Sharing the Light

My first year teaching second grade in Newark I had absolutely no idea what I was doing; fresh from a five week bootcamp run by Teach for America corps members who themselves had very little classroom experience, I arrived at my school in early August for orientation hoping there would be more guidance from my new colleagues. What I found instead was another week or so filled with an abundance of meetings on fun topics like how to use our laptops and where to hide the kids in case a shooter was roaming the halls, but very little time spent on less fun things, like what we would be teaching.

In between sessions, I found the woman who had been in my classroom the year before, another TFA alum who was now part of the school's leadership team. When I asked what reading and writing curriculum she had used, she plainly told me there wasn't one. Despite being in the position for the last couple of years, she hadn't left any plans, and the room didn't have much in the way of textbooks. Or library books. Or pencils. Or paper.

Second grade is one of the most critical times for literacy development; it's where kids move beyond sounding out words to exploring their meaning and implication in context. Most students begin the year with simple, basic texts and leave able and excited to devour whole chapter books. Characters go from bland, two dimensional outlines to fully-developed people with hopes and dreams and good readers start to see themselves in their struggles while identifying the common structure most narrative fiction is built on. They explore the role non-fiction texts play in the world too , and are able to use different resources to gather information and connect ideas. They also start crafting both narrative and non-fiction pieces on their own, putting down on paper all the imaginative and curious thoughts flinging around their head.

In short, they begin to unlock the transformative power of reading and writing; the ability to make meaning of stories, the world and ultimately themselves. And they also learn to tie their shoes.

It's a big year.

I left our TFA training convinced of the importance of the task ahead of me but feeing woefully ill-equipped to tackle it. We were constantly reminded what we did and didn't do in our classrooms affected the trajectory of our students' entire existence, and they weren't wrong. A child not reading at grade level by the end of third grade is four to six times less likely to graduate from high school, and high school graduation rates are terrifying predictors of future levels of incarceration, especially in over-policed and underserved communities like Newark. If I failed, I would be ruining their lives.

Completely unrelated, this is around the time I started having regular panic attacks.

I had been a private tutor as a side gig in South Korea earlier in my twenties, and one of my students was a wealthy eight year-old boy who chose the English name Terry. He did not look like a Terry, because he was not a middle-aged white man playing tennis on a Thursday morning while complaining about his wife who was three courts down doing the same with a woman named Barbara or Susan or Cheryl. Terry's family lived in a modern high rise in a trendy neighborhood of Busan, and every week I'd wave to the guard at the gate, take the elevator up eleven floors and sit around a shiny dining room table while three groups of kids rotated in and out for lessons which were technically illegal, given my visa status.

Every evening when I left, I worried the guard had reported me and the authorities would be waiting when I came down the elevator. He never did.

I taught a rambunctious pair of six year-old best friends who almost never wanted to do anything besides run around the table and ask why I didn't have any hair, which they found endlessly hilarious. Next came a very bored pre-teen girl who spent most of the time looking at her phone's clock and asking if I had a girlfriend. And the last lesson of the day was with Terry, who'd arrive eager to tell me about where his family went over the weekend or where they were planning to go on their next vacation, what his new favorite song was or how I should really start playing video games.

I had limited skills as a tutor; living in Korea was my first experience teaching anything, and the after-school English academy I was working at used a very set curriculum, which meant I didn't have to do much beyond show up and deliver the content. Our delivery was monitored by cameras in our classrooms available to both parents and the academy's director, who would watch the feeds from the front office, making sure we weren't veering off script or sitting down.

For my first two private lessons, I'd prepare worksheets on different areas of vocabulary and make little tests, printing them out at school while hoping the director wasn't watching the lounge camera. But Terry was already too fluent, and at our initial session he completed my packet of worksheets in five minutes and then spent the rest of the time asking what else we were going to do.

I brought a stack of books to our next lesson.

We started with a mystery series involving aliens and cereal, which I thought would last for a couple of months but which he tore through in one week. I went home and frantically searched for a book recommendation for his age group and came up Kate DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux, which the local English bookstore miraculously carried.

A couple days before our next lesson, I opened it to begin making worksheets and vocabulary exercises but almost immediately forgot all of my teacher tasks after the first chapter. I finished its nearly three hundred pages in one sitting, swept up in the story of a mouse and a Princess, a journey of deceit and forgiveness, a remarkable meditation on light and darkness disguised as a children's book.

I was blown away, and was also crying in a Dunkin Donuts.

