The most painful part of being a teacher was seeing kids hurting from something I could do nothing about. Kids who were abused–that was the worst. Kids who came from homes of alcohol and drug abuse. Kids who had a family member dying a slow, ugly, painful death. Though I only taught for two years, there were quite a few kids facing these hard times.
And, in most cases, I couldn’t do a thing about it. To have a kid look to you as an adult for help (whether they overtly ask for it or not) and to have nothing to offer back is a horrible, empty feeling. Authorities had been called, social services was involved, not enough evidence, on and on and on. Sometimes we were ordered not to talk to a kid about some issue or other. And sometimes, to protect my own breaking heart, I compartmentalized it and put it away in a drawer in my brain I never opened. To know that I was an adult, supposedly with a lot more power than an 8th grader, and yet I could do nothing about mistreatment they were enduring, gutted me.
The only thing I had to offer was books. And books I offered. Books where main characters were dealing with the same problem. Funny books. Sad books. Books to show there is beauty in the world, despite what the child was facing. Books on some weird topic I thought would appeal to just that student.
When I wrote the poem “Calling All Readers!” for BookSpeak, I ended with “On a day like today,/ there’s no friend like a book.” That was true for me when I was a kid. Books saw me through a lot of hard times, and I gripped them like the lifeline they were. I was writing from my own experience, but I was also thinking about the kids who passed through my classroom who felt nobody understood what they were going through–until I put a beloved book in their hands.
I read Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish recently. When it first published earlier this year, a school disinvited Kate because of this middle-grade book, which features Charlie, a girl saving up money for a new Irish dance solo dress. It also involves a magic fish, flour babies, science projects, and more. And then Charlie learns her big sister, a college student, athlete, and all-around good person, is addicted to heroin. It’s a fantastic book, and it’s about a lot more than heroin addiction. How many kids need to read this:
“I can fill myself with the energy of this dance, the sound of music and stomps and clicks…It feels amazing. It’s enough.”
How many kids can heal a bit with every page they read that acknowledges that life sometimes sucks, but we can find joy inside ourselves? That we can be enough for ourselves, even if the people we love scare us, disappoint us, or hurt us?
I’m not sure how much I would change if I could re-do my teaching days. I would still, of course, offer up books to kids. But this time around, I would look them in the eyes and say, “You might be hurting. A good book can help.” (I did that sometimes, but not every time.) That can feel a lot like holding out your hand to help a struggling kid, as Ruth Ayres describes in this fabulous Big Fresh piece, “A Hand to Hold.”
There are kids hurting in so many ways. All we can offer is a hand to hold, an orange to eat if they’re hungry, and a direct look in their eyes to remind them they matter–and, always, a book.
This is why I read aloud so much when I was teaching… I taught kids who had learning disabilities or were slow readers due to a lot of truancy issues. They needed stories, but often didn’t have the patience with themselves to get away inside of their own heads, so even with the fifteen year olds, we had story-after-math, just as I did with the fifth graders… and I still go back and reread MAKE LEMONADE, because that was their favorite book, and just like ‘weans’ with a picture book, they asked for it again when we finished. We read that book three times before I could gently move them on.
There is no friend – nor frigate – like a book.
Reading aloud is even better than just putting the book in their hands. Hearing something said out loud (even for kids who aren’t struggling readers)–that affirmation that you’re not the only kid in the world with emotions like that. I love that you read it three times!
Ruth Ayres says
Thank you for your words and connecting those of us who are fighting the good fight of loving kids from hard places. Books stand in the gap when we don’t know what to say or when we can’t comprehend what a child is facing.
Absolutely! I loved your essay.
Books are so important to me and have been all my life. I have always tried to find books for my students, to help them in need, to cheer them up, to keep them going. I love your post, and know you and Ruth will send many away at NCTE with big smiles! Have a great time at the conference. Can’t wait to see your new book!