Yesterday, Amy, my daughter, had a doctor’s check-up in the morning, so I drove her to school afterwards. I could have dropped her off and returned home to edit a paper, but I decided to see if her first-grade teacher or my son’s third-grade teacher wanted any help. Previously, I’ve read books to their classes, sorted papers, cut paper for projects and chaperoned field trips, but this is the first time I’ve volunteered in their classrooms this year.
When we arrived on the elementary floor of the school, Alex, my son, dashed over to me. “Mama!” he squealed and leapt up to wrap his arms around my neck. I’m guessing that’s not the usual greeting third graders give their parents, but nobody seemed to care. A few of the other students waved and smiled at me, then returned to their work. Alex went back to his classroom, so I could walk with Amy to her cubby. Amy, rather efficiently I noticed, emptied her pink backpack and hung up her outside clothing. Then she joined the circle of her classmates around her teacher. Since they were busy, I wandered back to Alex’s room, just two classes down.
Alex’s face lit up again when he saw me, but he stayed in his seat while I talked to his teacher.
“Hi, Ms. S. I have some time this morning. Anything I can do for you?”
“We’re about to start Read to Someone. Would you like to do that?”
I was paired with V, a petite girl with a sweet smile and cascades of dark, curly hair. She grabbed two cushions for us to sit on the floor. We settled at the back of a metal cabinet and she poured her books out. I closed my eyes while she shuffled them around, then I pointed. Junie B. Jones, it was. She was on chapter 2, but went back to chapter one, because she wanted me to know what was going on. For 15 minutes, she read to me. Throughout the classroom and spilling out into the open area, students sat in pairs reading to each other.
These classrooms only have three walls. The kindergarten classes are enclosed, but the six classes of first through third graders are along one wall with walls dividing them, but on the fourth side, they are open. And the cubbies are open. No doors constantly opening and closing, no slamming of lockers, no echoey, tiled, long hallways. The students know where they need to be, but move freely within that space. Students, teachers, and support staff walk past, but aren’t a distraction. There is a low hum of voices and movement, but it’s in the background. It’s the sound of children together and learning.
When the fifteen minutes are over, the third-graders return their cushions and book boxes. I sit next to Alex at his desk (he holds my hand), while Ms. S asks questions about the last chapter they read in Charlotte’s Web. Then its time to read the next chapter, so Alex, another student, and I alternate reading pages aloud. I’m amazed at how easily my presence is accepted by the other students. I don’t remember parents often in my classrooms growing up. I fit in here. I get to be a natural part of this.
After our chapter, I say good-bye to Alex and return to Amy’s room. The first graders are scattered throughout the room, attending to their morning work. Headphones on and looking at an Ipad, Amy sits at a table near the window working on her spelling words. I cross the room and get quiet waves from a couple of students. I give Amy a hug and she says a quick bye and is back to her words. On my way out, Ms. B stops me.
“Are you staying?” she asks.
“I could. Do you have something that needs to get done?”
She points me to the bin for books that need to be shelved in the level library. It’s empty, but the bin next to it, labeled Book Hospital, is full and so is another Book Hospital bin I find in the library. I get some clear packing tape and pick a spot in the level library just a few steps from the classroom, so I can attend to my “patients” without disturbing the class’s spelling test. As the Book Doctor, I tape up torn covers. I suture in chunks of loose pages. Little House on the Prairie, Wolverine, Artemis Fowl, Water, Snakes, Amelia Bedelia. I return them all healthy back into circulation.
J, a boy who rides the bus with Alex and Amy, spots me in the library on his way back from the bathroom. He smiles shyly and shuffles close to me for a hug. I squeeze his shoulders and send him back to class. While taping up books, students entered quietly, browsed for new books, and returned to their classes.
There are a few remaining “limbs” in the Book Hospital. Perhaps their bodies will show up someday and I’ll put them back together. The first grade teachers are happy to have a Book Doctor they can contact when the Hospital is overflowing.
When it’s time for me to go, I know I won’t be gone so long again. This open, vibrant school has been a community for me and my children for four years. What a gift it is.