One day Sarah read, “[He] had the soul of a poet, and because of this, he liked very much to consider questions that had no answers.”
I stopped her there. It took some time to unpack that phrase. The soul of a poet. And then the payoff.
“What are some questions that have no answers?” I asked.
Sarah’s eyes flashed with wonder. Checkmate. The highlight of my week.
Sarah graduated from Read to a Child in fourth grade, so in the fall of 2010 I was assigned a new mentee. While waiting to sign in one day, I felt a tug on my shirt. Huge blue eyes peered up at me.
“Are you a PowerLunch mentor?” the little girl asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“There aren’t enough mentors for everyone. When will there be more?”
I said I hoped it would be soon, and I sighed inwardly at her earnest, searching gaze. After all, most kids didn’t lobby their way into the program. Instead, the teachers signed up the students they felt would benefit most from individual attention. We read during lunch and recess—a tough involuntary sacrifice for some children—and maintaining focus and enthusiasm were common challenges for mentors.
A couple weeks later, my mentee moved away suddenly. Boriana, the school coordinator, told me she’d have a new student for me the following week.
The following Thursday that same little blue-eyed Washington lobbyist skipped over to my table with a triumphant grin. My new mentee, Natalie. I sure hope I live up to the anticipation, I thought.
Second grade sure was different than fourth. She was so little. I traded the chapter books I read with Sarah for picture books and Dr. Seuss and gently sounding out two-syllable words. Her skin was often grazed with marker, her clothing stained. Chocolate milk dribbled on her shirt. When she touched the book an orange greasy streak remained.
I knew I wasn’t there to mother her, but after a while I couldn’t help supervising her table manners a bit. She learned how to use the tissue-paper napkin, and we devoted some time to debating what constituted playing with food. She was a very picky eater, which I completely ignored for the first year.
“Why’s it called PowerLunch?” she wondered aloud.
“Where’s Ryan today?” she mused.
“Why aren’t witches and wizards real?” she demanded.
“That book should be in a church,” she declared, pointing accusingly at a giant open dictionary on a pedestal.
I cherished Natalie’s boundless curiosity. Most questions I posed to her about her life she volleyed right back at me. She was a ball of energy, forever shifting positions and looking round the room at the other mentor and mentee pairs. She interrupted my reading frequently with all manner of random queries and observations. They were always tied to something in the reading, but sometimes only just.
I combated the distraction by choosing a peripheral table when I could, and I ushered her into the chair facing away from the center of the library. As for the popcorn thought patterns—which were impressive and sometimes hilarious—I hit on a “Three Interruptions Rule,” which she took to immediately.
When she broke into the story I’d indulge the tangent and then raise a finger or two to signal where we stood. She liked knowing the score, and I liked watching her learn to master her impulsivity. Actually, she hardly ever used up all three.
“Did you get it?” I asked Natalie.
I opened one eye. She shook her head, disappointed.
It was third grade, and we were months into Judy Moody Predicts the Future. Judy overdoses on cereal one morning in order to unearth a mood ring, which then sends her on a host of adventures in clairvoyance.
We had learned about the powers of ESP and were doing some experimenting to see whether either of us had them.
When it was my turn, I cracked my knuckles and rolled my head around twice. Nat sat stock still with her eyes shut, concentrating mightily on sending me a telepathic message.
“Let’s see. You love math.” She shook her head vigorously. “You’re going to finish eating those beans. No? Errrrrrm,” I groaned. “You want a pet giraffe?”
Her eyes flew open.
“Nooooo!” she whined. “None of those.”
Well, we tried.
One day in Marshall’s I spot a fancy copy of The Wizard of Oz for $12.99. The paper is creamy and heavy, the illustrations exquisite. But there are a lot of formidable walls of text in rather small font. Whole pages of nothing but ink, and big words, too. It’s a risk, but I buy it to see where it gets us.
