Every morning Mr. Burns shakes my hand solemnly. “Good morning, Ms. Annie,” he says. Then he takes a quick poll. “Who wants to read with Ms. Annie today?” he asks the clump of gathered second graders. Hands shoot in the air. He carefully chooses four or five, writes their names on the board, and sends the first one to me. Sometimes it’s eager Sarah, who doesn’t actually seem to like the reading part much, but struggles through it to get to look at the pictures of ponies in her book and chat with me about her day. Other times I listen to the tale of the old lady who swallowed a fly with Stewart, who tells me all about his Halloween costume, or what they did in P.E. that day. Every kid has a different reading level, a different relationship with books, a different way of engaging with me. As much as I try to work with them on sounding out words and taking time to reread words they might have missed, I am often more focused on getting to know them, and giving them positive associations with reading. I try to laugh when the book is funny, to ask them what they like about a character, or what they think will happen, or if what just happened in the book has ever happened to them. At the end of my hour in Mr. Burns’ classroom, I tell him my time is up and he says, “Boys and girls, say goodbye to Ms. Annie”, and I hear twenty-five separate goodbyes as I head down the stairs and through the hallways to my next classroom.
I immediately know I’ve switched universes. I’m greeted with “¡Buenos días maestra!” and twenty kindergarteners swivel their heads back to observe the newcomer. Senora Alvarez sings the good morning song with the kids, and then introduces the day’s lesson. “Nuestras letras de hoy son p y t,” she says. She demonstrates how to write the letters correctly, and then sends me three of her students to work with for the next twenty-five minutes. Everything in this classroom is immaculate, structured, and precisely timed. The first time I saw the kids’ workbooks I wondered how she managed to get their names printed on the front with a computer, before realizing that it was just her handwriting. There are beautiful signs everywhere showing the colors, information about the weather, the seasons, the numbers, the alphabet. I work with my three students, struggling to resurrect my Spanish skills as I search for simple words like “chalkboard” and “zip up”. I praise their well-formed t’s and p’s, and remind them to start their letters from the top. Some days I consider it a success if everyone is in their seat at the same time. Some days they’re mellow and ready to be immersed in the work. No matter the day, this hour from 9:15 to 10:15 is inevitably the most eventful and engaging part.
I’ve been living in Walla Walla for four years, and working at Sharpstein Elementary school as a bilingual intern for the America Reads America Counts program is one of the first times I’ve ever truly felt connected to the community that exists outside of the Whitman campus. I chat with the teachers and ask about their backgrounds and experiences teaching at the school. I am constantly inundated with stories from the kids about their families, fears, joys, activities, and plain old weird thoughts. Some days I walk away from the building laughing about something funny a kid told me, and on others I huddle into my coat, feeling powerless after witnessing a child’s struggles as they try to navigate a calamitous world. No matter how I arrived at school, I always leave slightly transformed, and ready to fight again for a world in which all children feel safe, cared for, and listened to.