March 20

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The Incredible Birth of Tyrel by S.J. Dahlstrom

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world.” – C.S. Lewis

The most disinterested reader, struggling student, disrespectful and poorly-behaved kid in my 7th grade classroom a few years back was Tyrel (not real name, of course).  I could tell immediately that Tyrel was very intelligent, but he was also very distracted at school.  He had no history of ever succeeding in any academic environment or pursuit.  He told me he wanted to play professional sports.  The smartphone in his pocket was much more expensive than mine.

Tyrel had transferred to my school from Project Intercept about two months prior.  PI is an alternative school for students in various stages of adjudication or probation violation, or other major behavior problems.  The program is intense.  It’s better known for brown jumpsuits than book talks.

As a Language & Literature teacher, I began throwing books at him non-stop.  I pointed him out to our plucky librarian and got her involved (It’s good to have one of these…plucky).  She was on him like a rat on a Cheeto.  Our fine arts magnet and International Baccalaureate school pushes books as a top priority.

After weeks of thumbing sports photo books, we finally got him to read a graphic novel – Bad Island.  Something clicked. 

He liked it.

He finished it.

“So who wrote that book?” I asked him afterward.

“What?” he replied.

“Who is the author?”

“What’s an author?”

“That’s the person who wrote it.”

“Ohhhhh” His eyes opened wide, head nodding.  I pointed to the name on the cover.

“Why don’t you go to the library and see if he has any other books.  Since you liked that one, maybe you will like the others.”

Light bulb.

Smile.

I handed him a pass and he left the room like he was going off to a new world – inquisitive, but cautious.  For the first time, it seemed, he was going to the library with a purpose.

During the week he sped through three other Doug TenNapel graphic novels.  Cheers to a great librarian…

Doug TenNapel doing some heavy-lifting with struggling readers

The next week Tyrel and I looked up his ‘new’ favorite author, Doug TenNapel, on the web.  We printed off some info and a booklist together.  Then we found his email and I set up Tyrel up on my laptop to send Mr. TenNapel an email letter.  He wrote and wrote and filled several paragraphs with original thoughts and questions.  One line said, “This is the first book I have ever read.”

I showed him how to hit ‘send’.  First email.

He was so pumped, smiling from ear to ear.

In class a few days later he passed another student’s desk and looked down, then stopped.  He was spying on the other kid’s reading material and he saw that it was Bad Island.  He tapped on the pages and looked at the kid with a serious, academic countenance and said,

“That’s a good one.  I read that.”

Somehow he knew I was watching him from the front of the room.  He looked up at me…again smiling ear to ear.

And here’s the best part, which is hard to believe.  A few weeks later another teacher and I were in the hall discussing The Incredible Birth of Tyrel…and I looked up, and in a flood of passing-period children Tyrel nearly ran into me because he was nose-deep in a novel!  No pictures.

How beautiful it is to see the magic happen occasionally – when it becomes OK to be smart, to like books.

When reading becomes the reward, not the challenge.   

I knew this reading birth didn’t ensure that everything would go well in Tyrel’s immediate future.  He faced numerous obstacles, including his own poor choices.  His grades weren’t great, his STAAR scores were under the mark, and he visited PI again.

But I do know that he had a good experience with books in 7th grade.  He read and read and read in peace and quiet and his mind built castles and landscapes not provided by a screen.  His mind was nourished with words, good words, that would stay with him even when he wasn’t aware of their silent and unseen action in his mind.

And he had a new story to come back to.  A larger story that starts,

Once there was a boy named Tyrel and he was a reader…

 

S.J. Dahlstrom is a writer in West Texas. He also teaches Language & Literature at the IB World School, J.T, Hutchinson. “Hutch” is a fine arts magnet school where Dahlstrom teaches a creative writing program called CreativeRangers.  The Adventures of Wilder Good is his first book series.  The Green Colt (book #4) is the most recent release which details horse-breaking and the Mexican origins of cowboying.