I tell Natalie it’s the “true story,” meaning it’s the original version. But Nat, for whom truth is a slippery affair, wants desperately to believe that it all happened—or that it could happen. Part of me wishes I could confidently say it were so.
I reluctantly answer that No, wizards aren’t real. Why? She wants to know.
I’m a bit stumped by this. In the moment I take a practical, logistically flawed stance: “Because no one’s ever seen or known one.”
She considers this briefly. “Well, my Dad has.”
It’s a common occurrence, Nat not only stretching, but sometimes snapping the truth right in half. Enlivening wizards and vampires is one thing—and goodness knows I’m in favor of a thriving imagination—but Nat regularly and quite blithely tells howlers about her life and background. One week she tells me her maternal grandmother lives in town, another that she’s always lived in Florida. One week a relative is alive and the next he’s not. Her sisters’ names and ages change occasionally.
As third grade progresses the lies bother me more, and I begin to challenger her. I question her fantastic stories and assertions, then try another angle and carefully back into a discussion about the nature and importance of truth. I even do some googling to see if I can find a children’s book that cleverly addresses lying. I’m torn, for her tall tales sometimes make me laugh and give us both joy. I hate to think I’ll become the taskmaster that sanded down childhood’s rough edges before the appointed time.
But we’ve become friends, Nat and me, and it hurts to be lied to. It feels a bit disrespectful of the bond we’ve built. But then perhaps she’ll just grow out of it. I look at her bemusedly and watch her solemnly swear that she had to use her passport to get into Connecticut.
In December I give her a birthday card with an image of Big Sur on it. It’s in California, I say, and Natalie immediately volunteers that she is coincidentally going to California in just a few weeks for Christmas.
“I think I’ll go here,” she says pensively. “Is this place on a street or can you just see it when you get to California?”
The munchkins live in bondage (slavery) to the witch, and they serve Dorothy a hearty (big, filling) meal when she passes through and sits on the settee (sofa).
We sound out and study cyclone, elaborate, predicament, consider, fortunate, circumstance, reluctant, frock, cupboard, sorceress, gingham, anxious, earnest, mishap. Each one prompts a discussion—relatable synonyms, a search in our own and others’ lives for an example.
I plan to ask Natalie what she’d request from the Great Oz, but we never get there. Instead, we peel off from Dorothy and her misfit band somewhere along the yellow brick road. It’s just too hard going, and frankly, probably a bit too advanced a narrative. It doesn’t hold Nat’s attention reliably.
So we sling it onto the heap in the book cart, hoping perhaps it gets some love from somebody else. Our scribbles are all over the inside—circled vocabulary words and Nat’s misshapen letters slanting across the page. Merrily = Happily. Anxious = Nervous.
There begins a wayward chapter in our journey together. We dip into Beezus and Ramona and read some violent fairy tales. We try out Madeline L’Engle, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Judy Blume. Nothing hooks us beyond a couple weeks, but we’re still making good progress in comprehension and vocabulary.
The program stipulates that I do most of the reading. Still, I encourage Nat to read whenever she wants. It’s paramount to keeping her attention, and it’s a point of pride for her to read. She’s getting better—slowing down, which in her case is most of the battle. I murmur praise and compliments along the way, and gently say “Hmmm?” or “What?” when she’s gone wrong. I don’t come to the rescue on tough words until she’s made multiple attempts to sound them out.
When she’s grokked a new pronunciation, we use repetition to lock it in.
“Again, again, again,” I repeat. Sometimes I then flip the book over and ask her to spell it out loud or nudge the pencil and ask her to write it down. Sometimes I type the words into my iPhone and check to see whether she remembers them a week later.
One week we learn the word exemplary. When it’s time to go, just as she’s turning around, I say, “Hey, Nat? What kind of work did you do today?”
“Good,” she says absently.
“Exemplary,” I say authoritatively.
After awhile it becomes a tradition, this little parting back-and-forth.
Incredible, Marvelous, Outstanding. We trade one for another, and Nat skips off with a self-satisfied grin.