Books Matter

Note: All the ongoing hoopla about “failing schools” has caused me to think about Charles and what we mean about success. Charles was mainstreamed into my third grade classroom for one short year–and into my heart forever. Note: This took place in a school that rigorously grouped kids, so in our three third grade classroms mixed groups met in homeroom but then went to high, medium, and low reading class for half the day. They were also segregated for math class for an hour and met at odd times in homeroom for science and social studies.

Charles was supposed to come to me out of his special ed class for a bit of reading but ended up spending most of the day. At the end of the year he tried to convince me to let him repeat 3rd grade, noting, “I know where things are on your desk.” Thinking of all the progress he had made, I was tempted, but when his mother called and asked us to give him a talk on sex ed, I realized we had to let him move on.

This article appeared in Learning Magazine.

                                                       Okay to Be Different
“Charles can be a little strange,” his special education teacher warned me. Charles was being mainstreamed into my third-grade reading group for the morning. In the afternoon he would return to his special education class.

At age eleven, Charles was three years older than the average third grader. Conferences with his social worker, psychologist, and mother revealed a history of abuse, emotional upheaval, and retarded development. But we hoped he would find a place in my group of “low” readers.

For the first week, Charles was on his best behavior. He was so determined to be “normal,” to fit into a regular class, that he sat like a statue. Each day started with a fifteen-minute silent reading period, and during that time Charles’ eyes remained frozen on his book. Whenever I asked him about his book,he assured me it was “very, very interesting.”

The child who insists he likes all books usually likes none but can’t admit it. As long as Charles played the role of model student, I couldn’t discover his interests and help him become involved in books. But after about two weeks of watching the other children talk and tease and complain, Charles began to loosen up. I considered it a triumph the day he muttered that he hated reading, too.

Charles also told me what was wrong with my book collection: “No dinosaur books.” The next day I brought in a large dinosaur book. I hoped the colorful illustrations would help him get through some of the difficult text while I searched for an easier, more suitable book.

Charles stuck with the large book. He would page through easy-reading dinosaur books that I found, but he always returned to the more difficult volume. He insisted it was a “real” book. As our silent reading period increased to half an hour, then to forty-five minutes, I urged Charles to try other books. He would obligingly glance at fairy tales, riddle books, mysteries, adventures. But he didn’t read them. Instead he would return to his dinosaur book.

Charles hated for me to read aloud. Whenever I sat down with a new book, the other children happily crowded around, taking turns snuggling up close. Not Charles. He would sit far off in another corner, scowling and twisting his body into strange shapes. To make doubly sure that I understood his discontent, he would make strange chirping noises as I read.

A Weirdo
One day Charles Vomited. After the mess was cleaned up, he started crying and moaned, “I’m a weirdo and a retard. I never can do anything right.”

I was devastated, not knowing how to comfort this child who was indeed a bit odd. His classmates–who’d never really warmed up to him but never bothered him either–came to the rescue. “Everybody vomits sometimes,” they reassured Charles. Then each had a vomit story to tell as proof that Charles was behaving normally. Finally I began to feel queasy and announced, “Enough sharing.” But as I pushed ahead with the lesson, the children worried over Charles and continued to sneak to his desk with another whispered “My Most Embarrassing Vomit.”

Charles stopped sobbing but he kept his head down on his folded arms. I couldn’t tell whether his classmates’ messages were getting through to him. But the next day he came to class carrying a bright yellow sign. “Would you put this up on the bulletin board?” he asked me.

It was a note to the class, listing each child’s name and concluding with “I love this class very much.” Opposite the message was a large smiling face that I recognized as myself–the bright red hair was the giveaway. Charles’ special education teacher later said he had told her the names of all the children; he asked her to help him spell them correctly, insisting that it was very important to get them “just right.”

