The Warmth of a Shared Experience by Cynthia Lord
When I do a school visit, teachers will sometimes confess to me that they cried while reading one of my novels aloud to their students. They’re often embarrassed, but I always say, “Oh, no. Please don’t feel that way. You may have changed a child’s life in that moment.”
That’s exactly what happened to me as a child.
I often joke that my dad only read two novels in the 70+ years between high school and his death last year. Those novels were mine: Rules and Touch Blue. He read them because he loved me, not because he loved reading.
My dad worked for Raytheon, my mom was a bookkeeper, and my sister was a computer programmer. So I come from a family of people who love math and the perfection and precision and predictability of numbers. Into that well-ordered family came me: a lover of wild, emotional, and gloriously imperfect words.
I remember the first word I ever read on my own. It was in a Dick and Jane book, and the word was “look.” I was sitting in one of those tiny first-grade chairs, staring at the letters and had a flash of understanding that l-o-o-k would always and forever be “look.” That word was the key to the kingdom of books and characters that would entertain me, teach me, and change me for the rest of my life.
But an experience is never all one thing. Along with that wonderful new joy of reading, came something that broke my six-year-old heart. Soon after that day, I brought my mom one of my favorite books. It was a little Golden Book called Santa’s Toy Shop (I still have it!). I asked her to read it to me, as she always had.
“No,” she said. Now that I could read to myself, I needed to do that so I would learn how. She never read aloud to me again.
Even that day I didn’t blame her, though. She said it with love. She knew the way to get better at something was to practice, and she saw reading as a set of skills, not unlike tying your shoes.
There is truth in that, but it’s not a whole truth. You and I know that reading is bigger than decoding. What I wanted that day was to sit beside her and hear her beautiful voice read the words fluently and have the chance to lose myself in the art. I wanted the warmth of a shared experience, not only an educational one.
When children ask me at school visits, ”Who inspired you to become a writer?” I always answer, “My teachers.” They are the ones who kept reading to me, even when I could do it for myself. They were the ones who made me a reader and a writer.
My high school English teacher, Mr. Schwertner, was the first person who ever said to me, “Cindy, you are a writer.” Never underestimate the raw power of “You are. . . .” statements to a student. I doubt Mr. Schwertner remembers saying those words to me all those years ago, but I’ve never forgotten them. His belief in me with that simple statement gave me the courage to begin to see myself as he saw me—as a writer. Because he said those words, I chose to take a writing class in college as an elective.
But I think my path as an author was really set in the third grade. That year I had a young teacher named Mrs. Keitt. Every day she let us draw while she read to us aloud. I can still see my desktop and my pencil doodling while she read Hurry Home, Candy by Meindert DeJong. In the story, Candy was a dog that was separated from her family and spent the book trying to get home. One day Mrs. Keitt stopped reading, mid-sentence. I looked up from my drawing to see why.
She was crying.
That moment with Mrs. Keitt changed me. It was a complete revelation to me that a book could be that powerful. I think she was only at our school one year, and yet she is one of the teachers of whom I have the most specific memories. She made me feel special and funny and smart and liked. And she loved reading so much that she let us see her be vulnerable and human and touched by the power of words.
A few years ago, I happened upon a copy of Hurry Home, Candy. I hadn’t seen that book since my childhood, and the cover was like finding an old friend. I didn’t remember the Newbery Honor seal on the cover, though. I burst into tears to see that silver seal. The third grade me would’ve been amazed to know I’d grow up to be an author and have one of those seals on a book of mine, too.
I have four books being published this year, including an early reader for my Hot Rod Hamster series with Derek Anderson. That book, Hot Rod Hamster And The Wacky Whatever Race, written for children just beginning on their own wonderful path as readers, is dedicated to someone who shined a light on that path for me.
To Mrs. Keitt who taught me to love reading.
