Big English

Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic. – J.K. Rowling

He finishes his reading assessment and peers over at my screen where all the words are marked red.

I had to tell him every one of them.

He’s only been in this country for a year.

He is tiny, but his dark eyes are bright, intense. They catch and perceive everything. I can tell.

He considers all the red on the screen, then turns those knowing eyes on me.

Before I can say, “It’s okay, don’t worry, you’ll learn,” he reaches over to pat my arm.

“You,” he says. “You have big English.”

He pats his own chest. “Me, little English. I have big Spanish.”

I point to myself, to finish his thought: “Me, I have poco Spanish.”

He grins at me, and I smile back.

We understand each other in a way beyond words. We are okay, in perfect company, because of this wordless knowing between us. No assessment invented by man can capture the height, the depth, the strength of the human spirit. There is no real reason why trust should suddenly be born in such a moment, but it clearly has been.

“I tell you what,” I say to my tiny new friend, for that is what he is now, “I will help you with English and you can help me with Spanish.”

His grin broadens. His eyes shine.

I hold up my hand: “Deal?”

He laughs, slaps my hand with his own. “Deal.”

And he vacates the chair beside me, going off for the rest of his school day in a sea of Big English. Like a salmon, he has a hard battle, upstream all the way.

I expect he’ll swim, rise, leap – I see it in his eyes, sense it in his spirit.

I wonder what the future holds for him. Something of great importance, great value – I can feel it tugging.

Whatever part I can play, let me play it.

Let the magic begin.

The little hand

Hands

Untitled mural. Rob SwystunCC-BY

She’s the tiniest student in our first grade class, beautifully dressed, hair neatly swept up in beaded ponytail holders. She speaks little; she is shy. Her big brown eyes, framed with long, thick lashes, take in everything. 

I often catch her eyes resting on me. I wonder what she’s thinking. I smile at her. She looks away, but I can see the corners of her mouth twisting up, that she’s deliberately suppressing her natural response.

I am not the teacher; I am a teacher in training, working as an assistant. The teacher soon pairs me with this tiny girl. We are to read together for a few minutes every day. My shy friend is a struggling learner.

She has many struggles.

I learn that this child is the oldest of several siblings and that they all live with their grandmother. This child suffers with asthma – common ground with me.

“I have asthma, just like you,” I tell her one day.

“You do?” Little eyebrows elevate over the big brown eyes. She studies my face, and for the first time, a smile breaks over her solemn countenance, like a flicker of light.

The teacher and I notice how our little girl scratches herself, her arms and her neck in particular. Patches of thick, scaly skin appear to be eczema – they flare when she’s stressed. She scratches and scratches.

I take over the class while the teacher ushers our friend to the sink and shows her how to use a nail brush to clean away the necrotic tissue collecting under her fingernails.

After conversations with Grandma, a tub of cream is brought to school. When we open it, the cream is peppered with flakes of our little friend’s skin, from multiple dabbings and applications.

On the worst days, we take turns holding her in our laps, rocking her while she cries, holding her hands in ours to keep her from scratching and drawing blood, while the other kids run and play at recess or spread across the room to do their work.

The teacher fears that the thick patches of skin are permanently altered.

We cry, too.

One morning, after an unpleasant encounter with an adult in the building, I enter the classroom and find a quiet place to sit away from the children. Passing by, en route to morning meeting, the teacher whispers to me: “Are you all right?”

“I will be,” I reply. “I just need a minute to breathe.”

As the students gather on the floor around the teacher, my tiny friend creeps over to me. She crawls up in my lap, featherweight that she is. I put my arms around her. 

She reaches out her little hand and pats my neck.

Your skin is all red,” she says.

And she sits there with me, not to be comforted this time, but to comfort. The only child who perceived that something wasn’t right.

She rocks, humming a tune. I don’t know it. Turns out that my friend is a singer – there’s an astonishingly big, expressive voice inside that tiny ravaged body.

She begins singing more and more. She makes us laugh – her classmates love to hear her. 

One afternoon, after several weeks of reading together – beginning with picture walks and my reading pages to the girl and her reading them back to me, repeating until she can read with few to no errors, with increasingly complex books – she sits regally in the chair beside me and takes the new book out of my hand before I can introduce it.

