Feature Article Attribution: Queensland State Archives @ Flickr
One day I went to the Celebration of Writing.
It was today actually; but as I learned at the event, good stories usually start with “One day…”
The participants were the 26 kids in my girls’ kindergarten class.
They had been working on writing and revising their stories in “Writers’ Workshop” for the last several weeks, and today was the day they presented them to an audience of their classmates and whichever parents could get away at 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday. (I wasn’t the only dad there, but I was the sawdustiest one.)
It was really cute, of course, and brought into focus, as a number of school visits have for me, that the skill levels in a kindergarten class are all over the map.
The quality and content of the presentations ran the gamut, including vibrant, detailed drawings, droll humour, compelling narratives, scrawls, smudges, illegible quasi-letters, unintelligible mumbling, stage fright, and of course, tears.
The children were quite patient and supportive, allowing their classmates to present, and offering only positive comments and applause. It reminded me of the handful of open-mic reading events I have suffered through participated in.
But this was much more adorable.
When Twin A (not her real name) got up to speak, my heart swelled with pride before she even did anything to elicit such a response. (Okay, my heart is pretty much always swollen with pride about these kids, but it got a little more so as she took the mic.)
Her drawing was elaborate, neat, and creative, including multiple characters, a building, sky, sun, and five or six shopping carts. The crowd oohed and ahhed. (Fine. They oohed ahhed for everyone–but this seemed sincere).
Her story was strong, well-paced, and included four characters and no less than three plot points.
But the transcription was, shall we say, lacking.
The point of this project, aside from achieving some buy-in for the students (writers know that an audience changes everything), was to get them to write their stories just by using their emerging skill of sounding out words.
The teacher didn’t spoon feed them the spellings.
Some kids had fully-formed words that were mostly spelled correctly, some had attempts that were misspelled but made phonetic sense, some had their own personal cryptography that only they could decipher.
Twin A’s story, like all of them, started out, “One day…” After that, the text comprised just the first letter of each word that she recited, interspersed with a handful of words she knows how to spell from memory, or that are on the classroom’s word-wall: “a,” “and,” “we,” “went,” etc.
Despite the minimalism of the written script, she nailed the delivery, and seemed pleased with herself. I gave her a woo-hoo and a thumbs-up.
About twenty kids later, it was Twin B’s turn.
Her picture was lovely, detailed, and colorful.
Her story was not as complex as her sister’s, and yet it had some emotional resonance.
Her spelling? Her spelling kicked ass.
There were audible “wow’s” from the parents in the audience, and the teacher gave her an extra lavishing of praise, pointing out words she had spelled all by herself like “invitashun” [sic] and “bithday”[sic]. Twin B smiled and returned to her seat as I enthusiastically signalled my approval to her.
Moments later, as one of the last students was finishing up, Twin A sidled up to me, with a facial tic that was unmistakable.
No. Not now. Not here. Come ON! What is this even about?
“You gave her two thumbs up; but only gave me one,” she said, her face collapsing into a quiet sob.
“I did? No. I don’t think I did.” Did I? “If I did, it was probably just because I was holding my phone in my other hand. To make the video, you know.” (I know, right? I can really think on my feet.)
The promise of post-reading cookies and juice got her through the next couple minutes.
The consumption of said cookies moments later seemed like they had created some perspective, and left the despair caused by my alleged transgression in the past. Forgiven and forgotten.
I rushed the kids off to ballet, and then we goofed off in the park for a while before heading home for dinner.
Everything was good.
Once we were at home, both the girls settled into their most common activity, drawing pictures and writing words.
Twin A asked me to help her sound out a word.
Before we could get through it, though, Twin B blurted out the spelling.
A’s eyes got wet. Her chin wiggled under the down-turned corners of her mouth.
“SHE ALWAYS GETS EVERYTHING RIGHT!!” she wailed. “She always knows how to write the words and I don’t.” From there it devolved into gasping and snuffling.
I carried her into the kitchen, trying to explain to her that everyone learns at a different pace. “Everyone is different!” Twin B hollered from the playroom, unhelpfully.
I continued with my pep-talk, pointing out to the blubbering child in my arms that she is the one who can ride a bike with no training wheels, that she is the one who can ride a boogie board in the ocean–there are plenty of things that she can do that her sister can’t.
“But…” she sobbed, “But…but I wanted to be the best one at the Celebration of Writing!”
Oh Lord. Here it comes.
My wife and I “joke” that Twin A is my child and Twin B is hers. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s kind of true. So when I see “my” child acting like I have historically been known to act, I worry.
This was me as a kid, and it only got worse when I was a teenager: If I wasn’t good at something on the first couple tries, I didn’t want anything more to do with it.
I was going to find the thing I was The Best In The World at, and pursue it with all my energy–the hell with all that other crap–even if it was a thing that no one else did or cared about.
It left me with quite a few regrets about all the things I now suck at that I could have achieved competency in.
“Look, sweetie,” I said. “You can’t be the best at everything. Nobody can.
People are all good at different things.
But you’ll get better at writing. It’s just that it kind of ‘clicked’ for your sister, and so she’s a little ahead of you right now. It will click for you soon, I promise.”
Before today, I hadn’t realized the extent to which the writing hadn’t clicked for Twin A.
Both of the girls spend hours almost every day on the playroom floor, making up stories or notes to their friends and writing them out.
Twin B asks for help sounding the words out.
I enunciate loudly from the kitchen, where I’m goofing around on the internet doing research or washing dishes.
But when I try this tactic to help Twin A, she says she’s tired of sounding out–she just wants me to spell it for her.
So I usually do.
I figure they’ve been doing this all day in school, so I’ll give her brain a little rest.
Meanwhile, Twin B is clicking all over the place.
I barely have to prompt her at all.
The snuffles subside, and Twin A wants me to help her write all the colors of the rainbow.
“I want to be the best at the next Celebration of Writing,” she says. “So I’m going to fill up my whole book with words that I sound out! And we can do extra words in the workbook too! Every day!”
“Uh…okay.” This is definitely not me as a child. This is some other child. I would have retreated into my room for a good long sulk. “I mean, ‘That’s the spirit!’ Let’s do this!”
And then I temper my enthusiasm with some gradeschool wisdom I have recently gleaned: “But remember…you are only competing with yourself; school isn’t a contest.”
She doesn’t seem to hear that. Whatever.
For the next hour, we sound out everything from red to purple (what ever happened to indigo and violet?) and beyond. We do some rhyming words and some common words, and some words of nearby objects.
My wife walks in through the back door to see me, Henry Higgins-like, squishing our child’s face into the shape it needs to be in to make the right sound, and tapping on her chest to indicate that that’s the sound she needs to listen to herself say and recognize as being represented by a certain letter, and write that letter down on the paper.
I’m grunting and gesticulating and occasionally bursting out.
“Yes! That’s it! Of course! Finally!” I’m exasperated and excited, and my wife tells me maybe we should take a break.
But the kid is loving it.
My wife walks into the kitchen and puts a skillet on the stove, lighting the burner with a sharp CLICK.