"I won’t be here on Friday, " Tammy said to me. I was disappointed because Tammy had begun to make real progress in reading. She’s one of eleven grandchildren of a steadfast woman who is trying to bind a loose-knit family into some kind of unity.
When this little seven year-old with dark trusting eyes began dictating stories about herself for me to write into her personal notebook, I asked, "What about your mother? You haven’t mentioned her."
Tammy’s eyes were downcast. "She’s in jail."
I was at a loss. Then I asked, "Do you get to see her?"
"Only once in a while. She’s very far away from here."
We happened to be reading a charming little book at the time that seemed particularly appropriate: It was called Are You My Mother? and told of a little bird’s search for his lost parent. When Tammy had finished reading it, I asked, "Are you perhaps going to see your mother this Friday?"
Tammy’s eyes lit up and she grew expansive. "First we take a bus. It costs 25 dollars."
"May I ask whom you mean by ‘we?’"
"My grandma, my grandpa, my baby brother, and me."
"I hope you’ll write all about it next week," I said.
On Tuesday, Tammy dictated into her journal: "We had a yummy breakfast and came back on the bus at midnight."
"How is your mother? If you want, you can tell about her in your journal."
"She said my baby brother’s too heavy to carry now. And she told me that she’s learned her lesson." Tammy twisted her tight braids and looked at me pensively as I wrote it all down.
"Did she say anything else?"
"Yes. She said not to be sad or shy." And Tammy wrote down: "I love my mother very, very much. Oh, how I love my mother very much."
Between our sessions I was haunted by the problems of this unfortunate little girl who was not yet quite a reader or student, but had such an earnest attitude. On Friday I went to her classroom. On seeing me, she smiled and jumped up from her desk. We found an empty music room, and I showed her a stamped envelope and a piece of writing paper that I had brought with me.
"Oh, you have one of those sticky things," she said, searching for the word "stamp."
"I thought perhaps you’d like to write to your mother."
"Oh, yes," she said. "I sure would."
"You do the writing this time, Tammy, and I’ll help you with any words you need. Maybe your grandmother will put the address on this envelope."
Painstakingly, asking for only a few words, my student set out to print her message. "How do you spell ‘wonder?’" Then she wrote, "I wonder how you are doing up there. I love you so much, so very much." She spelled one word incorrectly and hastened to cross it out. "Now I’ll have to write it all over. I want it to be perfect."
"It will be," I assured her. "Do you want to say anything else?"
"Yes. How do you spell ‘teacher’ and ‘school’?"
After I told her, she printed, "I love my teacher and I’m doing good at school." Then Tammy looked up at me. "Can I take this home? I want to write it over so my mother can read what I say." As we walked together back to her classroom, I felt a special attachment to this endearing little girl, hoping with all my heart that against rather powerful odds, she just might make it. After all, I thought, she knows how to spell the word, "love."
Jean Katzenberg has written a book describing her work with children like Tammy. Prospective publishers are encouraged to write Mrs. Katzenberg through Literacy Connections.