Thanks to all of the families who attended our first annual Read-a-long, Sing-a long.
Read Along, Sing Along
by Kathleen Katims
December 16th, 2014
When Jace, a current Cheerful Helpers student, arrived with his family in his classroom on Sunday early evening for the Alumni Association’s Read Along, Sing Along, I saw his face as he walked in the door. His face read, “What the hell is going on in my classroom?” and “Who are all these grown ups and older kids?”
He walked straight into the folds of Ellen Reinstein, the director’s, skirt. She spread her warm hands on his back. She said, “Jace, so glad you are here. I’m giving you a hug tonight because it’s Sunday night and I get to do that on Sunday night. When I see you at school in the morning, I get to shake your hand or pat you on the back, but tonight, on this special Sunday night, I get to give you a hug.”
I could feel Jace relaxing. Hell, I was relaxing listening to her warm, unhurried tone. “Jace you see that girl over there?” Jace peeked out of the folds of her skirt. “She came to Cheerful Helpers when she was your age.” She pointed to Addie, an 18-year-old student in my son’s graduating year. Jace was full on staring in Addie’s direction, and the poised and lovely Addie gave Jace a little wave.
“And you see that girl, Phoebe? Her brother came here when he was your age. Same time as Addie did. And Jace you see all those books in the basket on the floor, you can pick one to read with a new friend if you want to, when you’re ready.”
When Ellen spoke and narrated that child’s world, making it accessible and inviting, I was reminded why we were here volunteering all these years later. It was a thing to behold. It felt like she put us all in a spell. She evoked a world where everything was comprehensible, no one was in a rush, no one had an agenda–only to understand the world and create a good feeling between people. Cheerful Helpers had given our son this gift and helped him come out and meet the world. In a little while, Jace was looking more curious and relaxed than fearful, and he did go off to read with Phoebe and Addie and her friend Chloe. When he was ready.
Current families filtered in and fairly quickly reading clusters were forming–older kids to younger kids, alum parents to current kids, siblings to kids, parents to kids. To watch the families come into the room reminded me again of something I’d forgotten. Cheerful Helpers is a family experience. It is the families’ school. Parents are empowered to be engagers, reflectors, soothers, mediators of playdates, organizers and narrators of their kids’ worlds. Parents are wide open, participating and present–no one distracted on their cell phones here.
I was excited to read to kids myself. It has been a long time. My kids cut me off from reading to them years ago. When I got misty while reading “The Bridge to Terabithia,” the then 8-year-old Phoebe let me know she preferred reading on her own. Sadly, that was pretty much the last time she let me read to her.
Alecia, a current student, and I read Walter the Baker, and we lingered over the pictures and wondered together about Walter and his discovery of the pretzel. Arizona and Gregory, her peers, hung on the periphery, not looking, even when I held up the book for them to look at the pictures, not seeming to listen, but not moving away either. I gave them all a choice of the next book and Arizona pointed to Where the Wild Things Are. By the time the monsters roared their terrible roar and gnashed their terrible teeth and showed their terrible claws, all three were rapt.
At one point Alecia’s mother asked me if she could go to the bathroom and leave Alecia with me for a few minutes. That also reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about it in a long time. I remember when Sawyer was at Cheerful Helpers, I was so “on.” Every second. After all, if I looked away, he might bite someone, he might recluse into a corner, he might run into the street. It was such a very small thing, but I was so happy to be able to give Alecia’s mom a tiny break. “Of course. Take your time.” I really wanted her to know, I understand and you have an ally.
I looked around the room, and I saw lots of reading clusters. A few clusters over I saw Phoebe and Addie reading to about five kids. The kids were leaning on them, pointing to the book, laughing, everyone fully engaged. Both Addie and Phoebe had big smiles on their faces. I was thinking in this ecosystem of older kids and younger kids, siblings and students, everyone is having fun and everyone is benefitting.
Arizona, last year’s graduate, and her mother Susanna, led an interactive reading/sing along of There Was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly. Arizona, who had entered the room a bit anxious and distracted, looked as self-possessed and connected as a kindergarten teacher.
Reading clusters became cookie-decorating clusters.
Finally we gathered everyone in a circle and Jason and Leo, a father and a brother of Cheerful Helper Alumni, played Take Me Riding in the Car, Car and This Land is Your Land while we all sang. At one point Jackie Sloan brought out a bucket of instruments and put it in the center of the circle. The younger kids took instruments and banged on drums, clanged their triangles and rattled their rattles. I thought, to quote Max from Where the Wild Things Are, “Let the rumpus begin.”
I saw the Ellen’s and the teachers, the current families and the alumni families, the siblings and the friends, all 65 of us, and we were all one, sharing this one moment, all singing out, all having fun together. I guess for me that was the most profound thing about the evening. I remember when Sawyer was that age, an evening out where our whole family was relaxed and having fun, was such a great thing, such a rare thing. There was a lot of ways it could go south. There was a huge well of compassion and understanding and acceptance in the room that night. There was no way for it to go south.
It was special for me too to have Phoebe, at 13 years old, come back to Cheerful Helpers. She is four and a half years younger than Sawyer. She was born and was a toddler during our time at Cheerful Helpers. She was the younger sister and had to understand and to work hard to get Sawyer’s attention, which many times he was unwilling or unable to give. So it was beautiful that she got to be the “big sister” on the day of the Read Along, Sing Along. Here, the kids were clamoring for her attention.
At the end of the night as we were walking to our car, Abby, one of the alumni students reading with Phoebe, ran to up to her and said, “You are my best friend.” I could see the look of pride register on Phoebe’s face. On the drive home, Phoebe said, “Cheerful Helpers is where I want to do my community service.
I thought to myself, it is powerful to come back. Almost healing. Even though many of us were meeting for the first time, we parents, siblings, and students share an uncommon journey. I remember sitting in our first parent group at Cheerful Helpers. Ellen Reinstein said we have plenty of time and we took 6 meetings where each couple took a whole meeting to tell about how they had arrived at Cheerful Helpers. We got to listen to the stories of others, and we got to tell our story. I remember distinctly feeling like we had come in from the cold. We share, too, that we found such a special place for our families to grow in Cheerful Helpers. And though we are all at different places along the path, we have so much to offer each other.