In the last five years, since my first book, Rump, was published, I have had the pleasure to meet and interact with many fine educators across the country. These teachers are wise, passionate, bold, and fully invested in their students’ success. It is no easy feat to be a teacher these days, not that it ever was, but it seems the expectations have gone up, and with them, teachers’ workloads. Today our teachers are constantly navigating shifting curriculums, more rules, policies, training, political webs, and emergency plans, not to mention the ever-growing piles of tests and benchmarks. It seems so overwhelming, even from the outside — but the teachers I’ve met, the true professionals, know that the job is not the tests, the curriculum, or the benchmarks. It is the child. Children are their job, their life’s work, and they know that each child is so much more than a test score, or even words on a page.
A few years ago, shortly after Rump was published, I met a fourth grade teacher who told me about a girl in her class who had connected with Rump in a deep and powerful way. At the start of fourth grade, Angie was reading well below grade level and struggled in other areas as well. Perhaps even more troublesome than her low reading level was Angie’s lack of confidence. She knew she struggled, and she was incredibly self-conscious when she compared herself to her peers. But as the teacher read Rump aloud to the class, Angie felt a spark — an awakening. The teacher noticed. She asked Angie to tell her how she was feeling about this book.
Angie explained that she felt like she was a lot like Rump, caught up in a mess and not sure how to get out. As she followed his journey and watched him grow and untangle his own mess, she wondered if she might be able to do the same. Could she overcome her own obstacles?
Angie’s teacher wrote to me about this experience, and while I was touched that something I wrote could have such a profound effect upon a child, I was even more touched by the teacher’s dedication. She noticed this child’s experience with my book and she took the time to talk to her about it and help her. That is care. That is education: to guide our children to self-awareness and the belief that they have potential, even incredible talents, no matter what obstacles or shortcomings they face.
I was not so naïve as to believe Angie’s issues would be solved overnight. Just because she felt validated by a story I wrote, she was not suddenly a great reader or student. But a spark had been ignited, however tiny, and this teacher, instead of allowing it to dwindle and possibly die, gently fanned the embers, and did all she could to keep the flame alive. She made room in the schedule for more independent reading. She consciously chose books to read aloud that Angie could particularly relate to. They read Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree, and again, Angie felt a connection to Ally, and her self-perception shifted and expanded even more.
Two years ago, when my third book, Red, came out, Angie’s teacher got in touch with me again. I was going to be within hours of her town on my book tour. She was going to bring Angie so we could meet. I’ll never forget that night. I hugged Angie nigh unto death. We talked, we laughed, we cried, all while Angie’s teacher watched from the sidelines, smiling at this moment. She made it happen. I wrote a book, but she put it in that girl’s hands.
She asked the questions, gave the gentle nudges, stoked the embers. She did not solve all the child’s problems. What she did was infinitely greater. She gave this child hope, a sense of self, and the all-important realization that her struggles, whatever form they take, will not diminish her potential. They will shape it.
Thank you to teachers everywhere, who burn their own candle at both ends so they may light that of a child.
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