Teacher with Tissues: Showing Students How Books Tug at Your Heart by Kathleen Sokolowski
“Are you crying?” one of my third grade students asks incredulously, as the rest of them look on, wide-eyed and silent.
I sniffle, too choked up to answer. I was, indeed, crying, surprised by my emotions as the tears spilled over. Reading aloud Kate DiCamillo’s brilliant book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, I’d anticipated struggling to control my emotions at a later point in the book, when a terrible tragedy occurs. On this day, though, there was a scene where the china rabbit Edward loses yet another set of beloved friends. I was taken off guard by how much I connected to the characters, Butch and Lucy and especially Edward, their pain becoming mine. And, unfortunately for me and my third grade class, I am not a single tear-rolling down the cheek, dainty type of crier. I am of the sobbing, guffawing, can’t talk variety, which doesn’t bode well when you are the one in charge of reading the book aloud.
They kindly handed me tissues and lucky for me, Mrs. Miller, the ESL teacher who pushes in, spoke while I composed myself. She told the students that sometimes when you read a book, you connect deeply with the story and you might cry. We discussed why I had gotten upset at that particular part and the students shared how they felt about the scene and Edward’s experiences so far. They were more prepared the next time they saw me cry, only a few chapters later. While the students never shed a tear, their emotional responses to Edward and the cast of characters let me know how much the story meant to them. As we reached the end of Edward’s miraculous journey, I felt that our class had taken a journey too. We were a stronger, more close-knit community for having shared Edward’s ups and downs as he learned to be a rabbit who could love. I don’t think my students will forget that their teacher cried heartily over a china rabbit losing his friends, and perhaps that is a good thing. As teachers, we can tell them we love reading and books, but when they see how we ache for a character, that has a power that words alone cannot convey.
Books and stories have always touched my heart, from my earliest days. As a young child, I recall feeling outraged for Horton the elephant, who was faithful one hundred percent, when Mayzie-the-lazy-bird returns to take her egg back in Dr. Seuss’ classic book Horton Hatches the Egg. The egg hatching as a baby elephant-bird helped frame my early views on social justice (and karma.) Reading these types of stories and connecting with the characters helped develop empathy and understanding in a very organic way.
Now, as a parent, I see this when I read to my children, Alex, who is 4, and Megan who is almost 2. When Alex was younger, he expressed sadness for “Huddy Huddy” (Humpty Dumpty) who couldn’t be put back together again. Megan also gravitates to this nursery rhyme, but we have a happier version where bunnies put Humpty Dumpty back together and we all like that one MUCH better. After some creative storytelling from Alex recently (ahem, lying), I told him the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” He was horrified about the boy’s fate and insisted I never tell him that story again. But I see him connecting to the characters he hears about and, in a way, putting himself in their shoes. Isn’t this just what Atticus Finch challenged us to do in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird?
We all know reading is important for so many reasons. I’ve always believed that being a reader helps you find your way in this world. For me, one of the joys of reading is experiencing another’s story and discovering more about myself. When my book club read JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You, tears fell as I contemplated what I would do and feel if was Louisa Clark. Each book I read offers the chance to temporarily become someone else and see the world a bit differently. These characters often change my perspective and I am richer and wiser for having taken part in their story.
My fondest hope, as a teacher and a mother, is to pass on this joy of connecting, growing, and changing from the books we read and the stories we allow to tug at our hearts. A china rabbit named Edward Tulane has forever changed me and hopefully my third grade students, too. I’ve just started reading aloud Katherine Applegate’s Newberry Award winning book, The One and Only Ivan, to my class. I know Ivan, an artistic silverback gorilla living in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, is poised to be another character that will touch their hearts and not soon be forgotten. Tissues will be nearby- wish me luck.
Kathleen Sokolowski is sadly not Katherine Sokolowski, although their names are strikingly similar and they are both teachers who love reading. From Long Island, NY, Kathleen just graduated to third grade after 10 years of teaching kindergarten. When she is not crying in the classroom, she is telling her 2 young children frightening fairy tales and trying to explain why Humpty Dumpty REALLY should have listened to his mom and stayed off that dangerous wall in the first place. She would cry tears of joy if you followed her on Twitter @MrsSokolowski.