It is a hot, steamy, summer afternoon in Sarasota. Hardworking, sweaty volunteers and employees from the All Faiths Food Bank are smiling and joking as they help one another set up long tables, unload enormous palettes of produce and dry goods, and prepare for the hundreds of adults and children who have already begun to arrive for assistance.
Recipients, line up to receive their number so that they can then join the ‘other’ line to receive the food they will need to survive for the week. They are all genders, ages, and ethnicities. It is not uncommon to see a grandma or grandpa with two or three young children in their full-time care. Often, there are multiple groups and children who have come together. Moms are pushing strollers, carrying babies, and gently tugging early-walkers along by their tiny little arms. I watch them form a line to get their numbers, then gradually take seats on the small bleachers set up on this PE field of a local elementary school to wait. One person holds their place in line. The others, along with older children, gather to keep watch. I realize how fortunate we are to have this giant awning structure above us as the steam turns to light rain.
I have set up my booth of bright purple and gold and have neatly displayed my materials for sharing. The purple polo I am wearing clearly stands out and connects me to our booth and our reason for being here: We are The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and we intend to ensure that all children are proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade. We are here to share information and connect directly with the parents and caregivers of the most vulnerable children in our region.
I assess the growing groups of families on the bleachers and realize that very few will come to me on their own, so I grab a handful of bright purple pencils and a small stack of VROOM materials and begin to kindly introduce myself. Initially, I am met with resistance or barely disguised tolerance. I keep going and strive to connect. I reassure them until they begin to soften, trust me, and listen… “It is a national campaign that we have brought to this area to help all children learn to read. It is an entirely free app and so simple to use. The app helps turn everyday moments into Brain Building Moments. Yes, it’s for you, the parents. Yes, it comes in Spanish. It’s a terrific tool to help you help your children.”
Without warning, we were all startled and somewhat amused by a most enthusiastic almost 7-year-old tornado of energy in a pink sundress and yellow flip-flops who was suddenly by my side tugging at my shirt. “I know you!” she exclaims. “You are one of my teachers!” I am briefly caught off guard as I know for certain that I am not one of her teachers. I see the parents looking on, listening. This brilliant butterfly, however, is not to be parlayed and is now hugging my thighs with nothing short of love and joyful admiration. Acknowledging her presence and excitement, I inquire. “How did we meet and how do you know I am your teacher?”
“I know you are my teacher because all of my teachers have this on their shirt!” She has moved on to her tippy toes and is touching the SCGLR insignia on my left shoulder, announcing to me, and subsequently, the small crowd I have been speaking with that “I read books with you this Summer! See I got all these!” She holds up her arm where the SCGLR multi-colored bracelets she earned in the Suncoast Summer Book Challenge are dangling proudly. “Wow! That is so awesome! I am very happy for you! Where did you go to read?” I ask. She looks directly at me like we are sharing a private joke and says, “At the Library, of course!” She is indeed very proud that she knows how to read “a lot better than I did last year.” Her Father, who is holding a baby and has been watching us from the line, walks over. We introduce ourselves and exchange smiles. I move back to include the larger audience (who surprisingly are still listening) and explain about Vroom and how it can support their baby’s development. He and the others accept materials for downloading the app while his daughter stares at me mesmerized and waits respectfully to tell him about my shirt, and her bracelets, and the books, and the library, and that I am her teacher.
In the larger scheme of things, it is just a moment in time, but it is a powerful one. The enthusiasm of this child’s presence and the joy in her story has grabbed everyone’s attention, and we all begin to share in her experience. A reciprocal feeling of respect, connection, and common ground begins to organically to emerge, and we all feel it. I glance around and see that even some of the teens are listening and nodding their heads in agreement while one young man has already pulled the Vroom app up on his phone.
Thanking them all for allowing me to share and reminding them of how to reach us if they have questions or want to volunteer, I begin to separate from the group. The Father of our beautiful SCGLR star leans in and sincerely thanks me for teaching her to read this summer. I begin to explain that actually, it wasn’t me who taught her to read this summer and then realize, I just need to let it go. To this family, my SCGLR polo is proof enough. I am this child’s teacher.
And she is mine.