The treasure of a simple gift

Several years ago, a call went forth from our community's schools for literacy volunteers. Though I had trained to teach reading to adults, I decided to try my skills with children.

Most of the pupils I worked with just needed more one-to-one attention and affirmation that they could succeed in reading and in school. However, some, like Elizabeth, were stubborn. Every week I had to state firmly that she practice her reading first, and then I made sure there was a bit of time for drawing or a board game.

Last year I met Marc. Scrawny was the best word for this slip of a boy with black hair. I could feel a current of anger flowing through this 10-year-old who tried to portray a tough-guy image. But his wistful brown eyes spoke of a deep longing for something.

Marc was one of the stubborn ones who didn't want to read. He pouted and slammed the books on his desk. He made little effort to write complete sentences or to use good penmanship. At times his vocabulary bordered on swearing, and I'd remind this fourth-grader not to use such language in my presence. Over the months, his anger continued to boil to the surface. I tried to satisfy his desperate need for encouragement, but considering his age and that he was a boy, I kept my praises verbal and only offered an occasional pat on the back.

Once day after Marc completed a middle-grade novel and successfully passed his quiz, he earned a chance to select a prize from the treasure chest. Marc had worked hard for that award, and when he returned to his desk, I complimented him.

"You've done such a great job, I'd really like to give you a hug."

Silently, Marc fiddled with the toy bank he had chosen. Just as the gaggle of children prepared to return to their classes, Marc wrapped his arms around me. I gave him the hug I had longed to offer, and he ran off.

For our remaining months together, Marc was a model student. His eyes shining, he breezed through most of his work, and he claimed a hug after each session. The anger inside him began to subside. We celebrated our last time together with a gift from me, and glumly sat looking at each other.

"I will miss you," I said. And it was true. No other student had snatched my heart like this scrawny boy dressed in muddy jeans and a black T-shirt.

"Me, too. I've had a lot of fun with you," Marc answered. We hugged for the last time, and he walked backward toward the class, waving. Because the literacy program wasn't offered for fifth-graders, I wondered if I'd ever see him again.

This fall, I received a packet of information for returning volunteers, and spoke with the overseeing teacher. For a brief, joyful moment, it appeared that Marc's current grade might be part of the program, and that I could be his mentor. But due to budget cuts, the decision was made to tutor only the lower grades.

Someone from the school called me with the sad news. "But," she added, "I spoke with Marc's teacher, and she'd like you to come and work with him. Give him a little extra attention in math."

Math? Oh, dear, I thought. I barely squeaked through my college math classes, but the desire to work with Marc was greater than my phobia.

So once a week for 30 minutes, Marc and I struggle to make sense of his arithmetic assignment. We laugh over our mistakes while he inserts comments about his life and what is troubling him. I listen and encourage. I know better than to think that our short time together will solve all his problems. But the lift in his step and the hope in his eyes have shown me that perhaps the simplest gift of a weekly hug has made a difference in Marc's small world.

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