RSVP

They sit at the table before me, these two boys, with their books open.

The book’s too hard for them. I know this. But they’re fifth-graders now, having been in intervention groups since first grade, and this is a book they really want to read. 

So we’re reading it together.

The book? Wonder. By R.J. Palacio.

We stop to discuss words and phrases that they have questions about, such as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I don’t get it,” says one of the boys. “Why is the mom talking about a tree? What tree?”

You’ve studied figurative language in class, right?” I ask. The boys nod. Their expressions are perplexed. “Sometimes words and phrases mean something more than what they actually say. That’s the case here. Think of a tree loaded with apples. If an apple falls off, what eventually happens to it?”

Someone comes to eat it,” offers the other boy.

Maybe,” I laugh. “But let’s say the apple stays on the ground where it fell and no one ever comes to eat it. What will happen?”

They think. I can almost see their brains scrolling.

It’ll go bad, won’t it?” asks the first boy. 

Yeah,” says the second. “Like, brown and mushy.”

“So,” I press on,”what’s inside of that rotting apple?”

“Seeds?” says the first boy. 

The second boy says “Oh!”

“What?” asks the first boy.

The seeds. They get in the ground and grow into more trees.”

Now you’re getting there.” I lean in. “You know about life cycles from science. So what will these new apple trees do?”

Grow more apples!” says the first boy.

Yes. The new tree does exactly what the mother tree does. It grows the very same kind of apples. So when August’s mom says ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ when Julian’s mom doesn’t RSVP to August’s party, what is she really saying? Think of what you already know about Julian.”

He acts like his mom!” says the second boy.

For a second, tiny rays of light beam across both boy’s faces, driving their clouded expressions away. Then . . . 

“What’s an RSVP?” asks the first boy.

You’ve never heard of it before?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

I turn to the second boy. How about you?” 

He shakes his head, too.

“It’s what people put on a party invitation so that the people throwing the party know how many other people are coming, so they know how much food to buy or how many prizes to get.”

Their faces are blank. 

It’s French. RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plaît: Please reply. When you get an invitation with RSVP, you’re supposed to let the sender know yes, you’re coming or no, you’re not. That’s what’s happening here in this chapter. August’s mom has sent the invitations for his party and people are saying their children can’t come. Julian’s mom doesn’t even answer.”

Oh,” says the first boy.

It hits me then.

Hard.

Guys, have you ever gotten an invitation to a birthday party or anything?”

 They shake their heads. 

I look at them for a long moment while my mind races. My thinking process is like a bubble map sprouting out in every direction, bubbles upon bubbles, thoughts multiplying exponentially.

What some children— including my own—may take for granted as a natural and fun part of childhood isn’t every child’s experience. Superman, Captain Hook, the Titanic, even—alas!—Barney the Dinosaur themed-parties clamor in my mind. 

These two boys have never had, never even seen, a party invitation.

 This is a matter beyond understanding the heart of this scene in the books before them.

It’s now a matter of understanding how the world generally works. Of broadening their world. 

 I recall a university professor giving a keynote address to would-be educators years before. He described his impoverished childhood and taking an aptitude test in elementary school. He told of this question: “What color are bananas?” I can’t recall the four answer choices (one of which was presumably yellow and the right one) but he chose “black.” Because that is what he knew; his father could only afford the bananas that were reduced when they began to spoil. He’d never seen a yellow banana.

How could he know?

How can these boys know what an RSVP is, or care? Until now, it’s never appeared in their world. It has no significance, no relevance.

All right, then,” I say. “That’s enough for today. We’ll read more and talk more about this chapter tomorrow.” 

They gather their things and head back to class.

That night, I make two invitations, personally addressed to each boy:

You are cordially invited to attend a popcorn and book celebration

with Mrs. Haley at

(the time of our group meeting, two days away).

(On an additional slip of paper):

RSVP – I will ____ will not ____ be able to attend.

