The Most Precious Gift
He was an adorable child.
I was a nervous, inexperienced teacher.
In the two weeks I taught him and his classmates, I had one of the most memorable encounters of my life.
It happened like this:
Fresh out of college in the 1970’s I was unable to get a job interview, let alone a job, as a qualified high school English teacher.
Desperate to find any kind of job in education, I naively applied for a job teaching kindergartners in a poor neighborhood. The Catholic elementary school was so desperate for teachers they were willing to hire an unqualified instructor, at a very reduced rate of pay, of course.
No, I wouldn’t be teaching Dickens or Shelley to high school students.
I would be teaching a gaggle of five year-olds. How tough could it be?
The answer ,of course, is unbelievably tough. Frustrating. And life- changing.
I knew nothing about teaching at the elementary school level. Nothing about organizing curriculum for such young children. Nothing about how to control a large class of sweet but restless youngsters.
At home I blundered through a few books about teaching kindergartners, desperately trying to figure out what to do.
In class, each day, I did what I have always done best. I read to the children.
I asked them questions about their lives. And I read to them.
I had them draw pictures of themselves and their families. And I read to them.
I asked them to tell me about their favorite things. And I read to them.
I put up a huge mirror and asked them to tell me what they liked best about themselves when they looked in the mirror. And… I read to them.
They seemed quite happy with me. There were lots of smiles and hugs. But nagging at the back of my mind was the knowledge that I was not really serving them well.
These children came from large, often immigrant families. They lived in poverty, often without adequate food, in crowded tenements. But for most of them there was no scarcity of love.
Midway through the first day of school as lunch time began, a little boy called George came up to me with his hot lunch perched on a plastic tray, almost as big as he.
He smiled up at me with his bright brown eyes and said with rapture, “Oh, Mrs. B! Look at all this food! And I can have more if I want to!”
A little mound of mashed potato , a small slice of ground beef with gravy, a side of carrots. And a tiny dish of chocolate pudding with a squirt of whipped cream.
This was the meal that brought George such joy.
My throat tightened as it always does when I try to suppress a rush of tears. That this little boy should be so happy about such a plate of ordinary food. . .
I brushed aside a lock of his hair, smiled back, and said heartily, “Oh, George! That looks so good! I will get some too!”
Remember all that reading aloud I was doing all day long to the children?
Well, after two weeks of reading, reading, reading to my class, I literally lost my voice. My husband had to call in for me to say that I urgently needed to rest my throat and vocal cords and would not be back for at least a week, if not two. The school principal said she would find a substitute until I could return.
All that time, voiceless and sad, I thought about the children, and especially about little George. I thought about how inadequate I was as their teacher. How they deserved so much more, especially since they were literally at the stage of learning where a good foundation was so vital.
I needed a job. Yes. But not at the expense of these children and their educational requirements.
Two weeks later I returned to the classroom. The children were very happy to see me. They were happy too to show me what they were learning. The rudiments of letters and numbers. How to keep their papers neat and organized. Even some sight recognition of simple words like dog and cat, which the substitute teacher had labeled and displayed on big drawings throughout the classroom.
I knew what I had to do. After school was dismissed I went to the principal’s office. I told her I had to resign, effective immediately. The children now had a qualified teacher, with a degree in elementary education. She deserved her chance. I would not stand in her way, or the children’s need for a proper education.
The kindly principal assured me I could stay if I wanted to, but she did acknowledge that the new teacher was doing a splendid job with the class. Her words only reinforced my decision to step aside. For the children. And especially for little George.
A few years passed as I struggled to find work I felt I could do well. Finally, after achieving a Master’s Degree in Library Science, I found my true calling.
My first job was as a librarian in a school for severely handicapped children. This was before mainstreaming for handicapped children in public schools was readily available. Many of these children had never been to a public school or a public library. Most of them had not even visited the small library within their own special school.
Their teachers told me their students loved being read to.
Well! I was in my element at last!
I made it my goal to make sure every one of the children visited the school library once a week with their class. We would start with a bit of socializing and chatter, but after a few minutes I got down to business and opened a book.
And started to read aloud. To children who would lean forward eagerly in their wheelchairs to listen, to smile, and to laugh.
Because I learned quickly that no matter how disabled the child, even if they were unable to speak, they could laugh out loud. For the sheer joy of it.
With the same innocent joy as George, with his hot lunch tray all those years ago.