91: Reading Lessons

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Reading Lessons

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

~Albert Einstein

Years ago, my daughter Hope was in a fourth grade class with an eclectic assortment of children from all walks of life. Our small community centered on the paper mill that provided employment for the vast majority of its citizens, and most of the children in her class had at least one parent employed by the mill. Hope loved her class and often told me tales of various classmates, including a boy named Robert who was in trouble a lot, standing in a corner almost daily for some misdeed.

I was the classroom mom, meaning I brought snacks and planned parties and special outings for her class, even though I worked fulltime as a social worker. I saw Robert standing in the corner one day and asked the teacher if he could join our Valentine’s Day party. She refused, saying he needed to learn a lesson by missing the party. I wasn’t sure what he had done to be placed in the corner, but I felt sad for him as we ate cupcakes and played games while he continued to face the corner. After the party, I asked Hope what he had done. “He talked back. He’s always talking back like you said for me not to do. If you were his mother, I bet he wouldn’t talk back.”

I knew Robert’s mother worked long hours at the mill. I knew she was a good woman who found it hard to care for her four children alone. She tried her best, but I was sure there were days she felt hopeless and unable to manage it all.

Hope said Robert got angry when he didn’t know the answer to things or couldn’t read as well as the other children. Hope’s words struck me and made me ponder whether I could volunteer with Robert on a one-to-one basis.

His teacher allowed me to come two days a week during my lunch break and help Robert with reading. We read second grade–level books, the highest level he could master. Slowly but surely he began to master these books, almost enjoying them. His resistance to learning began to decrease as I introduced books about his favorite activity: baseball. Sometimes his teacher refused to allow him to have sessions with me because of his poor behavior, making both of us sad. I encouraged Robert to listen to his teacher and explain what he was feeling using words instead of anger.

I noticed him slowly becoming more engaged in his own learning. With each successful completion of a book, Robert began to show more pride in his schoolwork and more self-respect. His behavior improved and his attitude about school improved. It was not easy for me to get off work during lunch, but I carefully planned everything around my two hours per week of volunteering because I saw how valuable those two hours were—to him and to me.

One day, around Mother’s Day, Hope came home with a beautiful card she had made me at school. She wrote a note inside her card that read: “Thanks for helping Robert. I’m glad you’re my mom.” That made me cry!

When Robert finished fourth grade, he was delighted to read his report card and see that he was promoted to fifth grade. His teacher gave him a certificate for the most improved reader during the end-of-school class party. His mother was there and cried as her son showed the certificate to her. Then, to my surprise, she handed me a cake she and Robert had made for me. “He read the recipe to me all by himself.”

I think about Robert from time to time and wonder how the redheaded boy, now a grown man, is doing. I hope he remembers the value of reading and the sense of accomplishment he had after finishing each book. Volunteering became more than a few hours a week I donated, it became an investment in a child that hopefully has paid out dividends to him year after year. I can’t think of any better way to spend my lunchtime than feeding a child hungry for worth through the power of knowledge.

~Malinda Dunlap Fillingim

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