My absolute favorite part of every school day is our “read aloud” time, right after lunch recess. The kids come in all excited and energized from the free time outdoors. Their cheeks are flushed, their hair is tousled and mussed. The smell like childhood; warm and fresh and sweet. They chatter and laugh as they hang up coats and pull off boots, then they toss themselves onto the rug in our meeting area, gathering around my chair.
I hold the book in my hand, waiting for them to settle in. I take a deep breath and begin to read.
This is the moment when my students are at their youngest and most innocent. They gaze at me with wide eyes, their faces reflecting every event as it unfolds in the story. Sometimes they mimic the actions of the characters (“She grinned with delight”. “He narrowed his eyes as he thought.”) I can watch them think; its a priceless gift!
But this is also the moment when they are at their most intuitive and mature. It is a miracle to watch a ten year old as she recognizes a metaphor and turns to her friend to describe it. I watch them as they begin to understand grand themes of love, fear, courage, persistence, pride and patriotism. They blossom like flowers under the influence of powerful literature. Its a gift to be the one who reads to them and guides them as they grow.
Today I started the book “Heartbeat” by Sharon Creech. I decided to read them this story because we’ll soon be writing and studying poetry, and I wanted them to hear the lilting rhythms of the book. I chose this story because kids are supposed to understand character development and in this story, the narrator really comes of age.
I didn’t choose “Heartbeat” because of its universal themes of maternal love, but sometimes a book just reaches out and grabs you by the throat. Even books that you’ve already read six or seven times.
In Sharon Creech’s story, the twelve year old narrator is a girl who loves to run. She runs for the sheer joy of the experience, and she tells her story as her running footsteps create the percussion line. “Thump-thump” goes the refrain; her footfalls creating the repetitive rhythm that is echoed by her heart.
In the story, the girl talks about how her Mother felt her “running” even before she was born, and how as she soon as she was born, her Mother feared that she would run away. That she would run right out of her Mother’s life.
And as I read those lines, I suddenly, sharply remembered the day when I bought my first child her first pair of shoes. They were tiny pink sneakers, perfect and funny with their little bitty laces. I remembered with perfect clarity how I sat my little girl on the changing table and slipped those tiny shoes onto her feet. I remember cupping each foot in a palm, and running my thumbs over the toes. I remember the aching in my throat, and how my eyes brimmed with tears. As if it had happened today, I remembered myself looking into my baby’s deep brown eyes, and whispering, “Now you can walk away from me.”
My baby is a grown woman now, about to marry and ready to buy her first house. She is independent and mature and strong. She can run.
Sometimes, though, a book or an image or a line from a great piece of literature can remind me all too clearly of how briefly I held her in my arms and kept her close to my heart.