by Maurna Rome
The bumper sticker reads: “Three reasons to be a teacher; June, July and August.” This may be true for some, but it was never my mantra, at least until this summer. This summer I decided to participate in summer school and what a good decision that was! My class of “summer kids” included the most diverse, interesting bunch of characters I have ever experienced in my 25 years of teaching. And best of all, rather than being confined to one classroom for the entire stint, our lessons took place in a variety of locations including London, New York, and New Orleans. If you’re thinking this was one of those online “virtual” schools, think again. It wasn’t. I had the pleasure of creating this summer school experience that was like none other. I hand picked most of the kids and the places to which we travelled. I know it sounds too good to be true in many ways and, although it wasn’t always easy, it has been one of the most rewarding summers of my career.
Let me tell you a bit about the kids… Trust me, learning about the histories of kids who have dealt with some unimaginable hardships at a very young age can pull mightily on your heartstrings and make you lose sleep. My “summer kids” have had to navigate some serious challenges. Ada was born with a physical impairment that could’ve been treated at birth yet her abusive mother chose to keep her locked in their apartment, away from other kids. Her language development was severely impacted by this neglect yet she finally
learned to read at the age of 9, thanks to her foster mom. Albie is one of the kindest, most hard-working, sincere boys I have ever met. Although his parents try to be supportive, they are extremely frustrated with low academic achievement and the fact that they were asked to remove him from his highly regarded private school. And then there’s Rose. A very high potential girl with autism who lives with her emotionally distant father and a dog she loves dearly. Rose has frequent meltdowns in class and has been known to throw things, scream and make it difficult for others in the classroom to learn. Armani is a sassy, brave young lady who survived Hurricane Katrina and has had to grow up fast as she helped her family pick up the pieces after they lost everything. Finally, there is Robert, a very lonely, troubled boy being raised by his grandmother. He yearns to find out more about his mother who died when he was a baby. These incredible “summer kids” are just a few of the 20 or so who have filled my days with worry, sadness, inspiration and joy. Many of my “summer kids” have been teased and tormented by peers. Not all of them have endured such trauma, but they all have a story to tell. My time with these “summer kids” has taught me much about the power of friendship, perseverance and hope.
One of my students had a real gift for making up rhymes. Consider this gem:
Home is a place to get out of the rain
It cradles the hurt and mends the pain
And no one cares about your name
Or the height of your head
Or the size of your brain
Another quote worth pondering came from the mother of one of my “summer kids”:
If you have to tell lies, or you think you have to, to keep yourself safe — I don’t think that makes you a liar. Liars tell lies when they don’t need to, to make themselves look special or important.
And imagine how taken I was with this thought for the day, shared by that same young man who was removed from his prestigious school for not being smart enough:
You couldn’t get where you were going without knowing where you’d been. And you couldn’t be anywhere at all without having been almost there for a while.
I love my “summer kids” and the time we spent together but I have a confession to make. The truth is, I did not receive a paycheck for any of the hours I devoted to summer school. That may seem absurd, yet I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. What I got out of the experience was worth much more. There is no denying how real and full of grit my “summer kids” lives are. There is also no doubt that I learned some tremendous lessons from this group. But, you see, my “summer kids” came to me from the books I savored throughout several weeks of travelling and time with family and friends. While I was swept up in the worlds in which they live, they accompanied me on my summer adventures, from Salta, Argentina to St. Louis, MO. And just like every eager learner who greets me at the start of a new school year, their challenges and triumphs become mine and their stories will remain in my heart forever.
I’ll bring these “summer kids” into our classroom this fall where they’ll join us on our literacy journey in the coming year. We’ll all get to know and discuss this bunch of characters as I read their books aloud. I am a reader and it is so important that my students learn about my reading life as they continue to create their own!
Some of the “kids” I spent my summer with:
- Ada – The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
- Albie – Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
- Rose – Rain, Reign by Ann M. Martin
- Armani – Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana
- Robert – Rump by Liesl Shurtliff
- Jack – Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
- Ellie – 14th Goldfish by Jennifer Holms
- Lina – Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
- Hyung-pil – Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
- Dinky – Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack by M.E. Kerr