I realized earlier this week Tommy* is twenty years old. I often think of him, I wonder what his life is like, and I wonder if the small time we spent together after school really mattered in the long run. I hope our time together made a positive difference for him because that time had such an impact on me. I have rarely thought about struggling readers or taught prospective teachers since the time we spent together that Tommy’s presence has not risen to the top of my consciousness.
When Tommy was in the fourth grade, he was in my daughter’s class. Lucky for all of these children, they were in a class with Ms. Bright*, a dynamo teacher, who was determined they were going to improve in reading and they were going to like it. She also declared they were going to pass the state standardized test in reading even if it killed us all. Ms. Bright called on many to make the goal come true: good readers, struggling readers, and a posse of parents. I was called on to work with Tommy. So a couple of times a week, we would all converge on the classroom. Children helped each other, parents worked with children, and the room was abuzz with words and hard work. I tried to sweeten the deal by bringing along that sweet treat of the South: Little Debbie cakes. So in the midst of it all, the smell of sugar wafted around the room.
I decided to use the Magic Treehouse series with Tommy. The Magic Treehouse books have wonderful historical settings where the main characters have adventures one book after another. Tommy dutifully plowed through each book in the series with me. We talked about words, we talked about illustrations, we talked about plot, we talked about characters, we talked about settings, and we talked about inferences. As we talked, we ate Little Debbie cakes. I used every technique I knew to help Tommy read, but he liked when I read a page aloud and then he read a page aloud. After we read our pages, we stopped and talked about how our story was going and how our characters were going to solve their problems. Tommy became friends with the characters, and he let me tag along. Sometimes in the midst of our reading, Tommy talked about himself; his small dreams, his world, promises made to him, both kept and broken.
Tommy and I read, and then my daughter and I would take him home. While we rode along, my daughter chatted away; Tommy listened but rarely spoke in the car. I think he sensed our time together was over for the day or maybe he was little overwhelmed by the chatty girl who was such a good reader and talker. As he left the car, Tommy always said thank you and asked when we would read together again.
The school year seemed to go so swiftly. I could tell Tommy was getting better at reading, but I was not so sure he could pass a state mandated test. I told myself and his teacher the test probably would not capture his progress, but part of me wanted it to do so very much. I hated the fact his success was based on an artificial test score, but I wanted a passing score for him. I wanted him to have success; I wanted him to see himself as a reader. While Tommy said being a good reader was important (probably because his teacher said so, and I seemed to think so), all Tommy really wanted was to go to Ryan’s restaurant, which was the reward Ms. Bright was providing to those who passed the state reading test. To Tommy, Ryan’s buffet was an exotic location he had never visited.
A happy moment for me was when Tommy’s teacher called me to come to the school to help him celebrate his testing score. Ms. Bright and I cried with happiness as the smile widened on Tommy’s face. We made plans to go to Ryan’s, a bountiful place with all the dessert one wanted. Tommy’s foster care home was clean and his caregivers attentive, but the home did not include extravagant excursions. Tommy said very little as he tried to eat every dessert. I think all those Little Debbie cakes gave him a sweet tooth. As we left the restaurant, I got a very shy hug from Tommy.
As it often happens in foster care, the next year, Tommy was at a different school. All these years later, I wonder if that reading time had an impact on his life. I would like for Tommy to know my life was enhanced because we shared books together. Time with a small boy made me all the more aware of the power of reading. While I have had many discussions about books, my talks with Tommy are among my most cherished. I hope more of Tommy’s dreams came true as he grew up, and I hope he continued to read.