“I can do it myself,” she announces.

I hold my breath the entire time, restraining myself from intervening as she works through this new, harder text on her own. She labors in some places, but she keeps moving, until the final word.

“YOU DID IT!” I shout. People walking at the end of the hallway stop and turn around.

My little friend, face aglow, radiant, throws her braided head back and laughs for all she’s worth.

I carry those moments – I carry her – in a corner of my heart forever.

For me there’s no question of who really taught whom, who was the greater blessing to the other.

Many years have passed, but when I think of diverse student needs, of overcoming, I see her solemn face, her beautiful eyes. I hear her cries, her laughter, and marvel at the resilience of children. I feel the pat of her little hand, the innate empathy in it, born of suffering, recognizing suffering, seeking to alleviate it; our exterior, our skin, is not the whole of us. Her songs, resonant with untaught vibrato, bubbling up from some pure wellspring deep within, represent the indomitable human spirit – full to overflowing, even in the face of hardship, even in the smallest of us.

 

The last stop

 

Nursing Home

The Last Station Nursing Home. Ulrich JohoCC BY-SA

I push the wheelchair down the hallway. We pass an old man in a wheelchair; he lifts his hand in greeting, although he’s never seen us before. In the lounge, a tiny, gray-haired woman is holding a doll in her arms, rocking it while she watches TV. She takes a spoon from the tray in front of her, scoops up something orange – maybe jello, maybe mashed peaches – and tries to feed it to her doll. My throat constricts. With every step, I feel like the world is converging, that I am being squeezed into a narrowing tube.

I come to the room. 

“Here we are, Grandma. This is your room. It’s really nice.”

In the wheelchair, Grandma covers her face with her hands. She begins to cry.

I kneel, nearly panicked, feeling akin to Judas Iscariot. “Stop! Please don’t cry. You will make me, cry, too. Is that what you want?”

Instantly her hands drop. She lifts her wet face, squares her thin shoulders. “No, no. I don’t want you to cry.”

She looks at me with those watery blue eyes that I know so well. She places her bony hand over mine on the arm of the wheelchair. “If I have to come to this place, then I am glad you are the one who came with me.”

For a long while we just sit in the waning afternoon light, holding each other’s hands. There are no words.

Because there are no words.

I feared the day would come when she didn’t know me. She forgot many things – what era we currently lived in, that many family members were long dead. I debated whether or not to tell her when she mentioned her brothers or her son – my father – that they were gone. How many times can a person stand to lose someone they love? She watered her artificial poinsettia at Christmastime and, still in possession of her physical strength, managed to get out of the building through a window (if I recall that detail correctly).

She eventually lapsed into a docile silence, looking at every visitor with a sort of curiosity, but no longer struggling. She’d stopped speaking. At this point, she wasn’t feeding herself any more, so I would feed her whenever I was there.

Taking the plastic spoon in my hand, I say – I don’t know why, maybe because of tradition, habit, courtesy, or simple spontaneity – “Grandma, do you want to say the blessing?”

I know she hasn’t spoken in weeks. I guess I expect to say grace for her now.

But she bows her head, clasps her hands . . . and recites, perfectly, word for word, the Lord’s Prayer.

I sit, awestruck. This isn’t the family blessing, my grandfather’s prayer, that we always say when we give thanks. But she knows it is a prayer; it remains intact in her mind.

I thought of all the nursing homes I’d visited through the years, usually during the holidays to sing Christmas carols. The Alzheimer’s wards are especially haunting, with their heavy doors and alarm systems. The people sit, physically present, enduring their days, but mentally elsewhere, often unresponsive unless one of two things occurs. When a child comes in, the faces of the elderly suddenly light up. It’s an eager expression. They lean toward the child, smiling. Some even hold their hands out to the child. Whether it’s the newness of life or the memory of  what once was, the presence of  a child is magic here.

As is music.

Carolers walk the halls, singing, and residents wheel themselves to the doors of their rooms. Some smile and wave, others nod in time to the song, until we sing “Silent Night.”

