My alarm was set to go off at 6:30 Thursday morning, but at 5:30 I awoke from an anxiety dream wherein I was scheduled to present a story, and I was totally unprepared, to the point of not even knowing what story I wanted to tell. I was awake again at 6:00, and then somehow managed to fall asleep again around 6:20, being surprised by the alarm anyway ten minutes later. I’ve never slept well the night before school started, and it seems the tradition continues.
The night before, I’d packed my tote full of books and pencils and official paperwork and my name tag on the special lanyard that identified me as someone who was supposed to be hanging around a school. Scott and I had to manage two of us getting ready at the same time, and the dogs were confused to see me showered, dressed, and coiffed at that time of day when pajama time usually lasts until noon around here in the land of the retired.
This summer, in the midst of a depression resulting from my chronic pain issues, not to mention a handful of other unhappy life circumstances, I decided it might not be the worst thing in the world for me to get out of my own head and my own problems and help someone else with theirs, so I started thinking about volunteering. That’s what retired folks do, right? This happily coincided with our mayor putting out a call for volunteers to help kids who were struggling with reading, and I decided that would be a good place to put my efforts. I took the training in early September and waited to be placed in a local school, offering to take up to 4 kids, with whom I’d sit and read and maybe play some reading games for half an hour a week, to give them that focused reading time that is so crucial to nurturing happy readers. I guess I took bedtime stories for granted when I was a kid, but as it turns out, that time is vital for early literacy skills, and a lot of kids don’t necessarily get that at home. The program I’m working in tries to fill that gap a little by giving kids one-on-one focused reading time with an adult, and by sending them home from each session with a new book they can keep to build up a personal library of their own.
When they asked me what school district and school I wanted to work at, I told them to send me wherever they had a hard time getting volunteers to go, and I ended up being placed at a school across town, not far from the literacy program’s office. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to negotiate morning rush-hour traffic, but I was delighted to not only be on time, but early, even. I schlepped my books into the office to check in and wait for my coordinator to show me around, watching an ant-like line of kids file through the office, late. My dad, from whom I get my night owl tendencies, made me late every day for a week in the 4th grade, and I ended up having to serve the detention. I told this story, in sympathy with the latecomers, to the coordinator, who said that as a neighborhood school, most of the kids walked to school, though they had a few open-enrollees that were driven. I didn’t know kids still walked to school.
I was informed when I got there that I had 3 second-graders, two of which were twin boys that the coordinator had known for two years and still couldn’t tell apart, and a girl who hadn’t been to school all week, and odds seemed to be against her being there that day, too. There was also going to be a bus evacuation drill right in the middle of my sessions. In the 12 years since I left teaching, the world has become a place where school kids might need to be bused out to safety en masse, I guess. When I was in the second grade, we had fire and tornado drills. Even when I was still teaching, and Columbine had happened, we still weren’t doing terror drills, but I guess after the Amish school and Sandy Hook, security is paramount.
The 10 o’clock bus drill alarm went off at ten ’til, and my student and I left the library and joined a random class nearby, because while I knew there was a bus drill, I didn’t know what it involved. I got my kid on a bus, and told him I’d be waiting just outside for him so he could find me after the drill. As I waited outside, I watched the kindergartners walk by, referred to by their teacher as “the babies,” and they really, really were. They were so tiny, walking past all shy and a little confused by the whole process, and I couldn’t remember being that small. I remember waiting for the bus on my first day of kindergarten, in my jumper and matching schoolbag that my mom made for me, and I am convinced I was never so little and out in the world; it blows my mind that my memory has to be wrong, and that they let kids that small leave the house. I remember I couldn’t wait to go to school, and I loved my teacher Sister Dorothy; I don’t remember being shy. Then again, I was the kid who got kicked out of preschool for talking too much to the teacher and monopolizing her time.
As it turns out, second-graders are kind of a hoot, and all kinds of adorable. When I taught, I only went as young as third grade, although my 8th-graders at St. Michael’s buddied with kindergarten students on Mass days. The twins are identical down to the teeth they are currently missing, and I was worried I’d confuse them. But they are in different classrooms, and I was further saved by a scar on the cheek of one of them that will help me tell them apart should I encounter them together. The little girl never did show, and her teacher sent in her place a little boy who, despite his difficulties, loves to read and is quite chatty. I was informed almost immediately that he can wiggle his ears without using his hands, and I bragged that while I couldn’t do that, I could touch the tip of my nose with my tongue. It was, as it turns out, a total lie, because while I used to be able to, it has not occurred to me to practice that skill in a long time, and I’ve lost it. You hate to have such a ding to your credibility with 7-year-olds on the first day, but he was a good sport, and my disappointment in not being able to do it was just as funny as the idea of me doing it. We both tried all the way to the library, wiping the spit from our upper lips once we gave up. This is what 41-year-old former teachers do with second-graders. Or at least, I do now; maybe if I’d done it more when I was teaching, I’d still be at it. I think I was a good teacher then, but I’m much more relaxed now than I was then, a lot clearer about what’s important and what’s not, and I think I’d be better at it now.
We made it through 3 sessions with no tears and everyone smiling at the end, including me. The kids were cute and they really worked hard. My only complaint was that my back doesn’t really know what to do with me sitting on tiny chairs at tiny tables, but I’ll figure something out for that. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed being back in a school, how comfortable I felt there despite it being my first day volunteering and knowing no one and none of their particular protocols. It made me miss being a teacher in a more palpable way than I have in the dozen years I’ve been out, though a few times a year I dream about going back. But in all those dreams, I’ve been hired and am expected to teach that day, and my lesson plan isn’t ready–the same anxiety dream I had last night in various forms. In this, I’m coaching, really, but it’s teaching nonetheless. And it seems to be my thing after all, despite my departure from the profession. Like most kids, I’d entertained a lot of different professional futures, but being a teacher was one that came up over and over again. Sometimes it was a music teacher, sometimes grade school, sometimes English, but it was a consistent theme, consistent enough that that’s where I ended up. And when I left, it was for a lot of collateral reasons, but not the actual teaching, not actually helping kids learn. That part I always loved, when I could do it. And I’m excited to be doing it again now, and in a more direct and useful way, perhaps, than ever before. I work with one kid at a time, giving him exactly what he needs in the moment, and that’s it. No more throwing lots of different kinds of instruction at kids and hoping some of it sticks to each of them.
It wasn’t long into the sessions before I realized that there really is a need for reading support, because the kids’ struggle was real and severe, even for early readers, and it broke my heart a little, because I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. We’ve got a tough row to hoe, but we’ll get there bit by bit, I’m sure. The stakes are high, even if the kids don’t know it. I’ve taught high schoolers who are functionally illiterate; it’s painful for them and sad for everyone. When you can’t read well, it must seem as if the whole system is setting you up to fail; and maybe it is, in fact. So we have to do better by these kids. So every Thursday morning for the next 9 months, that’s what I’ll be doing. That and trying to get the tip of my tongue to touch my nose.