Cynthia Lord is a former elementary and middle-school teacher and the children’s book author of Rules, Touch Blue, and her newest novel, Half a Chance (February 2014). She is also the author of the Hot Rod Hamster series, illustrated by Derek Anderson (including Hot Rod Hamster Monster Truck Mania coming at the end of March), and the Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series, illustrated by Erin McGuire (Fall 2014), all published by Scholastic. She lives in Maine with her family, a dog, a guinea pig, and two bunnies. You can visit her at http://www.cynthialord.com.
Wow! You remind me that my words to my students hold such power. I, too, have cried in front of my students when reading…sometimes to them, sometimes to me. They seem intrigued. They ask me about it. We talk about why I cry and who amongst them has ever cried while reading a book. In 6th grade, it’s not as cool to admit that, but I can see it in their eyes…they get it!
Thank you for the amazing & inspiring post this morning!
Thank you, Michelle! Oh yes, I’m sure they do get it (even if it’s not cool)!
That’s wonderful! I am a firm believer in letting the kids see how a book impacts you emotionally… even when it is uncomfortable to stand there reading while tears stream down your face (Bridge to Terabithia kills me every time)
Bridge to Terabithia does it to me, too! And I’ve never gotten through Charlotte’s Web without tears.
Your piece here moved me to tears. This year I cried when Charlotte died in Charlotte’s Web and when Edward Tulane is found again. My first graders tell their parents that I cry when I read special parts in books. I love this. It has never embarrassed me. I might be the only adult they ever see who shares how emotional reading can (and should) be. Thanks for this.
Oh, Kimberley, Charlotte always brings me to tears. Thank you for your comment.
Beautiful post, especially the part about your dad and his reading. Thank you, Cynthia.
So beautiful, thank you. Validates sharing the books that make me cry…
Thank you! I think when children see us touched by something, it has great power.
I fell in love with RULES when I was reading for the Sunshine State Committee way back when. I contacted you about speaking at our FAME conference in Orlando and you were so excited. I remember you being so sweet and sincere and I am delighted to find you still are! As a MS and HS Reading Specialist, the most important lesson I want my teachers to learn is read aloud and Share! Thank you for testifying to that!
HI BROOKS! How fun to hear from you. Thank you so much! Yes, I loved that trip to Florida! I held an alligator.
There have been many books I’ve read where I’ve had to stop and gather myself so I can continue. I’m just now reading Rules with a small group, & read the page (to prep) again last evening where Jason is taken for his “running” ride. Tears. I will gently push today to see what the kids thought, & we’ll read it aloud together, loving your writing, but even more, loving Catherine! Thank you for sharing your memories!
Thank you, Linda! That is one of my favorite scenes in Rules. I remember when I was writing it, Catherine describes running to Jason, and then she asks, “Is that how it felt in your dream?” I honestly didn’t know what Jason’s answer would be, but my fingers typed, “No.” And it broke my heart.
I just looked at that word for awhile before deciding that she would make it happen.
I so enjoyed reading this…Made me teary in places…
I’m weeding, and just pulled Hurry Home, Candy because it smelled bad! Have to see if my dog lovers might read it anyway. Anytime one of the teachers mentions loving a book, I can’t keep it on the shelf. Sharing what we love makes a big impact!
Yes, when an adult shares something they love, it makes such a big impression–and sometimes that impression is lifelong.
You are such a good writer. I teared up at this. So glad you are in the world and writing.
Aww. Thanks, Patty.
This is a terrific post. Many of us were lucky enough to have a Mrs. Keitt in our lives. I was, and it had a huge impact.
I’m glad that you had a teacher who left a big impression, too, Lisa.
I cried yesterday while reading out loud to students and again just now when reading your story about Mrs. Keitt. My students figured out early that I’m a big sap. Thank you so much for sharing.
Thank you, Amanda! You may never know how powerful those moments are for your students. I’m sure Mrs. Keitt didn’t know the impact that moment had on me.
Thank you for this wonderful article and a flash from my past. I had a very similar experience growing up with a teacher reading aloud. It is one of the reasons that I became a school librarian. Also, this piece reminded me of why my students and I love your books so much, your writing is just magical.
