EVERY SO OFTEN I get the urge to save the world, as long as my heroism doesn’t take up too much time and can be conveniently located. So when I saw an opportunity to volunteer at a nearby elementary school for 30 minutes a week, I jumped at the chance, inasmuch as I have ever “jumped” in my life. Once a week, I would sit with a first-grader as she read a book, and help her practice her reading skills. This I could do: I love to read and boy, can I sit—I can outsit anyone. And I can usually get through 30 minutes of anything without something going too horribly wrong. Usually.
I’ve loved to read since I was in kindergarten. When I was in third grade, I found my older sister’s copy of Love Story. I finished it one afternoon after school, and I called my mother at work, sobbing. “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” I wailed. Mother did have a few things to say, most of them invective-laden. Nonetheless, I was undeterred. Even now, book stores make me swoon, and nothing would make me happier to pile up all the books I’ve ever loved and roll around in them naked. (Please don’t tell the Minneapolis Public Library.)
So there on the first day of my new selflessness, I sat on a tiny chair in the school library, waiting for Andrea. The small, dark-haired girl bounced toward me nonchalantly on flashing sneakers, running her hands along the edges of the bookshelves. We chatted. She told me she was 5 years old, was in first grade, and that her teacher was Mrs. Johnson. She noted she was the youngest in her family: “My parents have four children. I’m one of them.”
Andrea opened the book she had chosen, Go, Dog. Go! At her age, kids have mostly learned the alphabet and are working on mastering the sounds and how letters pair up with other letters. Andrea bowed her face a few inches from the first page, upon which there was a fanciful drawing of a dog on roller skates. There was a single word on the page, and Andrea put her grimy little index under the first letter.
“D-d-d….” This letter was easy for Andrea. D isn’t co-dependent, relying on surrounding letters to determine how it sounds.
“O….” Andrea tested the vowel. Her voice was soft, and as I leaned in to hear her sound it out, I could smell the remnants of lunch on her breath; who knew 5-year-olds were capable of halitosis? But Andrea wouldn’t know what kind of O it is until she gets to the next and last letter of the word. I wondered if, to a beginner, all the lines and curves of letters looked like just a jumbled bunch of discarded stereo wires.
“Guh, guh,” she murmured. Very, very slowly, she sounded out all three letters together. My heart was racing, my palms sweating. I felt like a midwife: I wanted to yell, “Push! Push!”
Here was this sweet, bright child, so small beside me, earnestly trying to crack the code, and I wanted it so badly for her. I wondered if this was how over-invested Little League parents feel; it was more torturous for me than her. I was anguished, astonished. Fer cryin’ out loud, I thought. It’s soooo obvious! Look at the picture!
“Dog!” Andrea fairly cries out.
And so it went for the next 20 minutes. The bell rang, and Andrea slumped in her chair, exhaling triumphantly with a slight smile on her face, the book not finished. It was a slow start for me, too, this saving of the world, one word, one half-hour at a time. And I wanted to tell Andrea that someday it would all make sense, these stupid letters would come together to form beautiful sonnets, magnificent stories about white whales, and banal Twitter.com entries.
Andrea and I met in the library the next week, and the next, until the end of the school year. We eventually finished Go, Dog. Go! We never did get to Love Story.