Walking away from me.

Katie's first sneakers looked just like these.

Katie’s first sneakers looked just like these.

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.

The Little Match Girl


When I was very small, my family had a big blue book.

I don’t remember the name of the book, but I know that it was a treasury, a collection, a taste of many famous children’s stories.

We used to read it at bedtime; I remember my father reading to me from the big blue book.  I remember thumbing through the pages myself, even though I was barely old enough to read.

The big blue book had some poems that I loved, well before I could really understand them.  I remember reading “The Road Not Taken” and “The Elephant’s Child”.  Both of them touched me, in different ways, although I didn’t really understand either one.  I only knew that I loved the sound of the words, and that hearing them read out loud struck a deep chord in me, ringing out a challenge that I couldn’t begin to understand.

And I remember that there were parts of the big blue book that simply scared me. There was a two page poem called “The Brownies” that gave me the creeps, big time.  I remember a picture of children sledding.  I don’t remember why this seemed so scary to me, but it did.  I remember that the Brownies were supposed to be magical, like fairies, but that they seemed somehow awkward, and stressed.  They had strangely pointed shoes on, and they looked anxious and angry and somehow threatening.


But there was something about the language of those pages, the words of the poem, that drew me in every time I opened the book. I read them over and over; it was the first time that I recognized that the sound of words could be more powerful than the meaning of those words.

I loved that big blue book.

I loved “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright” and I loved the story of “Peter Pan”.  That book enthralled me.

But there was one story in the big blue book that always made me sad.  It was a story that would creep into my mind, late at night, so very long ago.

It was the story of “The Little Match Girl”.  I clearly remember the first time that I heard the story, although I can’t remember now whether it was my mother or grandmother who was reading the text, or whether I was puzzling it out on my own.  I don’t know.  What I do remember, though, is that as the story unfolded, my emotions grew and shifted.  I remember the moment when I realized what it was that was happening to the little girl.

If you do not know the story, here is the summary.  The story is told through the eyes of a little girl, out on the streets of London on a bitter cold night.  We meet the girl, and we read about her thoughts as she decides to light one of the matches that she is selling on the street.  The matches are her livelihood; they are all that is keeping her alive.  Still, she strikes one match when she is bitterly cold and afraid of the dark.  In the golden glow of the lit match, the little girl glimpses a family, happy and warm and filled with love.  They are encircled by the light of her match flame, but when it goes out, the vision goes too.

She lights another match, to see the beautiful image of warmth and safety again.  The images flares, and ignites her hope, and then it fades.  She lights two more to see the beauty again.  Again it fades.

She lights three matches now, and the family in the golden image smiles, and embraces and celebrates together.  And then it fades.

Eventually, the matches are all burned out, and we realize that the little girl has died, cold and alone and dreaming of a better life. There are no more matches.  Her hope is gone.

I remember that story.

I remember it tonight, as I read that nearly 7,000 people in the city of Boston are living on the street tonight.  I remember that story as I wonder how many of those people are children. I wonder how many of them will fall asleep tonight, hungry and cold and squeezing their eyes shut so that they can see the beautiful images that live inside them.

I will fall asleep tonight, wondering about The Little Match Girl.  Wondering how many children just like her are fighting to stay alive on the streets of our city on this bitter cold night.