He’s “gonna” do this, he’s “gonna” do that. He’s got a snarky attitude. He hates the swim team! (Natalie is on the swim team, and so was I.) The book is chock-full of stick-figure cartoons, and I notice that when Nat turns a page she stops reading and her eyes forsake the prose and flit between the pictures. I make a rule about this: only stop for pictures within the flow of the story.
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that anything that keeps kids interested is worth reading. Obviously the wimpy kid is doing something right in this regard. Still, I feel a bit torn until I figure out how to make the wimpy kid work for me. For us.
What’s the wimpy kid’s currency? I ask myself.
Sarcasm and histrionics.
So, I teach Natalie air quotes and encourage the rolling of eyes. We discuss the use of all caps and read the sentences with different inflections to emphasize them. We compete to see who can sound more ridiculous. Sounding ridiculous reading The Wimpy Kid feels just right to me.
But in the end I can thank the wimpy kid for giving me a parting bit of inspiration with which to close Nat’s third grade year.
“What’s he doing?” I ask one day, pointing to headings on the entries: Tuesday, Wednesday.
“Writing stuff down,” she answers. “Each day. What happens to him.”
“Why do that?” I ask. “Why keep a diary?”
To keep track, we decide. To talk about your feelings. Maybe to decide about your feelings.
“Are diaries just for kids?”
She shakes her head tentatively.
I reach in my bag and pull out the three journals I pulled from my shelf at home. We open one and my old-fashioned cursive flows across the paper. I ruffle the pages—pages and pages of me blithering on. Diary of a Wimpy Woman, I joke to myself.
Nat’s eyes widen. “I can’t read cursive,” she says regretfully.
Thank God, I think. We talk about why I journal and what and when I write. I tell her I’ve even written about her.
“You have?” she beams.
I grab the third journal, an expensive Smythson one with a lambskin binding I got for my birthday. I set it on the table and open it.
“How about this one?” I ask. “What do you notice?”
“It’s got gold edges.”
“That’s right. What else?”
She runs her finger along the pale blue lines.
In May there is an end of the year party. We sit in rows and eat from paper plates on our laps—a local vendor donates the food for lunch. It’s by far the best meal the library sees all year. Every year I feel conflicted as I eat it.
On this day we are allowed to come bearing gifts for our mentees: a card and a book. I tend to go overboard, so after a long discussion with the bookseller studying library science at Brookline Booksmith I’ve wrapped up The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler, 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass, and The Mystic Phyles Beasts by Stephanie Brockway and Ralph Masiella. Natalie is delighted and promises she’ll read them all during the summer. I hope for the best, filing a mental reminder to ask her about the plots come the fall.
She’s called up with her classmates to get her completion certificate from the school principal. We volunteers rise along with our colleagues to recognize program sponsorship by our employers. Each company and its volunteers gets a round of applause. Nat said her mom might show up, but she doesn’t.
In the last ten minutes she unwraps my final gift, a journal with a whimsical drawing on the cover—a dove and a rainbow and some clouds. The colors of the page edges change from pink to turquoise to brown.
Nat’s got one last question: “Why do you come to PowerLunch?” she wants to know..
“Why do you think?”
“To help me read?”
“Yes. But you know, you can already read pretty darn well.”
“Because it’s your job?” she wonders.
“Nope. I have a different job,” I say. “The place I told you about, where the van takes me afterward.”
“So we can read together?”
“That’s right. Because I think you have a bright future. What’s part of a bright future, do you think?”
“If I grow up and read with another kid?”
Bull’s-eye, I think. You got it, Nat. And off she goes to enjoy her summer.
In the fall of 2012 Nat comes striding into the library as a fourth grader. I’m startled by just how grown up she seems. We kick off the year with the neurotic Pippi Longstocking, and it’s immediately clear that Nat’s made real gains over the summer. She reads with more inflection, more confidence, now. She corrects herself before I need to. I check comprehension and she’s getting even the subtlest nuances in the narrative.
Pippi teaches us the words examined, astonishment, gape, triumphant, horrified. After a quick demonstration we practice gaping at one another in astonishment. Mimicking the text, we trade “broad grins” that “spread” across our faces. We review the purpose of commas and quotation marks and she learns to identify italic font. We begin mock-pounding the table with a tight fist when we encounter italics, physically driving home the author’s intended emphasis.
