May 13, 2010
Kristin Hummel's second-grade class at Blanchard Elementary School decided to write a how-to book this year. First the students listed things some of them already knew how to do, like tap dance, throw a football and play Monopoly -- nothing to second-graders. Next they listed things they wanted to learn how to do. This list was much more exotic. Included: catch a shark, get on "American Idol," do a back flip, protect yourself from a lion, skydive and get a monkey's attention.
This wasn't going to be as easy as ABC.
Once students picked a single topic, Ms. Hummel, communication arts teacher Ms. Pattengill and I helped them research their subject and write their contribution to "How To ?" They included an explanation of why they wanted to learn the skill and drew pictures of themselves doing something they previously didn't know how to do.
Things like help abused animals, ride a fast motorcycle, catch a squirrel, play softball, write her name in Japanese, drive a stretch Hummer, be an artist, braid hair, be a cheer captain, build a house, make clothes "because we need more clothes on the planet Earth," hold a snake carefully ("You can't go in a party place while you are holding a snake"), decorate cupcakes ("pink tastes good on cupcakes"), make nail polish, bake a cake, ride a roller coaster, cook tuna ("I can cook everything else but tuna"), do magic tricks and take care of puppies.
A feat that seemed an impossible mystery to them at the start eventually became no more or less than a problem they could solve by educating themselves. At the end they'd also co-written a book. What will they be capable of when they graduate in 10 years?
In 2000, my Christmas letter described a silent, sad-eyed 8-year-old whose school gave him extra food at lunch because the teachers and staff knew he didn't get enough to eat at home. He cared for his parents better than they cared for him. The furnace in the family's rented house didn't always work, and he worried when the weather began turning cold. When winter came he wore a ragged blue bathrobe to school because he had no coat.
This little boy didn't know what a toy was.
When a teacher friend told us about him that Christmas, some friends of ours brought their young children to the teacher's house to meet him. These children were growing up in much more favorable conditions. They brought the boy gifts of a bicycle, a coat and lots of toys, but they didn't know what to say to him.
The little boy didn't know what to say either. The tiniest of smiles played on his face.
Maybe we felt a little better for giving him the Christmas gifts he'd never had, but everybody knew shiny new things wouldn't change his reality.
People did. He did. When his father died a few years later the little boy was taken out of the home and placed with a foster family. He still lives with the same family.
In a week they will watch him graduate from a high school where as a pole vaulter on the track team a formerly sickly little boy learned how to fly. The boy who spent much of his childhood taking care of his parents now plans a career in nursing.
He is having two graduation parties -- one for friends and one for family. He has invited his elementary school principal and our teacher friend to his family party.
On our last day together, Ms. Hummel's class gave me priceless handmade thank-you cards and framed photographs of the class. We're smiling in one and making funny faces together in the other. I never make funny faces and don't smile excessively, but I do when I go to Blanchard School.
Beneath the photographs Ms. Hummel wrote: "While we teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is about."
Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.