Some of them were just sitting at dinner, one leaning to the other, saying, “I don’t know where I am. What is this place?” The other responded, “I don’t know either. And who are you?”

They may have been playing Scrabble earlier that afternoon, although the words won’t come and the tiles are too hard to see anymore.

But when “Silent Night” begins, the light comes back on in their faces. They sing every single word with us – even a woman, rocking her doll. 

This is my grandmother’s favorite hymn – she taught me to play it on her chord organ long before I started school, placing my little fingers on the keys over and over until I got it right. 

She was born the day after Christmas and died three days before Christmas, almost on her ninety-first birthday. We sang “Silent Night” at her funeral.

These thoughts and images swirled in my mind yesterday as my son played the keyboard at his grandmother’s convalescent center. I noted the absence of one resident who followed me nimbly to the exit the last time I visited – I saw the eagerness on her face, the light of it – just as the alarms went off and the nurses gently escorted her away from the door.

She died last week.

My son plays hymn after hymn; the residents clap after every lively rendition. Someone sings in a clear, soft soprano, every single word of every stanza, in perfect time with the music.

This is my story, this is my song . . . .

Even at the last stop, when time seems to be no more, when the days and nights and years and epochs melt together, when the stories lie dormant, music sweeps in like a breeze, stirring  fallen leaves into the air again. The words rise to the surface, for they are there, always there, in the deepest, darkest places. No matter how long they lie, the old, familiar melodies bubble back with the first strains. Released.

They sing, and I marvel. At the power of it, at the gift of it, at the peace of it.

Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming. Silent nights are coming. But until then, their hearts go on singing.

I stand amazed.

 

The value of value

Rose & shadow

Rose and shadow. ankakayCC BY

We have a new principal at our school.

On his office wall is a certificate presented to him by his previous school: “Most likely to make you feel appreciated and valued.”

That word, valued, set my thoughts firing like electrical arcs in a dozen directions.

The first thing that came to mind, strangely, was an image of light and shadow. From an artist’s perspective, in artist terminology, value is the shading that gives depth to a two-dimensional object, almost magically transforming it visually to three dimensions. Values make an image pop, bring it to life.

A fascinating concept for a leader of a school, or any leader, isn’t it – to be an artist of sorts, to harness the light and the shadows of the given entity, to have a vision, to go beyond the surface and bring depth, meaning, and make it work. Artistically speaking, that’s the value of value.

Another image was immediately conjured – the vast machinery of systems. Have you ever had the sensation of being a tiny cog rotating in a mind-boggling conglomeration of structures that do not fit well or operate properly together, with old, vintage pieces welded precariously to shiny new ones, like something out of steampunk? As the cogs we cannot even see the full extent of the machinery looming far beyond us; we can only feel the unwieldy vibrations as it lumbers on. That’s often how education feels today. In truth, it’s not the structures that hold things together and keep everything running – it’s the cogs, the teachers. Teachers are the most crucial pieces – and the end product isn’t the perfectly standardized student. The students aren’t end products at all – don’t we want them to keep growing, learning, discovering, contributing, as long as they live? That’s something no machinery can produce.

Which gets back to value.

To value something means to hold it in high regard, to recognize its worth and usefulness. We value things that are important and beneficial to us.

My thoughts branch out into a hierarchy of what-ifs:

What if systems valued schools more than data? What if they scaled back and simplified rather than adding on?

What if principals communicated their value of teachers through their actions instead of words?

What if teachers made all students feel valued – and valued their differences? And taught students to do the same?

What if everyone realized that these are matters of the human heart and spirit?

I can see the light and shadows separating already, magically transforming things, creating a depth that’s been needed for so long.

slice-of-life_individual

A rising tide lifts all boats

Boats

Fishing boats. karol m. CC BY

At a recent team meeting of K-12 cross-curricular educators dedicated to improving writing instruction, we discussed the Calkins and Ehrenworth article entitled “Growing Extraordinary Writers: Leadership Decisions to Raise the Level of Writing Across a School and a District” (The Reading Teacher, Vol. 70, No. 1, July/August 2016). While takeaways included the need for a shared vision of good writing and good writing instruction, as well as a need for shared expectations and ways to track growth – the reason for the formation of this team – what struck me most was this line on the transformative power of professional development: “It should be focused on strengthening teachers’ methods and spirits.”