In Chapter 2 Pippi is bullied by a character named Bengt. I notice the Bullying Pledge, signed by all the students, in the Condon School lobby. There’s a bulletin board in the hallway decorated with artwork depicting acts of Compassion within the context of bullying. I question her, and Natalie is crystal clear on why not to bully and what to do if bullied herself. I’m impressed and heartened by this obviously successful school initiative.
As has become a custom, while in San Francisco on business I buy and mail a postcard to Nat’s classroom, asking her whether she can identify the bright red bridge on the front. For a couple months there are no fantastical stories or easily identifiable lies.
In November I go to vote at a primary school in my well-heeled neighborhood of Brookline. My head swivels round as I follow the signs to the gym, aghast at the luxury and class of the place. The contrast with Condon School is staggering. The gym is so pristine, the floor so incredibly shiny—do they just not use it, or buff after each and every scuff?
On the way out I inadvertently step off the sidewalk onto the playground. The heel of my shoe sinks ever so slightly into the flooring—it’s spongy. Yep: Kids here don’t even hit the ground as hard as they do on D Street. A literal cushioned landing to match the potential figurative one.
A few nights later I become curious and find the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education website. I watch the tutorials about the various indexes that give a snapshot of a school’s performance. The (sometimes dizzying) data confirms my suspicion: in 2013, the Condon’s school percentile—a measure of performance relative to similar schools—was 7%, amongst the very lowest performers. Runkle School in Brookline scored in the 81% percentile.
In December Natalie turns ten, and I take a pencil and carve “Decade” onto her Styrofoam lunch tray. Last year she wore an adorable dress and patent leather kitten heels on her birthday. This year her clothes give nothing away.
We get the globe and I guide her index finger across the ocean to the African country of Zambia. I bought her birthday card at an orphanage there when I visited in July, I say. We peer at the skilled drawing of a flower by the child artist and talk international travel. Natalie says she wants to see France and England.
“Maybe in one more decade, eh?” I suggest. We identify some possible milestones to getting there.
“Can we read a book about slavery?” Natalie wonders.
We find A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, by Patricia C. McKissack. Natalie finds Clotee’s voice a bit troubling. She points out the use of seen and cain’t and Miz and asks to make corrections as she reads. So we talk about dialects and why they should indeed be read as they’re written.
Nat is obviously well-informed and deeply curious about slavery. She tells me her class has watched videos and speaks in a hushed voice when she recounts the beatings and escape attempts. The worst thing, she says, was the separation of families.
“If I were a slave with a new master, he could change my first name,” she explains. The notion scares her.
She knows about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his famous Dream, and about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
“Was it a subway? Like the T?” I ask.
“No, Lynne,” she says, shaking her head and patting my forearm.
She also knows about Cesar Chavez, someone I have no memory of studying.
“He was a Latinist farm worker, and he did a . . . prostitution,” Natalie says. She knows immediately that’s wrong. I swallow my smile.
“A protest,” she corrects.
That furthers our discussion of racism, about which Nat boasts a sensitive and mature attitude. I’m impressed by the obvious instruction she’s had on these topics, admiring of her empathy for the disenfranchised. When we turn to family origins and Natalie swears her grandmother emigrated from Scotland on a boat, I try to appeal to that empathy.
.“Nat, we’re friends, right?”
“Well, I think friends should tell each other the truth. I always try to tell you the truth. Are you telling me the truth right now?”
She squirms and asserts her veracity, but I calmly stand my ground. Finally, a breakthrough.
“Sometimes I tell fishin’ stories about my life,” Nat shrugs.
She shakes her head. “Fiction!”
“Sometimes it just happens, and I can’t stop. I talk to Nicole about it.” The school counselor.
“That’s good,” I reply. “I think it’s something to keep working on because it’s important to tell the truth. Have you thought about why?”
“Because people stop trusting a liar.”
“That’s right. But you know, you could use your powerful imagination to write down your fiction stories. It’s just not nice to tell people that made-up stories are true. Maybe someday you’ll be an author and your story will be here, in this library.”
Nat’s downcast eyes drift up from the table. Some shame drains away. And from that day, the air grows a bit clearer.