Terry finished the book almost as quickly as I did, and for a month afterward we'd reread his favorite parts, write different endings or add various characters. When I left Korea for New York with a vague plan of opening a wine and crepe bar with friends, I wasn't sure what to do with my dog-eared copy of this children's book. Spectacular books remain comforting long after you've finished them, like little time machines requiring only a glance to initiate launch, bringing back feelings you almost forgot you had. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out, so I stuffed it in my suitcase and wondered if maybe our wine bar would also have a library? For kids?

Years later, when a wine bar didn’t materialize but a teaching career somehow did, I had thirty little faces in Newark staring at me like I should know what I was doing. I dug up my worn copy of Despereaux, brought the kids to the carpet and just started reading.

All the research on literacy which filled my nightmares and woke me up at four in the morning highlighted the importance of Read Alouds, a time where readers hear stories slightly above their level, exposing them to well-crafted structure and rich vocabulary, delivered explicitly modeling both the reading and thinking skills required for comprehension. I didn't know yet if I could be a good reading teacher - or any other subject for that matter - but I knew I could be a good reader, and so every morning we'd head to the carpet and I'd crack open Despereaux and basically perform for twenty minutes.

I gave the main character's mother a ridiculous French accent (for she had arrived at the castle in the luggage of a visiting French diplomat many years ago), the jailor Gregory came out with a Scottish brogue and the bumbling Miggery Sow received a Cockney and Southern mashup; like a drunk Eliza Doolittle, but from Arkansas. My kids loved it, which probably had less to do with my rendition and more to do with DiCamillo's story; Ben Stein could have delivered a deadpan read-through and I'm sure I would have still cried at the end.

And just like with Terry years before, I cobbled together lessons and highlighted the book's amazing vocabulary with what eventually became WOW WORDS; I'd introduce a couple key words before each chapter, and whoever was the first to hear them and silently show me jazz hands would get the chance to remember its definition. Once they did, they would get the coveted prize of wearing a notecard with the word written on it in sharpie for the rest of the day.

My second graders now paraded around the building wearing words like perfidy and unsavory and ominous, proudly telling anyone who asked that conform meant to be like everyone else, and Despereaux didn't conform to his family's expectation of him because he did things like read stories and fall in love with princesses. Once our principal asked why one of my students was wearing the word ignorant on a card around their neck, which I realized wasn’t a great look, until the student explained Roscuro had assumed Mig was ignorant when he lead her to the dungeon.

I've truly never been prouder.

When I left Newark and moved to Los Angeles to have my own sitcom, I brought along my copy of Despereaux, just in case I found myself back in a classroom while the networks fought over my scripts. And when I started substitute teaching in Burbank, I'd carry it from room to room, cracking it open and realizing the story worked on different but effective levels for first through fifth graders. A librarian at one school told me she knew I had been in the building the day before when kids would come in asking to borrow the book about the mouse with funny name.

After Covid shut the world down last March, I decided to film myself reading it and put it up on YouTube, hoping to entertain kids stuck at home and help parents feel better about the endless amount of screen time they were now accommodating. It took about two weeks; every day I'd set up our lights and green screen and read the same fifty-two chapters I'd read hundreds of times before into my phone's camera, thinking of Terry and my students back in Newark, remembering which parts made them laugh and which parts made them scared and hoping any of that would translate through the tiny lens I was now performing my ridiculous French accent in front of.

After I finished and posted it, I mostly forgot about it; I had moved on to writing my own children's book and sending out essays every Saturday and also moving to Mexico.

I don't tend to dwell.

I would get occasional emails when someone left a comment, thoughtful messages from kids like "You're the GOAT for helping me with my homework," and "I love the French mom sound," and "DESPEROOOOOOOO." Parents and teachers also left notes, thanking me for helping with their virtual learning or telling me how their little one hadn't sat still for any story, but really enjoyed following along with me.

But it wasn't until this week that I really opened the channel back up and found it had over two hundred and fifty thousand views, with entire classes from all over working their way through the book. After recovering from seeing that number, I spent a couple hours reading through the comments and after the tenth "WHERE DID YOU GO?! PLEASE READ MORE BOOKS PLEASE," I decided to start another classic I loved sharing with my kids, Roald Dahl's The Witches.

After I finished today’s chapters, I sat for a while and thought of Terry. I calculated he would astonishingly now be in his early twenties, nearing the age I was when I first sat across from him at that shiny dining room table, laughing about French accents and sharing in the light all good stories reveal, illuminating the shared parts of ourselves in their brilliance.

Read the Tale of Despereaux of with me here

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash