She began almost every class after lunch by reading to us.
We were sixth-graders. She was our teacher during the class period right before lunch and the class period right after. The subjects she taught were English and Social Studies.
How could one possibly teach anything to adolescents before and after lunch? It was crazy . . . something that could only make sense to a middle school administrator.
Fifteen minutes. Sometimes twenty or more. She read to us as we digested our meals and cooled down from time on the playground. I can still hear Mrs Y’s voice. I can even remember many of the stories she read from books about twelve and thirteen year-olds like ourselves.
It was genius on her part, I think. Rather than fight to keep order in her classroom, all she had to do was hold out the promise of reading to us. If we became too unruly, she could always say that we’d not get this precious reward for good behaviour and attentiveness to our lessons. I never saw a classroom of students police itself with more vigilance than that one. We wanted to hear her voice (she read with the skill of an actress acting out the parts). And we wanted to hear those books.
She alternated between books about girls and books about boys. They were often the books many of our parents would have found scandalous back then. They were frank about growing up issues. And there was something healing about hearing them in the company of each other. It was a telling of the secrets in the presence of friends and enemies and across the lines of gender. We were all going through a lot. Mrs Y knew and understood. She wasn’t embarrassing any of us by pointing out the fact to individuals. Our dignity was uplifted by her helping us all grow in the company of each other.
It was a major investment of time. There were even some days when we pleaded with her to read more. And more than once she held out the reward of a whole class period of reading to us if we accomplished some of the major semester goals for one subject or the other. As I recall, we always did. Taking the time to read to us was an investment that paid off pedagogically — even though it wasn’t at all part of the official curriculum.
It wasn’t part of the official curriculum — but it worked on me as though it had been. The love of stories became a part of my understanding of the craft of being a historian. And the love of stories, of course, has undergirded my life-long love of literature.
Our time spent with Mrs Y reading was always ‘just our secret.’ She warned us not to tell anybody (especially her colleagues or the principal). But, now that she is done with this world, I will tell her secret . . . in order to thank her; and to inspire others to break with the official curriculum and teach their own students the love of stories read aloud.