Giving the gift of reading in more ways than one

Richard's reading ability was a mystery to me. While most of his seventh-grade peers were self-motivated, eclectic readers who read a range of contemporary and classic books, Richard's independent reading choices were narrow and unsophisticated. Rarely prepared for class, he drifted from book to book, discarding most titles within days, if not minutes.

He had few friends and little ambition. During book talks and conferences, he either tuned out or turned silly, disrupting the class and irritating most of his peers. His reading progress was so fractured, I couldn't assess his independent reading comprehension, much less give him any valid grades. His records painted a picture of a child who'd never reached his potential because he'd been bounced from school to school.

I suspected that beneath Richard's fragile veneer was a boy who could read and learn much better than he was willing to let on, but I wasn't sure.

I met with his mother, a recent widow with too many kids and too few resources. "I know he's supposed to be reading at night," she said, "but he has to watch all the little ones until I get home, and then he sleeps on the couch and my boyfriend watches TV real late, so Richard doesn't have much quiet time to himself."

Life had thrown Richard enough curves, so while I urged him to sample books that could offer him meaningful literary experiences, I didn't chastise him for not doing his reading homework. In class, I often allowed him to flip through his No. 1 literary choice: the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes."

Yet I didn't give up on him. I tried to draw him into reading discussions; I offered him alternate assignments; I paired him up with avid readers; and I kept my eyes out for any book that might capture his interest and imagination.

One day he appeared at my desk with "Wizard's First Rule," a medieval fantasy several classmates had read and discussed enthusiastically. Animated and engaged, he described the book's warriors and wizardry and wonder, the power of the "Sword of Truth," and the protagonist's quest to keep three kingdoms from plunging into a time of evil.

Richard had finally connected with a book, and an 848-page epic at that. During silent reading time, he actually sat silently and read.

He managed to write about his reading with clarity and purpose. During class discussions, he listened and took part.

As he was finding meaning and joy in a book, he was also finding his way with his peers.

Then one day he came to class emptyhanded.

"Still reading 'Wizard's First Rule?' " I asked.

"Nope."

"Why not?"

"It was my cousin's book and he wanted it back."

"If I can get you your own copy, would you keep reading it?"

"Yes."

It seemed a simple request: $8 for a book for a needy child. But my principal informed me the book account was depleted. "Besides," she added, "that money wasn't earmarked for purchasing student gifts."

"Something's wrong when so little could mean so much," I countered.

She relented and the next day, Richard, who'd never had his own library card, and very likely had never set foot in a bookstore, finally got a book of his own.

A while later, Richard's family suddenly left town. I'd like to think that he finished his book. I'd like to think that he tucked it away for safekeeping and that a caring adult finagled a way to get him another. And I'd like to think that late at night, as his siblings sleep and his mother's boyfriend channel surfs, Richard is in a room of his own, and he is reading.

*Lynn Bonsey has been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in Southfield, Mich.

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