To say that the three hours leading up to Read Across America were stressful is an total understatement. That morning, I had barely made it to first period before the bell rang, had forgotten to complete my sample drawing for the kids, had a head cold and found myself without tissues, and had left my most crucial item at home: my inhaler. It seemed predestined that I was not meant to make it to Read Across America.
As I sprinted down the hall with my permission slip – that saving grace, my note from the nurse – myriad thoughts crashed through my head. With each step, I became more and more certain that Read Across America was to be a mere dream for this eleventh-grade reader. But I’d made it. I wanted to shout in exhilaration. I had my book, The Lightning Thief, in hand, my name tag around my neck, and a seat on the bus. Now I just had to face a room full of fourth graders.
The bus ride there was shorter than expected, and I spent most of it trying to catch my breath instead of preparing. When I stepped into the elementary school, a wave of confusion and nostalgia washed over me. My friend Jenna and I found our way to Room 157 with relative ease. Two fourth-grade girls in the hall gave us friendly smiles, and I felt myself begin to relax. By the time the teacher ushered us into the classroom, I was totally relaxed. She had such a friendly manner that it was impossible not to feel welcomed into the vibrant Room 157.
Jenna and I introduced ourselves to the class, then sat in the story corner. It had a cozy, intimate feel that was missing in high school. I looked at all those smiling faces focused on Jenna and me, even though we hadn’t begun to read, and thought once again of the differences between high schoolers and elementary schoolers. No one was obsessively checking the clock or nudging their neighbor or picking at the carpet fibers. We had their full attention.
I took a deep breath and began my anticipatory set, those questions used to pique audience interest. For my reading, I’d selected a seven-page excerpt of chapter eight because when I was in fourth grade, that chapter was my favorite part of The Lightning Thief, and I hoped to share that joy with these kids.
I reluctantly admit that I hadn’t given much thought to catering to my audience, and when I asked them my first question, “Does anyone know anything about the Greek gods and goddesses?” I knew right away that I’d lost them. Only one girl, decked out in orange with a pair of tangerine sunglasses, answered. She said that she knew they were Greek, and however unsuccessful the question was, I had to smile at her answer.
Quickly, I changed tactics. I asked if any of them had been to a really fun summer camp and what that was like. Their eyes lit up, and I knew I’d made a connection. Hands shot up to tell me about their theater camps, their art camps, their plain old-fashioned camps. But I knew that since I was basically plopping them into the middle of the book, I needed more. I glanced at my notes, then surveyed the room before saying those six words: “Has anyone played Capture the Flag?”
If I’d have let every kid in that room who’d raised his or her hand tell a story about Capture the Flag, it would have taken the entire hour and a half. But I’d just made my second connection. With the hardest part over, I began to read. Reading itself was fairly stress-free. Every so often, if I felt I was losing them, I’d ask a question like, “What do you think you’d do?” or “All right, Percy just heard a noise. What do you think it was?” and everyone would scramble to answer. When no one responded, I could count on tangerine-sunglasses-girl to wave her hand frantically and practically leap off of her seat.
She gave me the confidence to continue. When I felt I was reading to no one, I knew that at least my words were reaching one person. Toward the end, more students began to get invested in the story, leaning forward with enthralled looks. That’s when I read the last line of the excerpt: “Percy Jackson, Son of Poseidon.” In that moment, I fully appreciated the power that a storyteller has to immerse listeners in the tale. With just our voices and an author’s words, Jenna and I had painted a picture of a magical land and fantastic events in their minds.
It was incredible.
Once we finished, Jenna and I handed out a worksheet we’d made. The kids were to imagine and illustrate their own magical places. As the kids began to brainstorm ideas, I wrote them down on a whiteboard, my favorites being “jungle,” “castle,” “desert,” and “The Universe.” Those fourth graders were so creative and willing to learn, it makes me wonder where that imagination goes. I sit almost daily in a chemistry class where an average of three out of five lab groups actually care enough to try, let alone wonder how spectacular it is to be able to study matter that is too tiny to detect. Where does the love of learning go?
Toward the end of our visit, while they were coloring in their drawings, Jenna and I chatted with the teacher, who asked if either of us were considering being teachers. When I replied I was, the rest of the time she explained what teaching was like. It’s not a hard job, she said, but there is a lot of paperwork. In April, these students will get hammered with two standardized tests and a lot of her time will be dedicated to helping prepare them. Beginning in third grade, curiosity gets shelved in favor of conformity. By the time they graduate high school, they’ll have learned to bubble in a Scantron with no thought at all, but ask them to write and illustrate a creative paragraph and the headscratching and complaints begin.
Plain and simple, Read Across America taught me that I want to be a teacher. In my class, I will not allow my students’ flame of creativity to wither and die.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.