They might as well have been written in ancient Greek. Those blocks of black ink on the page made no sense to me. I knew the letters by their shape, sound, and name. I knew the alphabet backward and forward. Those characters only became a problem when they were arranged into words. I could not for the life of me distinguish the difference between cat, bat, and hat. Words like through, threw, thought, and though turned my brain into runny, scrambled eggs.
My illiteracy didn’t bother me as I didn’t comprehend that others could read and write a whole lot better than I. In truth, I could not say that I even understood fully what being “behind” was. I merely wandered through life, observing all that I could, filing the interesting bits away to think about later. I had finished up the first grade with no regrets and was ready to have the most excellent summer break of all time. Unfortunately, a week after classes let out, my mother received a call from the school.
“She will either need to repeat the first grade or attend summer school to catch up,” they said.
My mother chose the latter, and I was flung from my summer vacation back into a cramped class room.
The teacher I had was an older woman whose summer wardrobe consisted of cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirts. She had an overall relaxed vibe and seemed just as thrilled as I to be at school instead of having fun. I want to say her name was Mrs. Wendy, but I could not at this time be certain of that. It is my belief that I will remember Mrs. Wendy until my mind waxes feeble. She was, after all, the teacher who discovered my trouble with words.
I don’t know if the teachers before her knew that I had a problem and simply ignored it. For the sake of my faith in the public school system, I prefer to believe that I was so good at faking it that I appeared to be on the same level as my classmates. It was quite possible for a kid such as I to slip through the cracks. First of all, large class sizes made it easy for a quiet child to avoid being called on to read in front of everyone. Secondly, I usually listened to the other students when they were taking reading tests and copied word for word what they said when it was my turn.
My first reading test in summer school came about during the first week, and I tried to scramble together some semblance of literacy by making up my own story. Mrs. Wendy stared at me with squinted eyes the whole time and gave me the generic “Good job!” before she sent me on my way. I thought, maybe she didn’t notice I made up my own story. Maybe everyone made up their own stories during reading tests, and I have been doing it wrong for two whole years.
The next day, while the other kids worked on their art projects, the teacher knelt next to my desk to say we would be taking a walk to “meet with someone special.” I remember looking down at the bluish gray carpet as we walked in awkward silence down the hallway. We stopped at a door with a colorful border around it, and my teacher looked into the room.
“Oh there you are! I didn’t see you there. Do you happen to have a minute? I have that student I was telling you about.” she said to the person in the room
My mind was wandering around the rainbow swirls on the border, but it snapped back to reality when I realized my teacher was speaking to me.
“Camille, this is Mrs. Smith, she wants you to read to her. Do you think you can do that?”
I thought it odd a teacher couldn’t read and needed me, a student, to do it for her. Maybe she was one of those people who couldn’t see the words. Before I got myself too lost in thought again, I shyly nodded.
The room was decorated with paper cutouts of letters and numbers. There was a reading corner and a turning rack that had four sides. Books with different reading levels were arranged on each side of it. There was a table set up with two chairs (one regular, one perfectly sized for eight year old children) next to the door.
While I don’t remember Mrs. Smith’s face exactly, I do remember her straight hair, dazzling smile, and the few sunspots that stained her skin. She was an athletic person, and wore jeans.
“I hear you need a little help with your reading.” she said
I need help with my reading? I thought.
The next thing I knew, I was picking a book from the reading rack. I chose the book with a boy and his dog, but I could not get through the first two words. Mrs. Smith said we should move to a different book.
“One with a lower level.”
Four ‘easier books’ with ‘lower reading levels’ later, and I still could not read more than two words. With her eyebrows furrowed, she rummaged through some files in her desk and produced a ‘Special book’ for me to try.
It was a book with one word on each page, and it took me about three minutes to get through each one. When I closed that book, having read the last page, I felt a sense of accomplishment that I had never experienced before. I had read a book all by myself. A whole book, with no cheating. I walked back to my classroom with a big smile on my face, and I was so elated that I didn’t even notice that I was going the wrong way.