In the final weeks before Natalie’s graduation from PowerLunch, we read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Except it’s not Twain’s prose . . . not exactly. It’s an adaptation. For an avid reader and student of Twain, this is slightly guilt-inducing. But Natalie is sure captivated by the story.
When Tom and Huck make a pact never to speak of being witnesses to murder, Nat asks for a definition and agrees to a pact that she’ll finish her hamburger. Later, when the boy pirates bring corncob pipes and tobacco to Jackson’s Island, Nat interrupts quizzically and we make another pact that she’ll never start smoking.
“Not until I’m 30, at least,” she says.
“Not ever,” I frown, and we shake on it.
Tom Sawyer teaches us the words mourn, lynched, deserted, endearment, and congregation.
Mourning is what we’ve been doing for our city and the victims of the recent marathon bombings, we decide.
Nat burns an interruption to offer a modern application of a new word: “Hey, Lynne? My Dad watches a TV show about a guy named Tony, and he’s always lynching people.”
In June, per Nat’s request, I wrap up the brand new book in the Dork Diaries series and abridged versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both books are adaptations and part of Barnes and Noble’s “Classic Starts” series for kids. But then I can’t resist—and the bookseller eggs me on—so I purchase the authentic version of Huckleberry Finn, too. For when she’s older. I write my message in a card, seal it, and write her name in cursive with a flourish on the envelope.
On the day of the party she opens her gifts as we pick at the catered lunch. I ask her if she remembers what it was like when we began.
My hair was longer three years ago, she tells me. And Nat herself was much more childlike and a much lesser reader, of course.
What has she learned? To slow down, to sound out the difficult word, not to give up, to go back and start a confused sentence again. To slow down, Nat repeats, and I nod. This is her most important tactic for avoiding mistakes.
“And when I ask, ‘Does it make sense?’” Nat concludes.
For Nat used to take in a first syllable and blurt out a familiar word of similar length. She’d substitute, say, conversation for congregation, or preparation for predicament. If I didn’t stop her she would continue, despite the fact that what she’d read was nonsensical. Her eyes and voice, racing ahead, were unhitched from the mind’s eye that actively visualizes the story.
So I started breaking in a sentence or two after the error with a gentle “What?” or “Huh?” or “Wait.”
Perhaps Nat’s greatest achievement was consciously slowing her pacing enough to largely eliminate misreadings in our last months together. I was quite proud of this, and encouraged her to be.
When Nat misread big words in our last weeks, I began simply asking, “Does it make sense?” I’d cover the text with my hand, and the momentum would be broken as our eyes met. It forced her to recount what she’d read and to try and identify the lexical imposter. Irked by the stoppage, she got even better at self-correcting and avoiding the wrong turn altogether.
There were extra points and much praise awarded for the times she caught on when I purposely bungled a sentence with the wrong vocabulary word, creating a bizarre and incongruent image.
“Lynne, that doesn’t make sense,” she’d say, pushing my shoulder, when she understood there was a new game. She listened even closer. It was one more tactic for corralling her attention.
What I don’t tell Natalie is that after eight years, a few promotions, one buy-out, and an office move across town, my position at work was recently eliminated. By coincidence, my “graduation” day is the very same as hers. In just a few hours I’ll be launched on a new adventure, beginning with a planned summer off—my first since my own school days.
In the moment I realize I will likely borrow Natalie’s lessons while taking stock during my sabbatical: to slow down so as to avoid mistakes . . . to listen closely and keep asking, “Does it make sense?”
I’ve been around for five years’ worth of five-minute warnings, and we get the very last one now.
Wrapping paper is crumpled, plates nested and dropped in the trash cans. The children, certificates in hand, form a line to exit the library. My counterparts amongst the business casual set begin to file out.
“Natalie,” I sputter. “In fifth grade . . . I mean, well . . . you’re gonna rock fifth grade, ok?”
Nat giggles and wraps her arms around my waist for a shy, brief hug.
“I hope you read this summer,” she says, and I sit back down to be closer to eye level.
“You too,” I nod. “I hope you keep reading forever. Just remember there are books about everything out there, wherever you are, however you feel. Keep finding them.”
And then one of her friends rushes up and grabs her arm, and they join the other children in unruly formation, romping and giggling and making mischief. Marching right out the door.