Charles wasn’t the only child who had problems other than difficulty with reading. The group included a deaf child, a severe stutterer, an asthmatic, and a child who was alternately hyperactive and zonked out by medication. Several children had failed a grade, some couldn’t make their letters to in the right direction, and one excellent reader couldn’t make letters at all. For all that, these children were normal third graders; they laughed, they pestered, they complained, they rejoiced, and they cried. But when someone had a personal crisis, they gathered round as one and offered consolation.

Of Compassion and Cocoons
Because of the school’s emphasis on reading, these kids were with me for half the day, and I grew to know them well. I was impressed by their sensitivity to each other’s needs and, as it turned out, to my needs as well.

Cathy was energetic, sociable, enthusiastic, cheerful, and loved to share jokes and stories. But she was a stutterer. Seldom could she utter a sentence without halting, repeating, struggling to get the right sounds out. No one ever commented about her difficulty or expressed impatience that we had to wait so long for the punch lines.

One day the usually ebullient Cathy seemed strangely reserved, and her friend mentioned that someone in the cafeteria had teased her about her stutter. Before I could say a thing, the class was up in arms, making speeches about how no one is perfect, how everyone has problems. “Besides,” said Joe, “Cathy doesn’t stutter that much.” “And she tells good stories,” added Jennifer. “Some people are ignorant,” offered Bobby as he patted Cathy’s arm. “Just ignore them.”

Leslie was in public school for the first time, having spent her early schooling in a special class for the deaf. She wore an elaborate microphone set so she could hear much of what was said, but her speech was hard to understand at first.

The children formed a cocoon around her, treating her like a china doll, bringing her presents like new pencils and erasers. If teachers couldn’t make out what Leslie was saying, she had a score of ever-ready interpreters hovering around. When we needed a heroine for a class play, the children chose Leslie; when she didn’t understand knock-knock jokes, kids took turns reading them with her, patiently explaining and helping her ‘hear’ the pun. When she cried, they comforted her; when she was selfish or obnoxious, they pretended not to notice. Leslie was allowed and even encouraged to be queen of our class for about three months.

Then, as she settled into routines, the class decided by some unspoken consensus that it was time for Leslie to begin learning to be a regular student. They made her wait for her turn. She was no longer always first in line; and if she pushed, she got pushed back. The first time they let her cry, pretending to go on with their work, they were obviously nervous. But nobody gave in. I followed the kids’ lead, ignoring Leslie’s tears, fighting back the same urge the kids were fighting. Together, we helped Leslie toughen up, helped her become a normal third grader.

I had my own moments of consolation from these children. I’d been going through a rough period; work was piling up and administrative directives were coming down–nothing unusual. But I let it get to me, and one day I yelled at somebody for a minor infraction. It was a real bellow. It was also sort of funny because we all froze after I did it. I broke the stunned silence with an apology: “I’m sorry. What you did was wrong, but it wasn’t worth all that. I feel bad when I yell at you.”

The kids crowded around, assuring me, “You don’t yell. Not really.” They wanted to give me explicit stories about real yelling that they had known in classrooms. I was touched that they responded to my vulnerability so quickly, so compassionately.

Fat Cats to Flies
Charles kept chirping when I read aloud. This behavior went on for months. One of the children asked me, “Why does he do that?” I could only reply, “I don’t know.” Charles was the only child I had ever encountered who could resist Teacher read-aloud time. The first breakthrough came when I read The 300-Pound Cat. The children were enthusiastic about the outrageous humor and the wonderful illustrations. Charles, of course, was too far away to see the pictures. He maintained his scowl, accompanied by weird body contortions. But he began inching his chair across the room. By the time I had finished the story, Charles was behind me, whispering in my ear, “That’s like The Fat Cat.

“What’s that?” I asked him. How would Charles know? I thought. He only looks at that dinosaur book.

“Fat Cat is like that 300-pound cat,” Charles explained patiently. “Fat Cat eats a lot. He gets bigger and bigger.” Charles got up and went to the table, quickly unearthing the small paperback, a Danish folktale. Following Charles’ lead, I read the book to the children. Then we all read it together, each child taking a page. Charles indicated he wanted a turn too. That was the first time he’d read aloud in front of the group.