Yes. Spirits must rise, I thought. Before we can raise the level of writing, before we can raise the students at all,  we must first raise each others’ spirits. 

The truth is that professional development is so seldom inspirational. For the last year, when I planned professional development in writing for teachers, my driving question was, How can I inspire them? How can they tap into the wellspring of their own power, their own voices, all that matters to them?

When I spoke on this at the meeting, a colleague chimed in: “We have to be the rising tide. If we rise, we’ll raise others with us.”

“Yes – a rising tide lifts all boats,” I responded, recalling those words associated with John F. Kennedy.

I grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia. I have been on the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel when the tide was high, in a storm; as I descended into the tunnel, waves crashed above the entrance and spilled over the car. A layer of salt remained on the windshield when it dried. I’ve seen boats grounded when the tide was low, making the would-be sailors push and pull that much harder to get them afloat. I’ve walked floating docks of marinas on sunny days, feeling the sway of the boards under my feet as boats rocked with the incoming tide, the metal of their moorings and buoys clanking softly, rhythmically, as if coming to life with with the rising flow.

When the tide rises, it lifts everything with it – everything rises.

When our spirits rise, we lift others around us – everyone rises.

That’s so needed in education today.

It’s so needed everywhere.

The power lies within you. Tap into that inner wellspring; let it flow.

And rise.

Note: The one word I chose for for myself at the beginning of this year is Rise. If you’re interested, here’s my little poem: Rise.

slice-of-life_individual

Lighting the way

Lumos

Yesterday a fifth-grader caught me in the hallway:

“Mrs. Haley, do you have a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in your room?”

 “I have two copies. Ask your teacher if you can walk with me to get one.”

He did. As we walked, I said, “The Chamber of Secrets is a great book. I enjoyed it more than The Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“Yeah, I haven’t read Chamber of Secrets. I saw the movie and my favorite part is when Harry gets the cloak of invisibility and finds that mirror where he sees his family.”

“Ah, the Mirror of Erised … I just read that aloud to two classes at another school last week while they were studying fantasy.”

In that chapter, Harry receives the cloak of invisibility at Christmas with an anonymous note explaining that it had belonged to his father; he is admonished to “use it well.” He sneaks around Hogwarts, hidden by the cloak, and ends up in a remote, off-limits part of the building in what appears to be a storage room. He finds a large, ornate mirror. Erised backwards is desire – looking in the Mirror of Erised shows a person the deepest desires of his or her heart. Harry’s family is dead; he desperately wishes he could have known them. He is transfixed by their images in the mirror – they wave at him, and his mother wipes away her tears as she smiles at Harry.

I think, as I rummage through my basket of Potter books, Fascinating how it’s the humanity that draws us, more than the magic. 

“Here you, go,” I say to the student. “The Chamber of Secrets.”

His face lights up when I place it in his hands. “Thanks, Mrs. Haley!”

“Read it well,” I call after him, as he walks away, flipping pages.

I look around my room, my own chamber decorated with Potter memorabilia that draws children from across grade levels. They love to drop by to show me their owl collections, to ask if I’ve read The Cursed Child, to share anything Harry Potter that they’ve recently acquired. The Harry Potter club meets here twice a month, students from third through fifth grades, and we talk so much more about what motivates the characters than the magic they employ.

My Lumos glass box gleams in the corner by the doorway. I think of all the times that teachers might wish we had magic wands to show us everything the kids need, to fix all that needs fixing. I recall J.K. Rowling’s quote from her 2008 Harvard speech, now connected to her Lumos charity on behalf of children:

“We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.”

It’s apparent whenever I read with the kids, whenever the Potter club meets and someone has an epiphany about a character, whenever I walk into a classroom to write with students and teachers. The essence of teaching, of reading, of writing more than anything else, is the connection of human minds and hearts. It’s all part of same story, the triumph of the human spirit. Teach it, read it, write it well – tap into all you’ve known, all you’ve loved, all you’re wrestling with, and watch their faces.

It’s all inside you. Light the way.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer