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Doom and Gloom in the Reading Room By Prithi srinivasan

Illustration by Emily Takara

I had never before seen a more empty bookshelf than in the dingy classroom I was standing in. The shelf stood in the middle of the room (the ceiling often leaked, and the community organizers didn’t want the books to get wet), holding fewer books than I could count on my fingers. The few books that were on the shelf were labeled with different stickers, each signifying a different reading level. I looked at the sticker on my own tutor badge, then looked to the books designated for “Beginning Readers.”

The door opened violently, swinging to hit the wall with a slam, the one remaining hinge creaking unpleasantly all the way. My student had arrived. Her face was already covered in tears — I wondered if she was about to pull one of her famous “get out of reading practice” schemes, which were often filled with drama and hysteria—and she stomped over to me, already mumbling what very well could be profanities under her breath.

“I don’t know no cat in hats,” she told me, frowning at said cat on the cover of the book.

She had asked me a couple weeks before, “Why do I need to be here? Why do I need to stay after school to read?”

The last word seemed to be uttered with pure disgust, but her tone was more pleading than anything. I was at a loss. How could I tell her that it was not customary for a nine-year-old to read at the level of a kindergartener? How could I tell her that the reason she was there was because there was no other choice, because it was the only way for her to play catch-up on years of lost learning.

She stopped before me, looking at the bookshelf as though it had personally wronged her. And maybe she believed that it had. Maybe she saw it as yet another manifestation of the adults constantly swirling around her with reprimands and perhaps even patronizing comments about reading and writing.

I gestured to the shelf, guiding her to the books marked with yellow stickers.

“How about ‘The Cat in the Hat’?” I asked. “You’ll probably know that one already. You might find it fun to read!”

Photo By Harper Collins Children's Books

Her face showed no signs of recognition.

“I don’t know no cat in hats,” she told me, frowning at said cat on the cover of the book.

She didn’t know ‘The Cat in the Hat’?

I then asked her, “Do you know any books on this shelf?”

She looked over them briefly, her eyes flitting from cover to cover, from the top-left corner of the shelf to the bottom-right. When she finally looked up at me, she shook her head. She had never before seen “Amelia Bedelia” or “The Berenstain Bears,” or even “Green Eggs and Ham,” in her entire nine years of living — not in her classrooms, not in her home, not in the library.

It was starting to click for me. That was why she was staying an extra hour after school with me in the dingy spare room to practice her reading: because she had no other means of doing so.

I knew that if she did not want to read, she would have no problem with making that information public — I was already dreading the tears and screaming.

“Well,” I told her. “Pick a book you think you would like.”

She immediately reached for “Green Eggs and Ham,” her nose wrinkling as she sounded out the title. She took the book to our assigned work desk and flipped to the first page.

“This is boring,” she said immediately, reaching into her backpack to fiddle with some toys.

I hid a grimace. I knew that if she did not want to read, she would have no problem with making that information public — I was already dreading the tears and screaming. But I also knew that trying to appease her would only further delay our completion of the prescribed lesson plan for the day, and really, it would be helping no one — especially not her.

“Fine then,” I acquiesced. “What if I read it to you? While I am reading, you can write some sentences on your whiteboard.”

I slid it over to her along with a pen, which she took suspiciously from my hand.

This was the first time she had written of her own volition, without complaining or protesting

We inched our way through the book, pausing for questions (deep and emotional questions like, “Why is Sam-I-Am so opposed to green eggs and ham?”) every few pages. When I finally shut the book, I peeked over to her whiteboard to see how she was doing. She slid her arm over her work, hiding it from me as she finished her last words.

When she finally moved her hand, satisfied with what she had written, I couldn’t help but smile — not at what she had written, but at her progress. This was the first time she had written of her own volition, without complaining or protesting. She had sat through the book, perfectly attentive the entire time it was being read, and she had written two sentences in her shaky script on the whiteboard. She could now say that she recognized one of the books on the dingy bookshelf. It was only a matter of time before she would be able to recognize all of them.

I reached for my lesson plan, then for her whiteboard, grabbing a tissue paper to erase the two sentences: “I hat reeding. I hat Miss Preethee.”

Created By
Prithi Srinivasan
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