The little hand


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.



​Last week our black goldfish, Kicker, indicated a desperate need for help.

It was pretty obvious. One day he was floating at the top of the tank, unable to swim. Still very much alive, he seemed trapped at the surface of the water. After a day or two of this, I wondered what, if anything, could be done.

I researched the condition: Swim bladder disorder. Kicker has all the symptoms.

I applied the recommended solution: Feeding him cooked, skinned green peas (I wonder who discovered this and how?).

Problems ensued. Most of the green pea chunks that I tried to feed Kicker either came apart or sank too quickly, before he could get to them; although Kicker can move, it’s limited. He has great trouble maneuvering and navigating. I watched with increasing concern – how long can a tiny, ailing fish last in this suspended state?

I did more research. One site recommended putting the green pea chunks on a toothpick.


As you can see in the video clip, it worked.

Each day I am able to make sure Kicker eats his peas. He sees me coming and excitedly tries to meet me, paddling himself backwards, sideways, upside down, whatever way he can, to get his sustenance.

Kicker’s still kicking, but he’s not well yet.

Another layer of intervention is needed, apparently.

I can’t help but think of all the children who struggle with reading.

Very quickly, their needs become obvious – these readers cannot keep pace or go deep like their classmates. The reasons are varied and must be explored; a diagnosis must be made, an approach must be developed. Research-based strategies that worked for others can be employed, but time is of the essence – is it working or isn’t it? Is the child making progress or not? How long can a child float at the surface in such a suspended state before the condition worsens? What are the long-term ramifications? What else can be tried for the sake of the child, whose future is at stake?

To not do anything is to . . . well, in Kicker’s case, it’s to watch him die.

When I first started teaching, a well-respected teacher told me, “You can’t save them all.”

Those remain some of the most chilling words I’ve ever heard.

What if that was my child?

Would I not do everything in my power, seeking the advice of others, hunting down books on interventions and overturning every virtual stone in cyberspace, to find answers? Would I not TRY?

As I write, Kicker watches me from his tank. He’s waiting for me, for whatever help I can give him. When I go to him, he will meet me and do the best that he can. I will try another research-based strategy today, as I don’t know when his window of time will close.

We owe the children no less.


If you’d like to read Part One of Kicker’s saga: Flipover



Seeing past the surface

Blue crab

Blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). Image: Bob Peterson CC BY

One summer long ago, my grandmother took me crabbing at South Creek, a tributary of the Pamlico River. We knelt on the weather-beaten pier, tied a long string of twine to a raw chicken neck, and lowered the bait into the murky green depths. Grandma anchored the loose end of twine to a rusty nail jutting out from a piling.

“Now we wait,” she said. “But keep your hand on the string so you can feel when a crab starts nibbling.”

Being a novice, I was sure I felt a crab nibbling right away. I pulled up the length of twine ever so slowly, only to see the fleshy chicken neck. I released the twine. The bait plummeted out of sight again. Within minutes, I was positive I felt nibbles. Reeling in my string, I found only the bait once more.

Grandma chuckled. “You have to be patient. Give the crabs time.”

“I thought I felt nibbles,” I said in my own defense.

“You feel the bait drifting. You’ll know when it’s a crab.”

I waited, my mind wandering. The day was bright; Grandma’s sunhat cast a ruffled shadow on the gray boards, warm and splintery.

Next thing I knew, there were erratic tugs on my line.

“Easy,” said Grandma, sensing my excitement. “Pull slow and easy or you’ll lose it. Pull so the crab doesn’t realize you’re pulling.”

Bit by bit, I inched the twine up through the water to find not one but two – two! – blue crabs picking at opposite ends of the chicken neck. Holding my breath, I pulled until the crabs were just below the surface of the water. I dared not move as Grandma scooped them up with the dip net.

As the crabs scuttled inside a galvanized tub, I tossed the slightly-gnawed chicken neck back into the water, observing: “It would be a lot easier if we could just see to the bottom. Then we would know when we have a crab.”

“Well, isn’t that the fun of it?” asked Grandma. “Not being able to see what’s there, but pulling until you can?”

Decades later, I sat listening to a group of fourth grade intervention students rereading a script.

“You’ve all come a long way with your fluency, recognizing words automatically without needing to self-correct. I can hear some great expression,” I commended them. “I have one question: What is this scene really about?”

As students tossed out random answers, images of a weather-beaten pier, twine, and raw chicken necks came to mind. “Wait, you guys. You’re all skimming along the surface, just seeing the words. There’s a deeper meaning you’re not seeing; it goes past the words into the ideas behind them.” I told them of my long-ago crabbing days, how I knew the crabs were there, hidden from my view, and how I had to watch, feel, and finally pull them to the surface. “Reading is like that,” I told the kids. “There is more than what you see at first. To infer, you have to take your time, go back, and try to feel what’s not actually said before you can grasp the meaning. Some words give you more clues than others, but a deeper understanding is always there. Sometimes you have to wait, think, and work to pull the meaning out.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t imagined crabbing as a metaphor for reading comprehension, or, for that matter, teaching. The students often come to us with their backgrounds, experiences, struggles, and gifts hidden from us at first. The depths can be murky, indeed; how easy teaching would be if we could automatically see everything that each child needs to be successful. The best way to start is by throwing out the greatest “twine” we have: the love of learning. Keep your hand on the string, Grandma said. You’ll know. Pull easy so you won’t lose them. Be patient. 

To me, the true joy of teaching is first hooking students with a love of learning, then watching myriad treasures rise from those depths, especially when students start pulling on their own.

Reflect: Where can you strive to see past the surface of experiences and relationships to something deeper, of value? What unique exploration can you share with a child?