A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about feeling adrift, as if I had no real purpose. "Come and read a book to my first graders," my friend Gary responded in the comments. "Their lives are not always easy but those kids wear emotions and find their way back to happiness. You have so much to offer and so do they. I think it is a win-win situation." Gary teaches at the American Sign Language and English School in the city, and we met years ago through his wonderful blog, Follow Your Bliss. Gary's been a reader of my blog long enough to know about my natural introvert tendencies, but against everything that was telling me to avoid center stage, I said yes!
Oh, I am so glad I did. Gary had explained that some of his kids were non-hearing and some were the hearing children of deaf parents. Most are bilingual in ASL and English. Because some of the kids are deaf, I'd have an interpreter signing alongside me. We agreed I'd read one of my favorite books ever, Thank You, Mr. Falker, a picture book about an insightful educator who teaches a lonely, isolated student to read. The word dyslexic is never mentioned in the book. I often read the story to my own kids when they were growing up, and I never failed to tear up at the moment when all the words on the page suddenly make sense to the girl and she reads and understands whole sentences for the first time. The girl is Patricia Palacco, the author of the book. Despite once feeling dumb because all the kids teased her about not being able to read, she grew up to be a writer and illustrator of books for children. Mr. Falker changed her life. Gary thought the book would be perfect because it offered an opening for me to talk about loving books and getting your own stories down without stifling them.
When I walked in the kids lively faces immediately put me at ease. There were twenty-one of them, all sitting in a semi circle around me and the interpreter. Their faces were eager, curious, expectant. They each introduced themselves to me by signing their names. First we talked a bit about what it meant to be " a writer," and how writing is really just getting your thoughts out of your head. Then I read the book. The kids were the most generous audience, hanging on every word. The interpreter signed what I was reading "gorgeously," Gary said after. I imagine the story was that much richer, arriving in the children's' imaginations by both sight and sound.
Afterward, the kids asked me questions they'd prepared, and we had a rollicking good exchange. Some moved from siting cross legged to lying on their stomachs, chins in their palms. I loved it. I loved them. They were so open-hearted. One girl observed that the girl in the book had been bullied by the kids who called her dumb. She named it. Then she shared that she had been bullied at her previous school, which is why her mother moved her to this one. I wanted to hug that little girl. I was glad that she was now in a place where she felt safe enough and embraced enough to share so freely. I always knew my friend Gary was a special kind of teacher, but being with his first graders, I realized just how gifted and committed he is. That's Gary in the black-and-white plaid shirt below. His first graders are lucky to have their own Mr. Falker.
In the photo, I adore how one girl's hand reaches around her classmate to rest on my shoulder. After the group pictures, the kids crowded around. One said, "I want to hug you," and she did. The rest followed her lead and soon I was the beaming guest at the center of a first grader hug fest. Gary texted me later that the kids had made me thank you cards, and he wanted to send them to me. He snapped photos of some of the cards.
"One of the kids wrote, Books are great. I like books too," Gary messaged me. "Our work here is done." Thank you, Gary Wellbrock, for making this wonderful experience available to me. You're right. Your kids can lead any soul right back to joy.
(Note: The students' parents granted permission to post their kids' pictures.)