The Best Gift

16 06 2011

Already it seems like the end of school was forever-ago, but only two weeks have passed since the last day of school.  That last day was filled with tears and smiles as we said good-bye to our fifth graders, most of whom we had had for two years now and all of whom were heading for middle school.  My desk was piled high with gifts: beach towels, lotions, gift cards, all the usual teacher gifts that say, “We appreciate all you’ve done.”  A warm feeling of accomplishment filled the air: in my students for having survived yet another year of school, and for me that my job with this group was done.   Yet amidst all the gifts, one stood out from the rest, although I didn’t realize it until I got home.  There under all the fancy gift wrap and pretty bags was a plain envelope, addressed To Mrs. Eberhard,  inside a story handwritten in pencil, with lots of misspellings and punctuation mistakes.  It was, quite literally, the rest of the story.

You see, about two weeks before, our class had been lined up outside the P.E. room door.  One of our students (I’ll call her Tara) noticed a hole in the cement wall and wondered why it was there.  I suggested to Tara that there was probably a story inside that hole.  Tara got that “lightbulb” look on her face, and at lunch and later at recess I noticed she was hurriedly scribbling away on a small notepad.  On the way in to class after recess, she read to me what she had written:  the start of a story about several children who had found a portal to another world in their P.E. wall.  Interesting, I thought.  Maybe next year I’ll take the kids for a walk around the school to look for stories.  Then in the bustle of wrapping up the school year, I forgot all about her story, assuming that Tara’s interest would also wane and the story would be left unfinished.

Not so.  In the envelope that last day of school, I found the rest of the story.  And it was quite a good story, too.  Her voice shone through as her characters discovered made an exciting discovery, the story built to a climax, and then loose ends were tied up.  Through it all, her sentence structure, vocabulary, and word choice were clear evidence that somehow, some way, Tara had become a writer.

When Tara had come to me at the beginning of fourth grade, her writing was basic at best.  Short, choppy sentences.  Phrases that didn’t make sense.  Between her poor handwriting and even worse spelling, many times I could not even read what she had written.  The change did not happen overnight, nor was it a simple path of me teaching her a skill and her learning and applying it.  Without realizing it, I had turned her on to reading by introducing her to American Girl books.  Her mother related to me that instead of having to drag Tara to the library and force her to read books, now she was devouring books as though they were chocolate.

Yes, I had taught her writing lessons that gave her the building blocks of writing.  Yes, I had used mentor texts to point out how authors applied their craft.  Yes, I did model each skill as I introduced it to the class.  But I would have blinders on to say that I made the change in her, that I had made her into a writer.  Tara’s transformation was the result of six years of consistent, directed teaching.  It was the result of a school media center that stocked children’s books that appealed to a variety of interests.  It was the result of former teachers maintaining an interest in their students, encouraging them to continue striving for that next level of excellence.  It was the result of a school environment that valued achievement, but at the same time valued the worth of each student, no matter how gifted each was.

No better gift can a teacher be given than evidence such as this story that she has made a difference in the life of a child.  But, if I may be critical, I must point out that the envelope was labeled incorrectly.  Instead of reading, “To Mrs. Eberhard,”  it should have said, “To Aiken Elementary.”