The Phantom Tollbooth MAG

October 2, 2007
By John Chen, Troy, OH

As he read aloud to me, his index finger trailed across the page, as if instilling magic into every word. I had forgotten how fond I was of The Phantom Tollbooth. My eyes wandered from the dog-eared pages to Jayden’s face, which wore the most contented expression. As I glanced around at the petite bodies in unstoppable motion and felt the energy that could only be radiated by fifth graders at 3:30, I remembered the reason I began tutoring.

I felt an urgent nudge at my elbow. The boy’s face momentarily furrowed as he struggled with a word. “Dol-drums,” I enunciated for him.

As his face returned to that dreamy expression, my mind took a sharp turn to the image of me lying in bed, watching the glowing red bands of my clock change. The minutes would slip by, leaving midnight farther and farther behind. I would try to will time to slow down to let sleep catch up to me. I could already hear the alarm in my head, that callous drone, my life being squeezed between two rollers, flattened into a thin flimsy sheet, untextured and blank.

I would often think how much I would like to be a child again, without the entropy of deadlines and grades and extracurricular responsibilities turning my life into Ground Zero. But as I sat on the tiny chair listening to the way Jayden carefully altered the pitch of his voice as he shifted between dialogue of Milo and Tock, I realized that things hadn’t changed that much. Worrying about a test isn’t that different from getting stuck on the word doldrums. And as I looked ahead at the looming clouds of college, career, and family, I realized that life would forever be sullied by difficulties. I was encouraged by the simple thought that all I had to do was to “sound it out.”

I soon found my legs crossed on the carpet, sitting face-to-face with India, trying to assuage her fear of boy cooties so she would let me work with her. “Cooties are harmless,” I told her, wanting to move on to plate tectonics but reluctant to break the magical seal on the childhood myth. She laughed exuberantly in disbelief, giggling as she did after every sentence, as if it were her personal form of punctuation. As my mind froze on the image of her generous nostrils and disappearing eyes, her mouth wide enough to swallow the Pequot, I realized her ­delight with life was self-produced. She didn’t need any specific reason to be buoyant; it was simply a ­natural state.

When Mrs. Rhodes announced that the day was over, the students stuffed their papers into their bags as if filling cornucopias. I promised Jayden that I would pay him an extra visit the next day. He wanted to finish the book, and although he had only managed to navigate the first 15 pages that day, it wasn’t hard to take faith in his confident voice. He joined his peers as they stampeded out the doorway, faces saturated with sunshine, ready to meet the world.

And when the last of the whirlwind of children left, Mrs. Rhodes and I stared at the mess of uncapped glue-sticks and wavy-edged construction paper. We stared at each other and fell apart in laughter, sharing the same feeling. Spending time with these children is worth every ounce of the exhaustion – and the same goes for life. As I nodded good-bye, images of the children rushing out the door lingered before me like spirits. I was ready to follow them, carried onward by their momentum, through that doorway, that phantom portal.

The author's comments:
I like this story, it's well-written, interesting to read, and not "self-promoting" as some of the community service pieces tend to sound

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