The envelopes are on the table at their places when they come the next day.

“What’s this? ” asks the first boy.

That’s our names on there,” says the second.

Well, I guess you have to open them to find out,” I say.

Rustling, tearing. Reading.

What’s this word?” asks the first boy, pointing.

Cordially. It means ‘warmly’ or ‘in a very friendly way.'”

A popcorn party?” says the second boy, eyes lighting up.

A popcorn and BOOK party,” I tell him. “We’re still going to read.”

Can we have Dr. Pepper, too?” The first boy bounces in his seat.

That all depends,” I smile, “on my knowing how much popcorn and Dr. Pepper I need to buy. How am I going to know?”

Oh yeah . . .” 

With their pencils, both boys check I will be able to attend on the slips. The second boy slides it across the table to me. The first boy follows his lead.

Great! All my people RSVP’d that they’re attending! So tomorrow is our celebration. Just promise you won’t get popcorny fingerprints and Dr. Pepper on our books.”

They giggle.

Together we read a little more of August’s struggles. All the while my heart is hoping that right now, and tomorrow, and what little bit of time we have together in the tomorrows beyond, will lessen their own. And that their learning will become one long celebration, filled with wonder.

13 thoughts on “RSVP

  1. It seems that every time I read a blog entry, I want to comment, “such a sweet story”. It sounds so simple, but it’s true! This is a sweet story and a thoughtful lesson for the boys. I enjoyed reading it. I admit I feel motivated to find a better descriptive word besides, “sweet”. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love it:) . My main school I coach at has so many students whose funds of background knowledge are lacking, much the same as the two kiddos in your intervention group. It presents an ongoing challenge to constantly build up those funds with interesting, relevant and meaningful background they can easily make those all-important connections to…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This makes me cry happy tears! It really proves how we need to get to know our students, where they come from, their story/history, to build those relationships, make connections, and even introduce them to concepts that seem so simple to others. That day will forever be in their memory and how you not only taught them something new, but made it special.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fran, I know whenever I come to read your slice, I will leave enriched. You never fail. What a moving story this is and you write it beautifully. You are a teacher and writer extraordinaire, and your popcorn and Dr. Pepper party was inspired. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Your post reminded me of students in my not-so-distant past, on Title I and DAEP campuses. We take those little details like party invitations for granted, seldom stopping to think that others may not have been privy to those experiences. Thank you for the gentle reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Firstly, I want to say I deeply admire you for drafting before Tuesday night (I always say I will but…). Your slice is so right on with the background knowledge that so many kiddos are missing that makes so much else so challenging. I find that even in the fairly affluent circles of international schools there are kids who are observers in life and not able (for whatever reason) to actively participate in things that could give them real life background. Your students are lucky to have you helping to bridge the worlds with them. Your slice is also so beautifully written with the conversation easy to imagine.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A slice full of sweetness. Love the questions you asked the boys throughout the slice. Your questions were about the readers not the reading and that led to your genius idea to create and give invitations with RSVP and all. That then led to a real vocabulary lesson! You built background knowledge, got to know the readers, and celebrated reading! Bravo! Thanks, as always, for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. If only all students were able to have a teacher like you, what a wonderful world it would be. There are too many things we assume kids know and understand. This will be something they remember about their fifth grade year.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Everything comes via Evite or Paperless Post these days! Your post made me realize I have to SHOW my daughter these invitations so she has some schema for what it means to RSVP. I know that this wasn’t the overall purpose of your post, but it has moved me to action! So, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I cannot tell you how much I love your post! You are the teacher every child should have. Well Done! You connected something they were doing/learning/reading to their own lives. I’ll bet they will never forget their first invitation or RSVP to the popcorn and BOOK party! Great read! Inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Every once in awhile, something comes up and I am so surprised when kids don’t know what it is. Just like an RSVP. Beautiful story…compassionate teacher…lucky children.

    Liked by 1 person

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