Reading is more than fundamental

For the past few months I’ve spent about 30 minutes a week reading to first graders at a nearby elementary school. It’s part of a volunteer program for senior citizens, a group to which, I suppose, I now belong. At least I get frequent reminders from AARP that I qualify.

I volunteered originally because I thought it an excellent opportunity to contribute something to society without having to do any actual work. I once considered Habitat for Humanity but wrecked shoulders and a balky back make saws and hammers too risky. And I was never too good at carpentry anyway. I once built a dog house that dogs refused to enter.

And my wife shudders every time I pick up an electric saw. “You’ll cut your hand off!” she admonishes. So reading to children seemed to be an ideal way to give something to the community while preserving my fingers from the ravages of power tools.

It also allows me to pass along to the next generation of texters, Internet browsers and video game addicts my love of books. Perhaps I can instill in one or two of them that books offer something more substantial than anything they get from computer games.

As I said, I started the process with grand illusions that I was providing a service to children in Mrs. Boerner’s first grade class at Nelson elementary. I was at least partly mistaken in that assumption.

I do show up most weeks and read for 30 minutes. But I’m pretty certain I’m getting more out of the exercise than I’m contributing. If you need your ego fed, sit in a rocking chair surrounded by 20 six and seven-year old children glued to your every word, anticipation etched in every little face, joy shining in every pair of eyes. And if you miss a day, as I did when a conference conflicted with reading day, the question “where were you the last Monday?” from an angelic little girl with real concern on her face reminds you that this 30 minutes a week is important to them.

Today was the first time I’d read to the class since the week before Christmas break. Holidays, my schedule conflicts and some test days took most of January. “We missed you,” several first graders said as they marched into class from their afternoon recess. I was touched. So I put a little more oomph in my delivery of Dooby, Dooby Moo and Max’s Dragon. The class listened with rapt attention.

First graders have little in the way of insincerity. Subtlety plays no role in their communication. They don’t hide emotions very well. They enjoyed the books today. They smiled a lot. They asked questions.

And when we finished the last book and I was gathering things up to leave, I got paid for doing volunteer work. Mrs. Boerner presented me with a stack of folders the children had made for me. They had drawn pictures on colored construction paper and wrote short notes thanking me for coming to read to them.

They told me what their favorite books have been. One said “your books are asam (awesome). We all love your books. Happy Noow yers.” Some just drew pictures of a man sitting in a rocking chair with a book. I got the message.

And one little girl told me that if I gave their teacher a compliment about how good they were they would have enough (compliments) to earn popcorn.

This is always a well-behaved, attentive group of children and I am always impressed with the job Mrs. Boerner is doing. These guys deserve some popcorn.

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