator, and Godwin Higa, the principal, made us all feel welcome. Among the adults who came to read were many community-minded San Diego citizens and members of the local constabulary. Each story we were assigned to read had an important message and pushed the children to think. A local market owner, Mr. Kassab, provided a book for every child to be given out after the reading, and the program provided a Dr. Seuss hat for every volunteer. It was a happy occasion.
The ones who really made me feel welcome were the children. I entered the second grade classroom and the they flocked around my feet. I could feel an invisible connection reaching back through time to cave-dwelling storytellers illuminated by campfires. It makes me smile now to think of their eager faces.
The children were so eager, in fact, that the teacher had to remind them to reluctantly skootch back enough so that my pinned knees would survive the event.
We read a story about a young slave boy named Booker who was hungry to learn to read. We talked about the feeling of joy–so clearly depicted by the author and illustrator–when Booker learns the key to reading.
But I learned, too.
The reading reminded me what it is to be a child–how curious they are and how fragile their budding egos. In the story, the author tells of hunters and coopers and trappers who all had tales. I asked the children what “tales” were, and one boy promptly described an appendage attached to someone’s rump. I asked him if he thought all those people had tails on their butts, meaning to be funny. Instead, I saw him crumple and not raise his hand again for the rest of the story. Later I thought of a dozen ways to have answered in a more encouraging way, talking about spelling and homonyms–and realizing how like a delicate crystal is self-esteem. One wayward word can collapse intricate layers of growth.
I did my best to draw him out later, hoping I’d not done some irreparable damage. I have a plan to turn around my faux pas. In the mean time, I remind myself that children are also resilient.
The children offered many amusing and astute observations. Students thought a character in the book looked like Martin Luther King, Jr. (he did), and another thought Rev. King had been a slave. One child guessed that the author must have lived during the times of slavery to write about it. We looked at the copyright and found that it was written in 1995, ten years before they were born. That could have been the time of slavery according to their concept of time.
One student wondered how long it took to write the book. “Three hours” was the interminable time guessed by another. She upped her estimate to 30 hours when I told her it was probably much more. An inquiring youngster asked when the first book was written. One of his classmates pointed to the bookshelf and said, “I think it’s over there.” That led to my regaling them with stories of Egyptian scribes pounding river grass into a writing surface with giant hammers.
Perhaps because we were talking about ancient things, one little girl asked me how old I was. I had thought ahead of time about how to answer that question . I told her that when a person asks a personal question, they should be prepared to answer a personal question in return. So I asked her, “What is your favorite color,” which set off a rainbow of enthusiastic responses from my attentive audience.
How easily children are led down a path, like Hansel and Gretel. I could have skipped the question, but I answered honestly, knowing it is the duty of adults to light their paths for discovery. “Older than dirt: 61!” They oohed and aahed in horror.
In the end, I passed the books donated by Mr. Kassab to the teacher, and the students gathered around her to receive the gift of reading. Life imitating art, their faces reenacted the joy of Booker.