When we finished the book, Charles said, “It’s like the boy in Mother, Mother I Feel Sick, Send for the Doctor Quick Quick Quick and the old woman who swallowed a fly in I Know an Old Lady.

I was stunned. Not only was Charles reading, he was making connections.

After that, hardly a day went by that Charles didn’t make some connection between books or between books and events in his own life. He discovered Clown of God and The Last Leaf on his own and began to write stories about the death of his father, intermingling them with observations from the books.

Charles had come a long way from those early days when he wouldn’t say a word in class or read aloud or take part in any group activity for fear of sounding weird. Now he took another step: Charles volunteered to be narrator for a class puppet production of The Frog Prince that would be presented to all 70 third graders. The puppeteers were concealed behind a screen, but the narrator–Charles–had to stand out in front all by himself, the only member of the troupe visible to the audience. Charles was so enthusiastic about his performance that he suggested presenting the play on the auditorium stage for the entire school.

Charles taught me a lot about not underestimating kids. Although I saw him making great strides in social interaction and came to know that he was reading and appreciating many books, I still worried about the dinosaur book. I wondered how I could justify the fact that Charles spent an hour or two a day poring over a book that I was convinced he couldn’t understand. I worried, but I held my peace. I reminded myself that kids want to be regular; when they persist for days and months at what looks like an irregular activity, they aren’t doing “nothing,” they’re not “wasting time.” They’re responding to needs that the teacher isn’t able to recognize at the moment. Charles kept on with the dinosaur book.

In March, the homeroom science class began working on projects for the science fair. Fred, a top-notch student, decided to make a dinosaur diorama. Charles offered to lend his book. He also offered some advice. “Everybody knows about Tyrannosaurus rex,” he said. “Why don’t you make some of the others?” He leafed through the book. “Like this one. He’s called Therizinosaurus. He has arms eight feet long with great big claws.” Charles continued turning pages rapidly as two or three other students came over. “Or this one–Cetiosaurus. He swallows stones to help him digest his food.”

And so it went. Charles could pronounce the long names; he could also offer specific information about how one dinosaur differed from another. His repertoire of dinosaur facts was truly stunning. (Still, he had basic misconceptions. One day while slowly turning the globe, he commented, “I guess dinosaurs never will come back. Some of them were thirty feet long, so they would never fit. Look, here’s Africa.” He spread his palm over the continent.)

Try, Sam
That spring we faced the regularly schedule standardized tests, an event that made everyone nervous. What could be worse than isolated questions about structure, and comprehension questions about ugly paragraphs? On the first day, Charles had marked all four of the possible answers for the first three questions before I caught him. I made him erase it all and then pleaded, “Try, Charles, Please try! I know you’re nervous, but I also know you can do it. Just think of all the books you’ve read this year. Okay, so this test isn’t nice to read, but how about showing the people who made this test that you can read?” Try he did and he showed those people that he could read on what they call a 3.8 grade level.

After the tests, I read the kids a story and urged them to relax, mess around, and unwind Charles started talking to Sam, the brightly colored papier-mache parrot that hung over the book table. He showed Sam all the pictures in a book, then started reading to him. The he began chanting, “Fly, Sam, fly! I know you can do it. Please try, Sam! You may be nervous, but you can fly.” Then he whispered, “Would you teach me to fly, Sam?”

During the last week of school I asked the children to choose their favorite book of the year and to do a project about it. Charles was immediately enthusiastic. “I know which one I want!” he exclaimed. I thought to myself, “Yep, I know too.”

But Charles surprised me. He didn’t reach for the omnipresent dinosaur book but went to the bookcase and dug out a book he had hidden behind several others. It was The Ugly Duckling.

Charles, who had never written more than six sentence about any topic all year, wrote nine pages. This was the first sentence: “The ugly duckling found out it is okay to be different.”