This post first appeared on the Scholastic Book Fairs Reader Leader blog.
He came to me with anger seeping out of every pore, a cloud of dismay surrounding him. Looking at us with eyes that told the world that he was not afraid, that he knew that we could not make him do whatever it was we intended to ask. That he would fight us with every cell in his body just to stay in control. Yet, for all of his anger, for all of his glances directed my way, he wasn’t one of mine. I didn’t have the pleasure of teaching him. He was in a separate English class, trying to be taught all of those things he had missed because of his anger and outbursts.
He wasn’t afraid of me, nor very angry. I posed no threat since I was not one of the ones asking him to please do, please sit, please stop. So every day I greeted him, smiled when our paths crossed, and told him that all of those books I had in my classroom could be his if only he wanted to read one. That even if he wasn’t mine, those books were still meant for him. Every day, he smiled and went on his way, seeing little need for any of the books I might have to share. As the weeks passed, he grew. He pushed his boundaries as children can do so well, always inching along that very fine line of control and struggle. I watched from afar; after all, he was not mine, so all I could do was smile and nod and remind him of the books that awaited.
One day, he didn’t just smile, but instead asked in all earnestness, “When can I be your student? When can I come to your class?" It wasn’t because he didn’t like the class he was in, or the teacher who taught him, but the books were calling, as they often do to so many kids that feel lost. I smiled and shrugged, repeated that the books were there for him whether he was mine or not. For weeks this played out until one day, he entered our classroom and I held my breath; after all, now he was mine, now I was one of the ones that would ask him to stop, to sit, to do. And I was scared of what would happen.
He sat quietly that first day in class. Bent his head and wrote ever so slowly, picking out his words with care, wanting so much to fit in and not just be known as that kid with anger issues. As the other students cleared out, he lifted his head, looked at the clock and asked, “Is it now? Can I pick my book now?” And he walked to the shelf of the book he had eyed and grabbed it, holding on to it as if I would ask him to put it down. “What do I do now?” he asked. “You read it,” I said, “And then you bring it back.” “That’s it?” “That’s it.”
So he left that morning, clutching Amulet: Book 1 to his chest as if it were a safety blanket. And I figured that the minute he left our classroom, that book would be forgotten; his day would develop, and soon our conversation would be a distant memory as his ingrained behaviors clouded his judgment once again. So I wasn’t surprised when at lunch he walked up to me and handed me back the book. “Did you not like it?” I asked, already running a possibility of other titles in my head that I could offer him. “I am done,” he said. “Done? But I thought you were so excited to read it?” I asked, my voice laced with confusion. “I did...I loved it...Can I have the next one please? I promise to bring it back.” He had read it already. He had fallen in love with a book. He was ready for the next one. For one moment in that day, he was just a kid who loved a book, just a kid like all the other kids, asking for the next book in a series that had spoken to him. So we walked into our classroom, found the next book and he left, clutching it to his chest once more, ready to wrestle anyone who would try to take it away.
We fall in love with books when they speak to us. When within their pages, we find a piece of ourselves we didn’t know we were missing. We clutch these books to our chests long after we have stopped reading them as a way to shield us from a world that we sometimes do not understand. Books become absorbed into our identity and allow us to risk, to love, to care about something even when we feel the most vulnerable. Even when we feel the world is not for us, we can find safety within the pages of a book. That is why my classroom is filled with books--so that every child has a chance to find a piece of armor, so that every child has a chance to find a vessel that will hold his dreams and protect them when they need to be. My students may not understand each other’s pasts, each other’s behaviors, but they understand books, and so when a child falls in love with a book and it becomes part of him, it builds a bridge for others to understand that child better. For others to be let in.
Books provide us with the magic that we dream of as teachers. Books, whether fiction or non, chapter or picture, give us the building blocks that we need to connect with our hardest students. To connect with those that we sometimes feel at a loss to reach. That boy didn’t stop being angry. He didn’t stop feeling that the world was out to get him, but he did start believing that somewhere in the world was a place for him to fit in. That he too could be a reader, that he too could belong. That his anger would not be the only thing that defined him, even when it spoke the loudest. That boy knew he had a home with us whenever he needed it. He still does, even though he is no longer around. My door is always open, the books always calling out for anyone who needs to belong, if even for a moment. I will never forget that boy and his book.