Thank you for everything you do, Lisa.
I have cried while reading to students, and I cried while reading your post. Thank you for reminding us of the power words and stories carry.
Thank YOU, Sharon!
I still remember Mrs. Gracey, my 3rd grade teacher, pausing when her voice broke while reading us WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS. I was almost too busy crying to notice, but I felt such a kinship with her and with the book and with those dogs… Thanks for sharing this!
I love that, Laura. That’s a book that always makes me cry, too!
Thanks for sharing such wonderful memories with us. Your post is a great reminder of how adults can positively influence children’s lives even if we don’t realize it at the time. I work at a public library and whenever a child comes up to check out books I always smile and tell them what great books they picked out. My hope is that they will be life-long readers.
When I was a student teacher, the librarian always said to the kids, “Good choice!” no matter what they had chosen. The kids didn’t care one bit that she said it to everyone. They all grinned that she liked what they had picked. That affirmation is powerful.
What a beautiful post. The line “…never underestimate the power of ‘ You Are..’ statements to students” really hit home. Those statements can so easily fall on the wrong side of the fence if we are not careful. Can I have an impact on the national debt? global warming? world hunger? nuclear armament? Probably not much. But I CAN give a child a glimpse for their future, the gift of a dream and hope. WOW
I loved Rules and couldn’t wait to read Half a Chance. Living in Wisconsin, I almost passed out holding my breath through your scene of the loons and eagle. Thank you for writng!!
Thank you! Yes, as adults that children look up to, we have a real chance to change students lives. And that scene with the eagle was a hard one to write. I grew up on a lake in NH and those calls were a huge part of my childhood.
Love this post! We just finished our read aloud The Cay by Theodore Taylor. It is moving for us as teachers and students in a classroom community to share these books together. My students were shocked when I had another student finish the chapter, when I started to cry. My wish for them…is they continue to find and read books that work their way into their hearts and never leave.
Gina, you gave your students the perfect model for doing that.
This is so incredibly beautiful.
Thank you, Caroline!
So many important points about the role readers and authors play in our lives.
I want to say thank you again for a role you took a few years ago… You had learned about a parent student book club at a middle school I ran, based on the popular reality show Survivor. You contacted me and mailed me some of your revised manuscripts to share with the students and families who were reading Rules. I’ll never forget the students’ reactions to seeing the “behind the scenes work” of an author. So awesome! Thank you!
I no longer am at that school, but the idea behind that book club lives on at another middle schools in our district. I just recommended that they read your new book. Your books are hits!
It was great to read your post, and I can’t wait to read your new middle book!
Hi Karin! I remember sending that out to your school ! Thank you so much for recommending my books. That means a lot to me. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your touching story about Mrs. Keitt, Cindy. I had some effective teachers in grade school, and some great professors in university who made even what I thought would be dull subjects (Chaucer, for example) come alive. But high school was a total washout, with the exception of Mr. Perkins, my music teacher, the only mensch in the bunch.
I did have a grade two teacher who seemed to recognize that I had something special (a hint of writing ability maybe) but she never spelled it out. Only years later did I recognize what she had done.
I’m so grateful for that memory and for the saving grace of Mr. Perkins, the music teacher.
Barbara, I’m so happy you had Mr. Perkins and your second grade teacher in your life. Those special teachers really do make a lifelong difference.
Ms. Lord, Your words in this post put a lump in my throat! I’m, self admitadly, a teacher who shed tears when I read aloud The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Shiloh, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulaine to my students and I’ll never regret it for the reasons you just explained here. As a mother and school administrater today, I honor the love of reading in classrooms and with my own children. Infact, your Hot Rod Hampster books are huge favorites for both of my sons (me too). They have especially connected with my youngest who, at the age of 3, started first reading your written words. How precious to look behind he curtain and learn how you got your start. I too am a firm beliver in the power of “You are” statements. Thank you for sharing your stories!