It’s okay. Sound it out with me. This letter O makes the long oooohhhh sound. Here we go. Hh. Oh. Pp. H-oooohhhh-p. H-oohh-p. Hope. Excellent!
I drive across town once a week to a school in a neighborhood where most of us wouldn’t want to live. Small, dilapidated homes. Front yards without grass. Broken down cars parked on the streets.
When I walk into Mrs. Jones’ first grade class, nineteen hands shoot into the air. “Me! Me! Me!” they cry. A few kiddos run over and wrap their arms around my legs. “Can I read with you today?” I hug them and stroke their heads. “Ask Mrs. Jones, sweetie,” for I know that during the next ninety minutes, only a few names will be called – the ones who are struggling the most, the ones who need the greatest help. I wish I could stay all day and read with every single one.
I never, ever, EVER had even a hint of a desire to be a teacher. I know myself. I don’t have the patience. I have enormous respect for teachers and all they juggle. I’m not that good. Believe me, you don’t want me teaching your kids. Here’s an honest confession: Kids make me crazy. Especially other people’s kids. I was a horrible babysitter. And once I was a mom, I sweated through playdates. I’m just not a kid-person.
But I love these first graders. And I’m only there for an hour and a half every week, and I’m not responsible for their grades or their discipline, and I don’t have to deal with their parents. I’m only there to help them learn how to read. I could never work as a teacher, but I know phonics, and I taught my three kids how to read. This I can do.
Most of the kids in Mrs. Jones’ class come from bilingual families – or families who don’t speak English at all. Many of their parents can’t read themselves – much less help their kids learn how to read. And with nineteen kids in her class, Mrs. Jones can only do so much. So I do this one little thing. It’s not much. But it’s something.
One at a time, they come to me, and we sit together on a giraffe print rug next to a stuffed leopard, a stuffed gorilla, and a tall potted palm tree. These kids – they are funny. One little girl can breeze right through a word like beautiful and then stumble on a simple word like they. Another one will sweat and grunt sounding out each letter for several minutes until at last she gets it! I congratulate her for not giving up, for sticking with it, for working it out, and she grins. We turn the page, continue reading, and the same word will stump her again, so we start over, slowly sounding out each letter. When she finally finishes and we close the book, I reach into my bag and pull out sheets of stickers – shiny butterflies, puffy hearts, silly monkeys, superheroes. She studies them carefully, considering each one, until she finds the sticker that completes her. She may stick it on her hand, or on her shirt, or perhaps on her pencil box.
After listening to Frog & Toad stories for an hour and a half, I leave Mrs. Jones’ class and walk down the hall to Mr. Rivera’s class, where I knock on the door and greet Jesus. Not that Jesus. Hey-Soos. He’s a quiet nine year old boy who loves soccer and the Texas Rangers. He ducks his head and silently slips out of the classroom, trying desperately not to be noticed. But as soon as the door closes behind us and we start walking down the hall, he lights up and tells me about his soccer game last weekend or his favorite baseball player. We usually work on math together, which is hilarious considering my loathing for numbers. His workbook wanted him to distinguish the differences between the associative and communicative properties of addition. Seriously. Somewhere deep, DEEP in the vast recesses of my memory, I used to know the answer. But that was before my children stole all my brain cells and pooped on them. I had to ask the reading specialist for the answer.
In between the fractions and simple division, Jesus and I simply hang out together. I told him something during one of our first visits together, which he occasionally repeats to me unprompted. I can do hard things, he tells me, and I tell him yes, you can! and we high-five. He picks out a sticker – baseball, usually – and I walk him back to class, rub his head, tell him I’ll see him next week. He quietly ducks his head and walks to his desk, trying to be invisible.
But truly, I think these kids teach me more than I teach them. Perseverance. Tenacity. Joy in small victories. The kids remind me that everyone has a story. That everyone struggles. That everyone deserves a chance, deserves value, deserves love. That no one is forgotten.
And I see myself in them. How I can learn a good lesson one minute and forget it the next. How some of the most difficult things come easily to me while I simultaneously struggle with the most simple. How a small reward can make my day.
It’s not much, this thing I do each week. It’s a droplet of water in a very large ocean of hope and mercy and humility. It is one drop combined with other drops combined with more drops that wash us clean. That tell us people are good, the world is good, God is good. It is faith working its way outward into the lives of the forgotten, the neglected – the ones with strikes already set against them, the ones with stories not yet written. It is planting seeds that will bear fruit I may never see – fruit that will bear seeds that will bear fruit that will bear seeds. It is sitting down and playing my instrument in God’s ongoing symphony.
This thing I do each week, it’s not much. But I keep playing, keep planting, keep learning. With every seed, with every note, God breathes.
And it is good.