Thursday, December 17, 2009

In Which I Find the Christmas Spirit

Today I bought my first gift of the season.  And it wasn't for my son, or my husband, or any of my family members or close friends.  It was spur-of-the-moment for a student.  Here's how it went down:

I've worked with this student for the past three years.  She had three babies in three years, started young and ended up in my program because it's one of the few (if not the only) GED programs where you can bring your infants and toddlers and get parenting and early childhood classes along with GED training.  She has taken her GED test twice now.  She's failed twice.  She arrived at school this morning feeling discouraged about the second failure, even though we know that test scores improve and students get closer to passing each time they try.  She was struggling.  Struggling with failure, with making the same commitment again and again without demonstrable success, with what felt like starting over.  We all know these struggles, in one form or another.

I have watched this mother blossom over the past three years.  I've watched her totally overwhelmed with three kids under three, drowning in diapers and short-tempered, disappearing sometimes for weeks or maybe months, moving from crisis to crisis, apartment to apartment, job to job.  I've watched her pick herself up, dust herself off, determine her next move and then make it, repeatedly.  And I could see on her face how disappointed she was that she didn't pass her test.

So I changed the subject and we started making small talk about the weekend.  She told me she went to see the movie Precious, and how her aunt told her it was based on a book, and now she was dying to read the book.  I cried for her!  she said.  I left that movie and I was cryin' because it was so wrong what happened to her.  If there's a book that tells that story, I want it.  I want it so bad!

The underlying philosophy of my program is that literacy can eliminate poverty.  We are mandated to work with families who are incredibly impoverished, as well as illiterate.  They come into our program with no high school diploma and one or more very young children to raise.  We teach them to read, and to be their child's first teacher.  The story we tell them--by way of our mandate and our mission--is that if they learn to read, if they ensure their children learn to read, that they can stop the cycle of generational poverty.  Sometimes that story is true, and sometimes it's not.  There are a lot of variables that come into play besides literacy.  But it's such a wildly romantic notion and true often enough that I fall in love with my job over and again as I watch these families work toward a better future, led by love for their babies.  Sometimes it's a love they never received from anyone and never learned how to show their kids until they walk into my classroom full of parents just like themselves: coming from nothing but bound and determined to get somewhere better, beginning that journey by way of words, sustained by stories both written and spoken.  We gather in circles and read our babies board books, we speak our way through parenthood together, sharing stories to inspire and nourish ourselves, each other, our children.  Hearing one of my students talk about wanting a book so bad is like manna for my ears!

I walk quickly from the classroom to my office and call Barnes and Noble, which is just a few miles from our center.  They put a copy of Push by Sapphire at the counter for me.  I read this book myself about 5 years ago, and I remember sitting, curled on the couch, sobbing large, choking sobs into my quiet home as I read it.  I know that stories can hurt and stories can heal.  I want this experience for her too.  I ask the other teachers if they can cover the classroom for 20 minutes, and I speed down the boulevard to buy it.  When I return, I hide it in my office until the end of the morning.  I call her into my office, slip it from the bag and hand it to her.  Her whole face lights up, her arms open and she hugs me.

I'm goin' home to read this RIGHT NOW!!!  she says.  FUCK lookin' for a job!!!

My face breaks into a huge grin.  Now, there's a girl after my own heart!  And if that doesn't catapult me right into the Christmas spirit, I don't know what will.  I guess I should go figure out how a gift-hating gal such as myself will celebrate the season of giving: what stories do I want to compose for my family this Christmas?  And do you think I can I get away with telling my one year old that Santa sent him a library card from the North Pole?  'Cause that sounds to me like a gift that keeps on giving!

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