It was an offer I wouldn’t refuse. My husband is a newspaper editor. For Read Across America Day (March 3), the newspaper where he works signed up to send volunteers to read to school children.
“I signed you up, too,” he told me. “You can go with me.”
And so I did. We arrived at Wendell P. Williams Elementary School in Las Vegas, and were escorted to separate classrooms. The plan was easy: We would each read for 20 minutes in two classrooms, one after the other.
My first assignment was with Ms. Kirkbride’s third graders. They were just finishing a math game. It was “Crazy Hair Day” at the school and Ms. Kirkbride was wearing a bushy green wig.
But it wasn’t the wig that held her students’ interest. It was her energy, enthusiasm and obvious love for learning. And, OK, who would dare cross a woman wearing a bushy green wig?
She offered me a choice of books. I picked “Coyote and the Laughing Butterflies” by Harriet Peck Taylor. It’s a Native American folktale about a lazy coyote and a sneaky bunch of butterflies. Somehow it made me think of my family.
I sat on a sofa and the children sat on the floor around my feet with their sweet, shining faces upturned and hopeful.
I wish you could’ve seen them.
I felt like the Queen of Reading. If you’ve ever read to a child, I bet you’ve felt it, too.
They knew the story, but hung on the words the way little ears (and big ones, too) always love to hang a good story well told.
When it ended (with a feast) we talked for a while. Their eyes turned to saucers when I told them I live on the edge of the city by the open desert and often hear coyotes near my house.
I didn’t want to leave. But they had other things to do, other stories to explore. And it was time for my next assignment.
Mr. Richardson and his fifth-graders were hard at work when I arrived. Two of my children are teachers. I know that while teachers always appreciate volunteers, they still have a lot of ground they need to cover. But Mr. Richardson welcomed me graciously with his smile and his students followed in kind.
I decided to read something from a book that I wrote some years ago. But first I told them a few things about my family.
_ My stepfather left school as a boy to go to work to support his family after his father died. He never learned to read or write, but vowed his children would not suffer the same handicap.
_ My brother, from birth, was totally blind. He learned to read Braille at the state school for the deaf and the blind, not with his eyes, but with his fingers.
_ My grandmother taught me to read before I started school. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d grow up to earn my living as a writer.
They listened intently as I told them all that. Then I showed them my book and read this:
“We read and write to know and to be known. It has been that way a very long time and I expect it always will.
“It works like this: You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and heart and even from your soul, and fashion them into words. That is called language.
“You put the words on paper or a computer screen, using symbols and marks that you trust to carry your meaning. That is called writing.
“Then someone who’s never seen your face or heard your voice will see your symbols and marks and recognize them as words. That is called reading.
“Sometimes, unpredictably, the words hold the power to recreate the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader. That is called a miracle.”
Some do it for love. Some do it for money. And some of us, if we’re lucky, get to do it for the students at Wendell P. Williams Elementary School in Las Vegas.
And truly, that is a miracle.