Encountering Readers…of the Wild Kind by Melissa Guerrette

Last Friday night while taking advantage of uncharacteristic free time I made a quick trip into the local mall to return a pair of shoes that had been an indulgent purchase. It had been a typical long day, capping off a challenging week of school. This would be my last stop of the night before I picked up junk food for dinner and drove home. The clock was quickly approaching 8:00 p.m.

I had hardly entered the shoe store when two 6th grade boys from my school came barreling towards me. I taught one boy in my 5th grade class last year and the second boy (I think) always wished he could be in my class. I wasn’t surprised to see these two friends hanging out at the mall on a Friday night—in the two years I’ve known them, they’ve been boys who concerned themselves with self-image, the perception of popular, and, more recently, making moves to impress the lady students. I was, however, surprised that they were headed towards me with such excitement.

“Ms. Guerrette!” Max exclaimed. “You gotta know…the first place we went when we got here was the bookstore!”

Ok—not what I was expecting. And honestly, for a fleeting moment I considered that maybe that was just an easy way to enter into conversation with me. I was conscious not to let my outward expression reflect my internal dialogue. I mustered up a response. “Oh cool! Did you get anything?”

Max’s disappointment showed immediately. “I wish you had been here, that would have been so perfect…” Todd was nodding emphatically. “I had a book I was looking for, but I couldn’t find it.”

We started to talk about the book. He had a title, and he knew it was about running (“I’m really into running now. I went to States for track you know!”), but that was where he ran out of information. He didn’t know the author. As I wished aloud that I could access Goodreads, Max thought he might be able to look up the author on his iPod—except he struggled to access the mall’s Wi-Fi.

All at once a salesperson arrived at the register to assist me, I apologized to the boys that the book search was not more successful, and they darted off to their next stop with a “It was nice to see you!” I completed the return, wrapped up polite conversation with the salesperson, and started the return to my car. It has been a productive trip with errands accomplished and a pleasant chance meeting with a couple students. Time to call it a day…a week.

I saw the boys again as I headed for the mall exit. Poking fun at myself, I whispered loudly to them on the way by that this was an historic event, and they should put it on the calendar. Naturally, their faces looked puzzled, and Todd asked what I meant. “I’m leaving here without a new book,” I explained. “I didn’t even go INTO the bookstore tonight!” Knowing of my nerdy addiction first-hand, they laughed with me.

With that, Max was on his feet and asked if I would go back to the bookstore with them. “Maybe with your help we can find that book I’m looking for.” And in a sudden turn of events, I was headed back in the direction I had come, the two boys talking to me about reading preferences all the way to the storefront.

“I don’t really know how to look for a book in a bookstore,” Max confessed. Conversationally, I asked about what genre he thought his book would be and the audience for whom he thought it was written, and we walked among the rows to find the biography section. Still, we struggled without knowing the author’s name. Of his own accord, he declared, “I’m ready to do it, I’m confident enough to do it.” As if he could read my questioning mind, he explained further, “I’m going to go ask the person at the counter if she knows about my book.”

I followed him, for moral support, as he took this new step towards independence. I was teeming with pride, not just in regards to this concrete action, but over his passion and commitment to find the book he had his mind set to read.

I admit it was tempting to jump into full-fledged teacher-mode, but I opted to follow the flow of our exchange. That Friday night they weren’t looking for Ms. Guerrette, the teacher. It wasn’t a lesson on using the library/bookstore they wanted. They were engaging Ms. Guerrette, the reader—so I elected to carry on that way. The teacher in me was moved by how remarkable it was to see the development of these boys as readers. (Max was a student who hid his reading in 4th grade because he was ashamed of his independent level; Todd must have reread Saving Zasha five times in 5th grade because it was his fallback book when he didn’t know what else to read.) I wanted to preserve our conversations, to bottle up the feelings of that genuine and authentic experience of what readers do in real life, “in the wild,” as described by Donalyn Miller (2013).

Those boys know not how they complimented me by talking to me about their reading life and allowing me to be a part of their book quest. Ultimately, the chance meeting with these boys served as validation that by choosing to share my reading life with students with such fervor and transparency, I’m impacting them in significant and lasting ways. The students with whom I interact are gaining another reader, maybe a mentor, in their reading community. The night’s events suggest to me that these boys view me as an experienced reader whom they can enlist as a support person as they continue their reading journey. What more affirmation could I need or desire?

Melissa Guerrette is a 4th grade teacher in Oxford, Maine. Her professional passion is empowering students and helping them uncover their individuality—as readers and as people—for themselves. Melissa is currently reading Flora & Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo. Max is planning to read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and Todd plans to read Duke, by Kirby Larson. You can follow Melissa on Twitter at @guerrette79.