Launched into new worlds by learning to read

The story may have ended with 'The End,' but for this young reader, it's just the beginning.

The author's voice quivered a bit, betraying just a touch of nervousness.

He cleared his throat, brushed a thick lock of sandy hair from his forehead, and continued reading from his latest adventure story.

"Yesterday was my seventh birthday," he read, saying each word as if it was new.

"I was born on March 17, St. Patrick's Day," he continued and then held up the book so those gathered could see the illustration. When he caught my eye, he smiled at me, revealing the gap where soon his grown-up teeth would be.

My son Sean – with all his first-grade classmates – was presenting his latest publication at the Young Author's Tea at Oakview School.

It was the first such event his teacher, Mrs. Cathcart, had held for a class, even though she's been teaching for some time (she taught Sean's sister and brother before him).

"This class worked so hard on their writing this year," Mrs. Cathcart told the audience, her eyes bright with enthusiasm. "I thought they deserved this."

So the 7-year-olds invited their favorite grown-up types to a tea, the elementary-school version of a coffeehouse reading or bookstore signing.

Each child had written, illustrated, and "published" a book, and each read it for his or her audience of daddies and mommies, grandparents and aunts.

"Allison is a fish," read one little girl, telling her fantasy story of being a puffer fish.

"There is blue in the rainbow, bright as my eyes," read a little blonde from her book, "The Rainbow."

As I watched these children – these babies, really, with their gaptoothed smiles, mussy hair, and those sneakers that always come untied – I had to marvel at what their teacher had accomplished in that short school year.

After all, I knew that Sean entered first grade with a plucky determination, a great curiosity, and the ability to sign "Sean W." to all his colorful drawings. Not much to work with, admittedly.

But somehow Mrs. Cathcart took those very raw materials and – doing that sort of magic that only elementary teachers can do – made a reader not only of Sean, but of all his classmates as well, no matter what talents they brought to the "reading corner."

Using what can only be described as a mixture of hocus-pocus and "hooked on phonics," the teacher transformed what was previously just a bunch of letters on a page into words, and then from words into sentences, stories, and books – and, finally, into worlds to be visited, explored, and even written about.

All this, and they still get to have Fig Newtons and a juice box before playground time. Was there ever a more efficient way to spend a morning?

We all have many teachers in our lifetimes, and the smartest of us know that the learning doesn't end because the diploma's on the wall. Curiosity isn't confined to classrooms, and not every teacher has chalk dust on his or her hands.

Still, I do believe there's something special about the teacher who first teaches you to read.

I remember very clearly my own first day of first grade. I sat near the back of the classroom and stared into my religion book as Miss Corcoran, a strict spinster with a straight back and a multitude of colored A-line jumpers, explained the sounds of the words on the page. As she taught us to make each sound and then combine the sounds into words, a flame started to glow – and then burn – inside me. I was ready.

I wanted more than anything to read the words on the page.

I whispered to myself, afraid of stumbling but even more afraid not to try.

"David and Ann love God," I read, my very first sentence, the first of many.

The fire was set.

Of course, flames don't always burn so quickly or so bright. Although under Mrs. Cathcart's care, my daughter, Courtney, mastered reading along with her classmates, Steven had a harder time. The idea of reading an entire chapter book seemed frustrating and impossible to my older son.

Yet, with the patience possessed only by first-grade teachers, Mrs. Cathcart continued to stoke that fire, using a variety of strategies and a diversity of books and games to keep the flame alive.

It may not have been easy, but it was important – and it's amazing to think that, at the same time, she was doing the same thing for Steven's 25 classmates as well, bringing whatever "fuel" they needed to keep the fire bright.

This year, I watched as Sean – as hard-working and determined as any child I've known – made his own miracles happen. Letter combinations became words, words became sentences, and a new fire – built with the guidance of a teacher – burns, scaring away the shadows of illiteracy with its promise of communication and ideas.

So the tea we attended was a celebration, and the cookies, muffins, and punch with sherbet were mere accompaniment to the real attraction that day – a group of children who, in the short span of a school year, had worlds opened to them.

They glowed as they read their work to us, proud in the knowledge that now they can create their own worlds and capture them forever with a No. 2 pencil, some construction paper, and the power of reading.

As he read his book, my own young author glanced at his teacher for reassurance. She caught his eye and smiled.

Smiling back, he turned to the last page in his book.

"The End," he read to his enrapt audience.

But as I applauded, I knew that – thanks to his teacher – it was really the beginning.

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