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.
“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.”
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.