“Are you coming to read with us today?” they ask me in the morning when I drop off my son.
At the beginning of the school year some of the children were on level one and could barely read “a”, “and” or “the”. Now some of those same children are reading fluently.
Over the school year, I have seen their reading skills and confidence improve.
One little boy’s face beamed with pride when I praised his improved reading skills and moved him to the next level.
“I am so proud of you,” I said.
“Could you show the teacher?” he asked.
To some of them, I say, “You read like a t.v. news broadcaster. “ To others I say, “That’s my doctor” or “You’re my lawyer.”
I know about the value of an encouraging word and someone taking time to work with a child and speak possibilities into their life. And I also know that at school may be the only place where some of those children may receive an encouraging word or have an adult read to or with them.
I also personally know about the lasting impact that learning how to read can have on a person’s life and the importance of first grade.
I remember being in the bottom reading group in first grade. And although it was a long time ago, I remember the shame. I remember the frustration. I also vividly remember my mother sitting at our kitchen table with me, working with me on reading. I remember the sting of her popping my hand with an extension cord when my focus had waned and her patience had withered.
In this day and age when corporal punishment is frowned upon, some may question her old school techniques. Trust me. It was not a beat down, just a quick rap on the knuckles to get my attention. But the message was clear. Learning and reading is important and I’m going to sit here and stick with you until you get it--even if I have to beat you until you get it.
I steadily moved up in the reading groups. I started making “A”s. I became a part of the academically talented or gifted program. Honor roll student. Illinois State Scholar, National Merit Scholar. Full ride to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Summa cum laude. Time Magazine College Achievement Award in 1989. British Marshall Scholar.
And it all started at that kitchen table in first grade.
I say all that not to toot my own horn, but to say what is possible. The honor really goes to my mother who sat at the table with me, who always expected excellence from me. My parents valued education and paid me money for every A (yes, paying kids for grades is an incentive—a good one). My mother came to the school and was a mother for other children when their parents never showed up. She had my P.E. teacher change my grade from a B to an A.
“Did she dress out?”
“Yes,” the teacher replied.
“Did she participate?”
“Then she gets an A.”
“ Yes, ma’am.”
What if I hadn’t had a mother who cared enough to help me overcome whatever obstacle was holding me back in first grade?
What would happen if more parents took the time to read to their child every day? What would be the impact in our neighborhoods and country if instead of marching and protesting pastors and their congregations went and read to a little boy or girl in their neighborhood school?
Marching and protesting are all well and good and often needed but what is absolutely necessary is that we take responsibility for our children’s education. As President Obama often says, we can and should spend more money in our schools, but parents also have to turn the television off and read to their children. We need to invest in books and computers instead of the latest fashions.
One little girl who reads beautifully now was in the lower levels earlier in the year. She expressed her frustration to me one day and said that so and so was on such and such a level and she was where she was.
I told her first of all to not believe everything someone tells you, because they might not be on the level that you think they are. I also told her my story of being in the first grade and in the lowest reading group. I told her to keep practicing and she would move up.
Now she is in the top reading group and one of the best readers in the class.
Maybe one day she will be a Rhodes Scholar and she’ll look back and say it all started with baggie books.
The class made me a special thank you book for reading with them this year. It brought tears to my eyes. They drew pictures of us reading together. I’ve read a lot of books since my year in first grade, but few have been as touching as the one from Ms. Curran’s first grade class 2008-2009.