Sunday, April 16, 2017

Reading Lesson

© Linda Goodman, April 2017

                In 2012, my friend Les and I, under the auspices of the Virginia Storytelling Alliance (VASA), started a story club for kids at a downtown branch of the Richmond Public Library.

We had about eight storytellers in the group, ages two through fourteen.  Les was truly gifted when it came to keeping the attention of this diverse group. The toddlers enjoyed him as much as the teens did. Surprisingly, they all wanted to tell stories.

Of course, it took a few warm up exercises to get the kids loose enough to share with abandon each week. Les had a multitude of such exercises in his belt.

One afternoon, Les told me that he had a reading exercise for them. Each child would be given a piece of paper with a sentence or two written on it.  Each sentence was another step into the main event, a story. 

“Wait a minute, Les,” I warned him. “Joey (not his real name) doesn’t know how to read.”

“I will take that into consideration,” he replied. I breathed a sigh of relief.

The strips of paper were distributed. The exercise began. Students were eager to see how their sentences connected with others. One by one the sentences were eagerly read, until, finally, it was Joey’s turn.

Joey glanced quickly from side to side, and then focused on Les, who was not being sympathetic as he stood waiting for Joey’s contribution to the story. “Well, Joey?” he inquired as he patiently waited. “Go on.”

The look of shame on Joey’s face was heartbreaking. “I don’t read,” he said.

“Joey, you can do it. I know you can. Now read the sentence.”  Les gently insisted

Joey held the paper closer to his eyes and read, “Out ….in….the…barn….” It took him two minutes to read a sentence that should have taken no more than 30 seconds. Les did nothing to hurry him along, just continued to patiently wait until the entire sentence had been read.  Watching this ordeal was agonizing. Joey’s shame and discomfort were palpable. After finally getting the job done, he crumpled up his slip of paper and tossed it into the garbage can.

“Oh, Les,” I thought to myself. “How could you? This was a child who worked hard each and every day just to keep his head above water. Why would you subject him to this humiliation?”

Les stood up from his chair, walked over to Joey, and shook his hand.

“Joey, you are my hero,” he said. “This was an easy exercise for most of the class, but it was hard for you. But you stuck it out in front of everyone until you got the job done. You are the bravest boy I know.”

How beautiful to see the various emotions parade across Joey’s face: confusion, anxiety, relief, happiness, and pride.

I learned three things from Les that day: (1) do not excuse a child from a difficult task. The world is a hard taskmaster that does not cut breaks. A child must be taught to accept challenges. (2) The child who makes the attempt to succeed in spite of possible humiliation deserves to be acknowledged for his courage in trying. (3) Children don’t want to be treated like babies. They want to be taught how to gain confidence.

I left Richmond at the end of 2012. Les and the story club, now called the Story Warriors, continue to work on stories and have been included in numerous conferences and festivals. I hear they are looking for some new members. If you live in the Richmond area, you might want to check them out.