“What are you doing to celebrate the big 4-0?”
Each time I hear this question, I look around to see who the person is talking to as it certainly could not be ME.
Oh, but it is….
I will be turning 40 in 49 days (but who’s counting?)
Fortunately, I am blessed with amazing friends (Yeah!)– some of whom reached this milestone before I did (Double Yeah!).
I have been so impressed with the ways they have chosen to memorialize their big days- 40 random acts of kindness, a party where guests packed food to feed the hungry, etc.
I have also been a little intimidated, wondering what I could do that actually “matters” to start this next amazing decade of my life.
The answer was so obvious that of course it took me ages to figure it out….
But, once the pieces found each other in my head, there was no doubt in my mind about what I want to do to celebrate turning 40.
And it all comes down to three amazing women who have shaped my life more than they will ever know.
I met Jackie the summer after my first year of law school. She was a student in a remedial English class I was teaching at a community college in Florida.
I am not sure which of us was more nervous on the first day of school: me- the teacher who was younger than any of her students or Jackie- the 55 year old student who was older than any of her classmates.
When she walked into my class with her head held high and took a front row seat in spite of the discomfort that I knew she felt, I instantly fell in love with her.
And when I asked the students what they hoped to accomplish in my class, her response rendered me speechless.
She looked me right in the eyes and said “I want to be able to write a letter to my kids and my grandkids. I can’t write a letter.”
I was totally overwhelmed by her statement- not just the total honesty of it, but the realization that a woman 30 years older than I was had lived a life that left her unable to do something that I completely took for granted.
I knew in that moment what I had to tell not just Jackie but the entire class that was eyeing this 24 year old white girl from Mississippi with serious skepticism.
“Jackie, if you will give this class your all, you will be able to write that letter by the end of the summer.”
She nodded her head, and she smiled the most beautiful, hopeful smile.
And she gave the class her all. Every day. It was a struggle. She would do her homework and then do it again. She would stay after class and come in early for help. She asked for extra assignments so she could get better. She was always the last to turn in her tests or papers because she methodically checked and re-checked her work.
There were times when I really questioned if I was going to be able to fulfill my promise to her. And I know she did too.
When I got worried and wondered what more I could possibly do to help her reach her goal, I thought back to when I was first learning how to read and write because, in a very real way, that is where Jackie was in her journey.
And that line of thinking took me straight to Miss Armstrong.
Miss Armstrong. I am not sure a student has ever loved a teacher more than I loved her.
She was my second grade teacher. She was a beautiful brunette who hot rolled her hair and wore button down shirts, khaki skirts that fell below her knee and loafers almost every day.
I would give anything to be able to track her down just so I could tell her how much she shaped my life and how grateful I am to her.
Miss Armstrong loved teaching, and she made me love learning.
The memory that has stayed with me most even 30 plus years later is that she read to us for 30 minutes every day.
I can still see her sitting on her wooden stool in the front of the classroom with the book in her lap.
The Boxcar Children series.
I was completely mesmerized by the adventures of Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny.
My love for reading and for words grew with every passing day and every new story- and it has never gone away.
And when I thought back to that, I realized that I needed to give Jackie the same gift that Miss Armstrong had given to me.
I also thought a lot about another great teacher- a beautiful English teacher whose students worshipped her and whose passion for reading and writing was also impossible not to catch- my mother.
So many of my earliest memories center around reading with my mother.
There was not a night we did not read a bedtime story.
I could call my mother right now, and I bet she could recite The Monster at the End of this Book from memory.
And it isn’t just the reading I remember- it is the feeling of being loved.
No matter how tight money was, there was always enough for Scholastic book orders (oh how I loved the days the books arrived with the free posters that came with every order) and for book fairs.
And no matter how tight time was, there was always going to be time made for trips to the library.
As I got older and realized that the only thing I loved more than reading was writing, I wrote short stories and left them by the coffee pot for my mother to find.
She would read every one of them and tell me how wonderful they were.
She kept every single article or story I wrote.
Did it make a difference in my life? Let’s just say that I still have many of those stories and articles with her comments on them tucked away in my closet.
“Keep writing” she would always say. “Keep writing.”
And so I have.
And she gave that same priceless gift to her students.
They were so lucky that she was their “Miss Armstrong”-and I am so lucky that she is my mother.
And as my sisters and my friends have had children, I have gotten such joy from giving them books and from reading to them- and then eventually having them read to me.
I want to be able to give that same gift to other children.
I want to be some child’s Miss Armstrong. I want to be LOTS of children’s Miss Armstrong.
I want to give them the “Boxcar Children/Scholastic Book/Book Fair” feeling.
I want them to experience what it is like to own a new book. The shininess of the cover. The crisp spine. The endless possibilities.
I want them to use their imaginations.
I want them to start writing stories of their own.
I want them to feel valued and loved as I did.
I want them to experience the comfort of being read to and the joy of reading a book out loud to someone.
So, THAT is what I want for my birthday….
Books. Lots and lots of books.
I want for everyone who reads this to send me their favorite book(s) from childhood.
I want you to ask your children what their favorite books are and send those too.
I want you to tell your friends and your parents and your siblings to send books.
And when you do, I want you (yes, I am planning on being very demanding in this next decade!) to take the time to ask them what their favorite book was because you will get the joy of seeing their faces light up as they talk about it.
When I asked the question of my own family, I learned that my mom’s favorite was called Nurse Nancy and came with real band-aids. How cool is that? (Note- The modern version does not come with the band-aids. NUMEROUS people of my mom’s era have written reviews complaining of this absence). For my sister it was Nancy Drew. For my nephew, it was anything Dr. Seuss.
What is yours? (I know you are smiling at this very moment as you remember it.)
I plan to donate all the books collected to the Kennedy Charter School in Charlotte- a school that is devoted to helping children to accomplish the very goals that I am talking about. Check it out- http://www.kennedycharter.org/KennedyCharter/franciselementary.cfm
I was at a luncheon there a year ago where they shared some statistics on literacy for children from low-income families. They told us that by the age of three, children from low-income families have been exposed to 30 million fewer words than their more-affluent peers. By the time they enter kindergarten, they are typically 12 to 24 months behind the national norm in language and pre-reading.
And the average number of books for those children? One for every 300 children. One.
That number brings me back to my student, Jackie- a woman who grew up in a home without books and without someone who read to her.
On the last day of class, I gave my students one last assignment– write a letter to someone they cared about.
When Jackie finished her letter and put it into the envelope, she looked up at me with tears in her eyes and smiled that same beautiful, hopeful smile.
But this time, I saw pride in her eyes.
I will never forget it.
Please help me to share that gift with the children at Kennedy Charter School.
You can order from www.amazon.com or a ton of other sites and have the books shipped if you do not want to go the trouble of mailing them.
I have let the Kennedy Charter School know to expect LOTS of books….
I have even rented a mailbox to have the books shipped because I have no doubt that there will be many– The address for shipping is Lori Keeton, 401 Hawthorne Lane, Suite 110-118, Charlotte, NC 28204-2358. Phone if you need it for shipping is 704-342-4262.
Box is rented through June.