As each summer day folded into the next, I read her books in turn, and worked through all the reading levels. I was still a slow reader compared to my peers, and it took more than a couple read-throughs to comprehend what the sentences meant. Still, my confidence in class and my overall self esteem had a marked improvement. School became a new, glittering world where possibilities were infinite. I could connect with people and learn about them in ways I never could before.
There were days when the sun called to me, and I wanted out of the class room. I fidgeted and couldn’t pay attention to the ink stained pages. Rather than get upset with me for my lack of focus, she would say, “No reading today.” Away we would go on an adventure, investigating leaves on trees and puddles full of freshly hatched tadpoles. When I asked questions about photosynthesis and tadpole metamorphosis, she would direct me to the school library where I could find the answers to ALL my questions.
School started in August, and I was elated to find that I was in Mrs. Smith’s second grade class. On the first day she showed us the reading corner, the projects counter, and the book bins. The book bins, she explained, were for us to write our own books. All we had to do was write a book, choose a cover (which were pre-cut rectangles of wall paper), turn them into the bin, and she would ‘publish’ them. It was a ‘just for fun’ activity, and if we chose to publish a book we could read it aloud in front of the class.
I recall one day, early on in the school year, we were given a math assignment to work through independently. I had no interest in math, as the numbers looked foreign to me, and took to scratching out a story on the back of the paper instead. It was about a cat that got his toe stuck in a finger puppet, and ended up being a famous puppeteer. Despite my best efforts to hide the story when Mrs. Smith walked behind me, I was found out. She took my paper, replaced it with a new one, and scolded me for not doing what I was told.
With three minutes left before recess, I quickly scribbled random numbers onto the page, and went to Mrs. Smith’s desk to turn the assignment in. Usually she would grade the assignment as we stood there, and explain the ones that we got wrong, but this time was different. She pulled my story out from under the other assignments and handed it back to me. With a warm smile she asked if I liked writing stories. I nodded, feeling shy again.
“No one has published a book yet this year. Maybe you can be the first.” she said making a gesture toward the book bins.
I fumbled with the paper, nodded again, and went out to play.
After a week or two, I worked up the courage to put one of my stories into the book bin. It was after all the kids had gone to recess and Mrs. Smith was not in the room. I could do it without anyone seeing me! On the way there, I pretended to be a secret agent charged with the difficult task of dropping a top secret file into a box to save the world. I ducked, crept, and ran to the bin in slow motion. I was a bit mortified to see Mrs. Smith was standing in the doorway, witnessing my antics. She smiled at me, and I left feeling heavy with embarrassment.
My shoddy spelling and handwriting made it impossible for anyone to read the story I turned in. She pulled me aside a couple days later to introduce me to her student aide. Tanya was blond and wore a pink shirt two sizes too small. Maybe her mom made a mistake with the laundry and shrunk it, I thought.
“She is really nice, and there is no need to be shy around her. I am going to have you read your story out loud to her, and she can write it down in her own handwriting.” Mrs. Smith said as kindly as she could.
The finished product came to me a week later. It was six pages long, and stapled to the most beautiful blue, wallpaper cover. When I opened it, the words were typed inside with a lot of blank space underneath. Where were the pictures? I wondered.
“You can draw your own pictures for it.” Mrs. Smith said, as if she knew what I was thinking.
I started drawing away, but the other kids began to gather around and ask me questions.
“What is that?”
“You get to color?”
“I want to do one too!”
All the social interaction was making me nervous, and I was relieved when a boy stepped forward to field the questions and comments for me.
“You can all write stories too. My name is Randall, and I’m turning a story in today.”
Throughout the course of the year I published twenty to thirty stories and read each one to the class. I made friends with kids who liked them, and I was able to come out of my shell more than I ever had in the past.
