Keeping Afloat with Books by Debby Smith
Each school year has its own personality, its own way of being remembered. Last year was like trying to maneuver a raft through whitewater while blindfolded without paddles. After two decades in the classroom, I thought I knew what to expect and what to do. But when one of my students died unexpectedly, standards and curriculum gave way to my greatest responsibility — responding to the children in front of me dealing with traumatic grief. During this life-changing time, we found much-needed comfort and guidance from characters, books, and authors.
We navigated the beginning of the year smoothly with the help of Gertie and her desire to be the best fifth-grader ever. Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, our first read aloud, engaged my students and helped us create a community comfortable having hard conversations. With the help of Kate Beasley’s writing, we explored our own identities, friendship, fitting in, and standing out.
We then met Opal in Because of Winn Dixie and through her experiences we examined difficult issues like loss and abandonment, which helped us consider the role hope plays when life gets tough.
Soon after, Kek from Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave arrived and challenged us to contemplate how we define ourselves, family, and home, and what it means to persevere when it seems like you’ve lost everyone and everything that matters. Long before the world as we knew it shattered, Kek forced us to consider whether it is better to know and lose hope or to not know and maintain hope.
Thanks to Dan Santat’s After the Fall, we learned about doing things we think we can’t do. Humpty Dumpty showed us that even if we are anxious, afraid, and broken, we will be whole again someday. We can get back up, confront what scares us, and go on to spread our wings despite the bumps and bruises — and even the cracks that never completely heal.
And then in early November, we met Lemonade and Tobin, two of our favorite characters and beloved friends from Melissa Savage’s Lemons. When we reached the halfway point in the novel, the unimaginable happened: we suffered the loss of our classmate. Our raft violently flipped, and we were thrown into the river gasping for air. There could not have been more perfect characters to guide us through this sudden trauma-grief, teaching us how to mourn and how to go on living. Lemonade and Tobin taught us it’s okay to be sad, to desperately want things to be different, and to be filled with anger; but they also showed us how to open our eyes to the beauty and wonder still surrounding us.
While we went on much of this journey as a class, I also turned to books seeking my own peace. When my student was hospitalized, she was a few chapters into Patina. Feeling helpless, I did the only thing I could think to do: read the rest of Patina for her so some way, somehow she might know how it ended. Jason Reynolds’ acknowledgements say, “And most importantly, to all the young ladies who feel forced to carry the load, this one’s for you.” This one was definitely for her.
The initial tumult subsided after Winter Break, but our journey continued. We kept looking to books to help us through. We welcomed Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson’s Two Truths and a Lie, Amy Sarig King’s Me and Marvin Gardens, and Sage Blackwood’s Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded into our classroom, each opening us up to new ways of thinking.
March Book Madness introduced us to sixteen picture books making us laugh (Mother Bruce), cheer (Jabari Jumps), question (Ada Twist, Scientist), rise up (I Dissent), and much more.
With two weeks left in the year, my students asked to return to Gertie’s Leap to Greatness. In twenty years of teaching, I’ve never been asked to reread a novel. They confided in me that it was because they saw themselves in the characters. They referred to the antagonist, Mary Sue, who taught us that people are complicated and have complex reasons for acting unkind at times. While we all want Gertie’s tenacity, we have to accept that we have some Mary Sue inside, too. Perhaps, my students also wanted to return to where we came from, to our innocence at the beginning of the year.
As we paddled toward the end of the year, I knew both the gift and burden of having influence would soon pass. Spending these days with my students made me feel like I could do something: catch kids who were falling, nurture those hanging on, and support the ones ready to take-off. I found myself unsure how to relinquish that, so again I turned to books. I surveyed every student asking what read aloud they wanted to hold onto forever. With the generous help of Second Star to the Right bookstore, I bought each of my students their favorite books. I hope these stories will always remind them that no matter what life throws our way, we can always depend on books to help us through it.
I now look to next year and feel the weight of finding the perfect books for my new class. I must remind myself, though, that last year we read the most influential books before the tragedy. I didn’t spend the summer anticipating this experience and planning for what we would need. I just trusted the power of story to explore the human experience, to reflect on our own lives, and to give us opportunities to rehearse for what might come. Would these books have been powerful any other year? Without a doubt, yes. But they became especially significant because of our circumstances.
To all the children’s book authors, thank you. Your words were our life vests this past year, supporting us, holding us up for air, and helping us understand that love and loss, living and dying, and the struggle between hope and despair are all part of what it means to be human.
Debby Smith has taught third – sixth grades and is currently teaching fifth-grade in Aurora, Colorado. When she’s not teaching, Debby can be found enjoying Colorado’s great outdoors, putting her passport to good use, baking her famous pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and of course reading. Debby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @debby623.