I’ve made it no secret how difficult the last few months have been, here at the Shannon Family house. There have been bright spots, certainly- flowers delivered from friends who were thinking of us, books sent with us in mind that are beautiful and life giving, hands to hold, prayers whispered, some laughter, mainly given as a gift from our sprite of a daughter.
There has been one thing in the last few months that has, along with a few other things, sustained me. One day a week I get to walk out onto 12th and 7th from the 2 train, down onto Greenwich Ave, swinging left onto Jane and make my way toward the water- to the little, nine year old boy I tutor waiting to read the next chapter of The Sorcerer’s Stone. I hardly grab a glimpse of Tea and Sympathy- I look into the Corner Bistro on all of the young twenty-somethings freezing in their sleeveless clothing choices in mid-January, grabbing beers from whose origin they know nothing other than Esquire told them it was the beer of the winter and that guys would love it if they would know that. Sometimes I linger a while outside of Barbuto trying to get a peak of the seasoning for their famous roast chicken- their carcasses all lined up like Catholic school girls on trays. But I am never, never late for my 5 o’clock appointment in a cozy, little apartment with a little boy who’s shaggy dark hair looks a bit like Harry’s.
I was hired to help him prepare for his 4th grade ELA exam. He had trouble identifying main ideas and separating them from themes. It was hard for him to draw out the details of a story- and write a narrative with any details at all. He wasn’t sure how to go back into a text and extract evidence to support written responses, and comparative texts were confusing to him. I could have just drilled him with practice tests. I could have made copies of neat little scantrons, timed his reading responses, given him test taking tricks, had an organized binder in which to track his progression, estimating his chances of score improvement. In fact, I had every intention of doing all of those things as they are easier, take way less time and investment emotionally, professionally, and time-management-wise. But, I have a problem. A serious one. In that it is impossible for me to separate a child’s education from the child himself. i want to know everything about a student I am teaching- it made things difficult when I had 136 of them a year, but now it’s much easier. I want to know what they love to do, who they love to hang out with, who their parents are, what they’re favorite team/color/meal is. When kids know you are invested in who they are, I am convinced you could read the same 1989 copy of Reader’s Digest to them every night and their scores will miraculously improve.
So, throwing my promise of conventional education out the window, I asked him on the first day we met what was the last book he read that made him feel like he was capable of doing anything he wanted. Percy Jackson floated out of his mouth, onto the table where it lay there for a few minutes while I asked him if fantasy/myths were his favorite genre, and why. Oh yes, they were and it was because they MADE HIM THINK, he said. Done. I asked him if he had every read Harry Potter and he said no, that the series was above his reading level- which sounded perfect to me.
And thus, began our little rhythm. I brought us the books, wrote out all of the curriculum to tailor to his specific ELA needs we needed to address, and we meet every Thursday at 5.
I knew this would help him. I knew it would broaden his scope, I knew it would challenge him in a way that he needed challenging, I just never anticipated it being, one some weeks, my saving grace as well.
Every week he greets me at the door and guides me to the little table where we do our lessons. Over saltines and chocolate milk he tells me about his day, about his plans, about things 9 year old boys are interested in. We discuss things like why Dumbledore would leave a poor little baby in the hands of the Dursley’s and not raise Harry himself. I wiped tears from my eyes when Harry got on the Hogwarts Express for the first time, whispering excitedly about how it must have felt to have been an orphan for twelve years, only to find out you have an inheritance, a destiny that had been waiting for you. When I told him that the Mirror of Erised was desire spelled backwards, I lost him for the next twenty minutes as he poured over the pages we had already read to make sure he hadn’t missed anything else. He told me what he would have seen had he had the chance to look in the mirror himself. The Forbidden Forrest chapter was frightening, and thrilling- good and evil, how your choices can affect outcomes- how traditions intersect with social justice. Every week, for an hour we talk about things fantastical and heartbreaking, about friendships and growing up, about power and weakness and how sometimes, they can look the same.
It’s been a redemption of sorts, for me. The story that had so captured my heart years ago claimed it again for all new reasons. The teaching of and the learning from a child, this great dance educators perform has been soothing and affirming. I believe in what I’m doing, in the manner in which I am doing it.
And I get chocolate milk out of the deal.