Being called to the teacher’s desk was usually a bad thing. When a child was called to have a talk with the teacher, the walk there was a long one indeed. It was riddled with gawking kids, and the sound of gasps cut through the air. I landed next to Mrs. Smith’s desk after one such long walk and was relieved that I was not in trouble after all.
“It should be quite fun.” she said holding up a grey brochure. In all honesty, my mind had taken me to another place while she was talking, and I didn’t know what she had said up until that point. “I want you to go. You take this to your mom and have her sign you up.” She handed the brochure to me and I went back to my desk.
“What is that?” Randall asked.
“I don’t know.” I replied.
My curiosity piqued, I studied the words to decipher their meaning. Young Whiters Wo was all I was able to make out before I was instructed to put it away. As Mrs. Smith talked about some kind of mold, my mind cruised around all the possibilities of what a Young Whiters Wo could be. Would we be young people painting things white? Would we be allowed to use other colors?
“Mommy,” I said when I got home that evening, “Mrs. Smith said I should go to a painting thing. Sign me up for that.”
“Here’s the paper she gave me. It’s a painting thing. Can I paint with more than their white color?”
She read the brochure confused.
“Oh. No honey, it’s a reading and writing workshop for kids. We don’t have the money for you to go.”
“Okay. Can I jump on the trampoline?”
Some days later, Mrs. Smith called me to her desk again.
“I noticed you are not signed up for the workshop, and it is this weekend. Did you give your mom the brochure I gave you? Did you tell her to sign you up?”
“I gave it to her, but she said I can’t go because we don’t have the money for it.”
Her lips scrunched to one side of her face, as she thought.
“Here is the sign up sheet. Give that to your mom to fill out, and tell her I will pay for it.”
When I told my mom that Mrs. Smith was going to pay for me, she got a somewhat worried and offended look on her face.
“You tell her we DO NOT need her money, and I am paying for you. I will write a check.”
I didn’t know what a workshop was. I just knew I was on my way to one. My mom was telling me something about my lunch, but my mind began to drift off again. I wondered what this “workshop” would be like. I knew that my dad worked as a mechanic in a shop. I thought maybe this workshop would be like his shop. Maybe we would be fixing books, I thought. Maybe all the books are breaking and they need special kids to go to the workshop to fix them all before there were no books left.
I pictured a number of children in superhero outfits, fixing all the books. I imagined that toward the end of the day a water monster would crash through the walls. He would fill the whole library with water, and we had to fight him to save the library books from a watery grave.
I was a bit disappointed to find this was NOT how I would be spending my day. Instead, we went from room to room to meet different published authors. Some of their books I had read before, while others I had never heard of. There was one man there who everyone liked. He had a guitar and sang his book instead of reading it to us like the others had. One kid said he heard that man singing on the Disney channel, but I didn’t have TV at my house and couldn’t confirm or deny his statement. I learned that writers were normal people… people who were just like me.
When lunch time rolled around, I realized I didn’t have a lunch and hadn’t paid attention to my mom’s instructions on how to procure one, so I took to exploring the school halls instead. Much to my surprise, I ended up running into my mother, who gave me lunch and bought me a tape the guitar man was selling. I listened to it repeatedly.
Many of our successful icons have woven tales of that one all-important adult in their lives, the one who would inspire them to be all they could be. Steve Jobs had a teacher that paid him to do his homework assignments, Stephen King’s mother told him to write his own stories instead of fan fiction, and I had Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith: the teacher who lit the wick of my thirst for knowledge, made me understand the importance of the written word, and pushed me in a direction that would take me to great things in my life. While I am not as rich or famous as the before mentioned success icons, I have still accomplished more than I ever would have if it weren’t for her.
Because of Mrs. Smith, I am the first person in four generations with a college degree. I graduated from high school and continued writing every day. Mrs. Smith is the third person in my life that I will always remember. I hope that we all remember that there are children in our lives who may need an adult — like you — to push them to be everything they were meant to be.