when words spill, finally, from lips

by bam

it was the very last thing he told me the other night, as i hugged him extra tight after a flawless and dramatic flashlight reading–his reading, by the way, not mine–of that not-quite-classic “morris has a cold.”

i had tears before he even told me, just huddled there beside him, listening to his intonations, taking in his little asides–“this is really funny,” says he, offering his literary critique in whispers in my ear–hearing him growl when the bear talked in capital letters, shouting when an exclamation mark allowed, encouraged, insisted.

when he got to the end–the outline of a smile stretched from ear to ear across his face, half-lit in flashlight shadow– i couldn’t keep from burying him in arms and heart that couldn’t be contained. (a fine thing that comes with mamahood is, sometimes, you don’t have to keep your hands to yourself.)

i started to tell that blessed child that i knew, oh, boy, i knew, how steep that mountain climb had been, how i knew it was really, really hard to be the almost only one in all his class who could not get the letters to behave, to fall in line, who had not yet found the on-switch inside his brain to make the words spill from his lips.

i told him i was so, so proud because not once did he slam a book. not once did he burst into tears. he just kept trying. sound after sound. word after word. page after page. determination upon determination,
and look, sweetheart, i said, you made it to the mountain top. you are reading now. and you’re not only reading, you are telling me a story. you are making me see and hear that silly moose and goofy bear. you are making me laugh out loud.

that’s when my little mountain climber–the one we always say is “the egg who wouldn’t take no for an answer”–that’s when he softly, proudly, said, “i’m not in reading group any more.”

which prompted a not-so-poetic “what?!” from me.

you see, he’s been pulled from class every morning of every school day to try to jumpstart those reading pistons. and it had not escaped him that it marked him as, in his eyes, “not so smart as all the other kids.”

said he, upon my yelping: “mrs. patrick took me in the hall today and we had a little talk. she told me i don’t need reading group anymore so i can stay in my classroom now and not miss morning tally.”

by the light of the flashlight beam i caught the glow coming from his smiling cheeks. he saw my face. he saw my tears and smiled even harder. he’d kept his big fat secret till the lights went out. maybe till the time when dreams click on in sleepy heads.

i was shrieking, calling for his daddy. and that’s when he asked, too, if i would get his brother. “i want to make an announcement.”

we all gathered, yes we did, and circled all around the little boy in bed. he was busy tracing arcs of light across his ceiling. and then, with just a moment’s pause for drama’s sake, he spilled the news.

which, considering just months ago i was wondering if maybe he’d repeat first grade, was, well, sweet and stunning all at once.

we whooped. we hollered. both brothers rolled–all arms and legs and sheets–and giggled. i galloped down the stairs to send a note to mrs. r., the amazing first-grade teacher, to find out if this was true, or simply wishful fiction.

upstairs, surrounded by morris (moose), boris (bear), and a beaming flashlight, the triumphant reader finally fell asleep. bushed, no doubt, from all the reading ruckus.

when morning came, so did word from his amazing teacher. it’s true, she wrote, he got to where he dreamed. he is reading, word for word, with all the rest.

to witness such determination is wholly rather humbling. just weeks ago when buttoning his pajamas, he looked up at me and told me kids often called him “stupid.” he told me more than twice that school was really, really hard.

but he was blessed, that child was, with one or two amazing teachers, both of whom stoked his little reading motor. kept him from being swallowed whole by a big bad sentence. or just a stubborn syllable.

mrs. r., i know, wrote him love notes, tucked them in his desk. pulled him to the side, whispered in his ear. reminded him, time and time again, that he was a hero for all the work, and mighty thinking, he was undertaking.

now, i know that he’s not the only one to whom she said these things. but i also know that hers is the gift of making each and every thinker think that her or his cogitation is rather something special.

and the greatest gift of all: someone, besides his mama and his papa, believed in him when he could have fallen down. she wouldn’t let him. she guarded the ledge. kept him climbing till he got to where the words came tumbling from his lips.

standing back and watching, sitting side by side, night after night, book after book, was to snare a front-row seat on the bumpy flight of a kid who wouldn’t be a quitter.

doesn’t matter to me if it’s a boy and a book, or a guy without a leg who rides a bike. there is, in all of us, the capacity to be inspired by those who won’t back down, won’t stop believing that through sheer determination, and a wingspread wide enough to catch the updraft, there’s no challenge that can’t be conquered.

i know my little boy who learned to read–who now tries to make his way through every word in sight; cereal box, passing street sign, names on back of football jerseys, doesn’t matter how or where the letters fall–i know what he taught me this week: don’t slam the book. don’t walk away. a world of never-ending story is just around the corner.

and it never hurts to have a most amazing teacher in your corner, either.

this one’s for my little one’s new jersey grandma, she who lives to teach to read. and kept close eye on all the chutes and ladders of this reading climb. it’s for his teachers too. the ones who worked one-on-one, nearly every single schoolday. and especially for the one named mrs. r, who never stopped believing that she could get him up the mountain, where he now sees the whole wide world of words. most of all, it’s for him himself. and for you who’ve read along, the saga of the struggling reader, i promise–at least i’ll try–no more reading stories. this is the end. and we’ll all turn pages, happily ever after.
sometimes though don’t you just wish you had a billboard to shout hallelujah when you watch a holy triumph? thank heaven, then, for that billboard called the blog. happy half birthday little reader, just in case you read this…..