Charlotte never gets old.
Charlotte never gets old.
She spins her web, weaves a miracle or two, saves the life of Wilbur the pig and then lays her eggs and, sadly, dies. The reader sniffles a little, grows a little, and life goes on. Charlotte dies, but her story – the classic “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White – never grows old.
It’s become a spring ritual to read the book to third graders at Luff Elementary in Independence. And a few years ago, the crafty principal talked me into adding “Where the Red Fern Grows,” by Wilson Rawls, for the fifth graders. We finished both this week, and the applause and the looks in the students’ eyes tell me the message is getting through.
This all came together because of one person. I first met Laura Vernon when she came to a Chamber of Commerce function and made her pitch for this new program, YouthFriends. Come be a buddy and share with a kiddo who needs an ear and a friend, she said. Or read to a class. Or something. Come and help.
That sounded good, I thought, and immediately added that to my mental list of good intentions. And we know how that works out.
That very evening I was at a William Chrisman basketball game – go Bears – when I noticed this Vernon person sitting about two rows away. I don’t recall if she gave me the teacher stare – she could if need be, and it would probably work – but I capitulated on the spot. You’ve got me, I said. Fate. Kismet. Whatever. You have me surrounded. Sign me up.
At the outset, we talked about the value of just reading to kids, of letting the rich sounds and rhythms of language work into their brains and hearts. We talked of the value of storytelling. We talked about the message sent by an adult taking time out of the day to read and thereby subtly emphasize the value of books. All good stuff.
That was 15 years ago. Laura has been the driving force in the Independence School District YouthFriends program, cajoling wayward souls such as I to be better citizens. Laura is retiring in a few weeks, and she will be greatly missed.
It’s important to remember how many lives we touch and just what that means. In particular, when you work with young people, you are planting seeds that might take years to bloom. You might be there to enjoy it, and you might not. That’s not really the point. The point is that they bloom. As Martin Luther said, if he knew the world would go to pieces tomorrow, he would still plant a tree today.
How many lives, then, does a teacher shape and mold? How many lives has Laura enriched by hooking up kiddos and volunteers? Who could count?
How many children read “Charlotte’s Web” a second time and a fifth and a tenth because someone read it to them once? How many will hear “Where the Red Fern Grows” – a much tougher, more nuanced book – and in some way identify with Billy Coleman, a kid growing up in the Depression and surviving one adventure after another in the Ozarks with his beloved dogs, who laid down their lives for his?
How many will take my advice to pick up “Old Yeller” and “Stuart Little” and “My Side of the Mountain” and let that lead to the next book and the next and let that flow, in some small way, into a lifelong love of reading?
Which one of them will follow that love far enough to write the next “Charlotte’s Web?” That could be 30 years from now. Who knows where we’ll be, and who can draw that line anyway?
But thank Laura just the same. It’s all about good people doing good work with faith in the future outcome. That’s Laura. She’ll be missed.