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Lessons Learned While Teaching the Alphabet

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This past week, I witnessed a miracle.

Let me back up. Last November I returned to work after spending the first three months of my son’s life figuring out how to keep a human alive, while also making most of the recipes I had pinned on pinterest. (But not the crafts. Why did I even pin those? I have been looking for a needle for three weeks now to sew up the hole my dog chewed in my pants and I can’t remember where I left my needles. Why I thought monogrammed anything was a possibility is beyond me.)

I sat down with my principal to make a schedule for working with small groups of students, my position this school year. I mentioned off-hand that I thought I should work with some kindergarteners because I believe in early intervention. Also, I’ve never worked with kindergarteners before and I wanted to know if it really is as hard as my kindergarten teaching friends say. (The answer to that question in a word: yes. In three words: I love it.)

I started pulling a group of three kindergarten students who did not know their letters. I very quickly fell in love with Alex. I already knew he was my favorite when he looked up at me after three weeks and said, “Ms. Wanson, you really meant it when you said you’d come get me every day!” Then he crawled into my lap for our read aloud.

This group quickly became the highlight of each day. When rearranging groups to prepare for our standardized test, my assistant principal looked at my schedule and asked why I was working with a K group. (Kindergarten not being a testing age.) Before she could say anything else, my principal said, “You can’t take away her K group. That’s why she gets out of bed in the morning.”

And it is true. When I cried about going back to work most days in December, my husband would say, “But what about Alex.” And he was sure to get an earful of Alex’s crazy antics from that day. Alex isn’t exactly a well-behaved student. My favorite students never are.

Last week it was my job to give Alex his reading test to see if he moved reading levels. He came to me in November without being able to pass the pre-reading test. In January he passed pre-reading (indicating he knows some of his letters and rhyming words) but threw a crying fit when I asked him to try spelling a few words.

I gave him the test. He knew all but three of his capital letters. He knew all but three of his lowercase letters. He knew all but eight of his letter sounds. He could match the beginning sounds of words. But then the miracle happened. I asked him to watch me read a book. I tapped on each word as I read. Before I could tell him it was his turn, he started reading.

And reading some more. He turned the page. And he read that page, and the next, and the next. And even when the pattern in the book changed, he ended the book with, “I like school.” The three words printed on that page.

I’ve always been an intermediate and upper grade teacher. I have never witnessed the moment when a child first starts to read, when the words are no longer sticks and circles but have suddenly become thoughts and ideas.

It was magical. It was this sacred miraculous moment. I am not exaggerating. My heart raced and the tears started forming. And all the while Alex just kept going, wanting to know what came next, not stopping once to think about the fact that HE COULD READ!

We finished the test and it turned out he can spell, too. Or at least enough to pass two more levels. I high-fived him and congratulated him. He grinned and jumped up and down. And asked if he could get a colored pen because he had passed his test and it was the nearest object to him. Who can blame him for being an opportunist?

Then he turned to me and said, “Am I not gonna come to you anymore?”

He realized what I had already known. That my time of working with him was ending. I had taught him and he had learned. He was ready to move to the next thing, and I wasn’t part of that next thing.

And it broke my mama heart.

Letting go. I am really not good at goodbyes, in whatever form they take. I am of the mind that every goodbye could be the last one, so make it count. Or better yet, avoid it altogether.

But the problem is that I can’t avoid it. And sometimes I get stuck in the goodbyes, near and far. It brings up the fact that I am not, despite my every best effort and a whole lot of wishful thinking, in control of those goodbyes or when they come. Which frankly pisses me off. And the people who console me by telling me that those feelings are hormonal can take a trip off a cliff as far as I’m concerned. Maybe my feelings are hormonal. But they’re also real.

And yet, today I pulled a new group of kindergarten students. Without Alex. And there was little Joel, waiting to be loved, his pants nearly falling off and his nose dripping with a cold, eager to climb into the lap that Alex left empty.

Saying goodbye to Alex left space for me to say hello to Joel.

Does that seem worth it when Alex comes up to me in the hallway and says, “Are you going to come get me today? Don’t say no.”

To quote Anne Lamott, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

What I know is that Alex wasn’t able to read and now he can. And that’s a miracle. And by the grace of God, I got to be there to witness it. So if goodbyes are a reality I cannot avoid, then I’m glad that at least sometimes they come served with a side of miracle.

And I’m extra thankful when those miracles are packaged up in the form of kindergarteners.

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Kas Winters
    April 10, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    This made my heart grow two sizes today.

    • Reply
      Rachel
      April 10, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      Thank you. Alex makes my heart grow, too. 🙂

  • Reply
    Kas Winters
    April 10, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    This made my heart grow two sizes today.

    • Reply
      Rachel
      April 10, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      Thank you. Alex makes my heart grow, too. 🙂

  • Reply
    lenoraland
    April 14, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Oh my gosh this was so beautiful. I was crying practically from the first paragraph. Ok maybe the second. Love love love

    • Reply
      Rachel
      April 14, 2014 at 1:43 pm

      🙂 my students are such good inspiration.

  • Reply
    lenoraland
    April 14, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Oh my gosh this was so beautiful. I was crying practically from the first paragraph. Ok maybe the second. Love love love

    • Reply
      Rachel
      April 14, 2014 at 1:43 pm

      🙂 my students are such good inspiration.

  • Reply
    Kara Younkin Viswanathan
    April 14, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    I am going to send you Harrison, you will have him reading in no time!

    • Reply
      Rachel
      April 14, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      I would love to be his teacher!!!

  • Reply
    Kara Younkin Viswanathan
    April 14, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    I am going to send you Harrison, you will have him reading in no time!

    • Reply
      Rachel
      April 14, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      I would love to be his teacher!!!

  • Reply
    The Many Shades of Appreciation | Teacher. Reader. Mom.
    May 9, 2014 at 1:17 am

    […] days later Lanaeya and I were sitting in my classroom again when Alex, my favorite kindergarten student, flung open the door, breakfast in hand, tear-streaks on his […]

  • Reply
    The Many Shades of Appreciation | Teacher. Reader. Mom.
    May 9, 2014 at 1:17 am

    […] days later Lanaeya and I were sitting in my classroom again when Alex, my favorite kindergarten student, flung open the door, breakfast in hand, tear-streaks on his […]

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