Bittersweet Success

By Diana Cabrera, 2019-2020 Literacy First Tutor

At the beginning of the school year, one of my kindergarten students, Calvin, came in knowing about 13 letter sounds. What he really seemed to dread was the syllable reading and, even more, the word reading. “Yo no puedo leer esto!” (“I can’t read this!”), he’d sigh. Every day was packed with overcoming the challenges that came with that second page of each lesson. His eyebrows would bunch up at the center, displaying obvious concentration and struggle. Over and over, we’d sound out letters and blend them together. Calvin would hesitantly read syllables, looking up at me for approval. He worked very hard to improve, and his eyes would grow big and round with a special sparkle of joy when he would read something correctly. We celebrated each accomplishment, big or small, with smiles and high fives. 

Soon, Calvin began reading his letter sounds without hesitation. And, his performances in weekly progress monitoring assessments were equally impressive. He would accurately and quickly breeze down to the last row of letters, reading up to 57 letter sounds per minute at his best. He’d smile even though he was out of breath; I’m sure he found it worth it. Before I knew it, Calvin was reading syllables without having to sound them out. And then, reading words began to come naturally. He even enjoyed reading the sentences on his own without my help. 

There came a moment when I knew Calvin would graduate soon. I thought back on all the times I’d call his name to pick him up, and he’d look around in confusion as if he had never come with me in his life. I thought about how we’d get to his class and realize he’d forgotten his sweater in the Literacy First classroom; how I would forget to remind him about grabbing his sweater before we left, and how I had to say “I’ll bring it to you in a bit, don’t worry!” each time. I dreaded having to end our daily lessons, so I decided to make the best of those remaining. I would sing to Calvin on our way back to class. “Down by the bay! Where the watermelons grow! Back to my home, I dare not go! Or if I do, my mother will say, did you ever see a frog walking its dog? DOWN BY THE BAY!” He’d stare at me in disbelief and sometimes even mild second-hand embarrassment, which I enjoyed even more than I did the singing. 

Even sooner than I had anticipated, Calvin had improved so much that Graduation Day arrived. It was bittersweet. I was truly happy for him for having persevered wonderfully through the reading process, but the goodbye lesson with Calvin was one of the most difficult moments for me as a tutor. I expected to see a thrilled little boy who would no longer have to do extra work each day on his reading skills, but instead I saw a saddened face. I tried to cheer Calvin up by explaining that he had learned to read so well that it was time for me to help a new student. He buried his face into his hands as he shook his head, asking if there was any way that he could continue to get picked up by me. I’m sure my eyes were watery at this point, because Calvin asked if I was crying. A nervous laughter was all I could let out. I always wanted to offer stability and a positive attitude for him, although it is sometimes difficult when you feel like you are losing something that has become such an important part of your daily life. 

We added some finishing touches to Calvin’s “Getting to Know You” booklet that day, and read it one last time. I returned his spelling book and sticker sheet. I’d always tell him that one of my stickers looked a lot like the paper monster I had made and placed above his name on my bulletin board. Calvin had always refused to choose that sticker, playfully arguing that it did not look like him, but on that last day, he said he wanted to take that sticker with him. It meant a lot to me, because I knew he chose it to make me happy.

Calvin demonstrated incredible progress and determination, enough to achieve the literacy skills he needs to succeed in the classroom. More importantly, he taught me to appreciate the small moments in life, because they seem to seep away quicker than we would like them to.

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