Last year I had to think hard to figure out the perfect end of the year read-aloud for my 3rd grade class. We had been together for two years. I knew them from the beginning of second grade. Most of them had my friend Jennifer for Kindergarten and first grade. Jennifer is kind and nurturing and funny and the best teacher any child could ever have. When they stepped into my classroom (soon to be our classroom) on their first day of second grade they couldn’t have known what to expect. Here is this older guy with a gray beard. They had seen me with my former class, but no one really knew me. It was probably a hard transition.
Over those two years we became like family. That is a LOT of time to be together. Six or seven hours a day for 180 days per year for two years. We got to know each other well. There were lots of laughs, lots of great times – and some tough times too. We composed and sang songs, learned complicated math, SC history, wrote countless stories, researched, presented, were amazed by science… The one thing that was constant through every single day was read-aloud. During our time together I read Charlotte’s Web, Shiloh, The Prince of the Pond, Hatchet, Sarah, Plain and Tall and many more. And those were just the chapter books.
Every day after lunch and recess we would pile into the room and get drinks and cool down and sit in front of the easy chair. I would light a candle, we would turn out the lights and recite the Shel Silverstein “Invitation” poem…
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer,
A magic bean buyer
If you are a pretender,
Then sit by my fire.
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
All would be quiet and we would dive in to story. We shared the stories of our lives as well, but read-aloud? It was a special time of day. It was a constant. Even when it was hard to get the kids settled, or if a lesson went lousy, or if some of us were cranky… read aloud would draw us together just like family. It was a shared experience. The characters were people we came to know, and some, to love. There were tears over read alouds. My old friend and professor Jerry Harste said, “If you can’t cry, then you can’t read.” And we did cry.
So at the end of the school year, at the end our two years together, I wanted to select just the right book. I thought back to The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I remember reading it aloud to Heidi when we were young and I remember us both really loving it. That would be it then. My final gift to this wonderful group of friends – family really. I would read this book, which gave me so much to think about as a young man. We only had a couple weeks left and it is a shortish book. Perfect.
I hadn’t read it in many years. It is kind of a strange book. For one thing the plot is unusual. Not quite science fiction, definitely fantasy, not much action (we had just finished reading Hatchet and Stone Fox which were realistic fiction, fairly easy to follow and had lots of action). It is the story of a little boy who lives on a tiny planet with just a rose and a couple of small volcanoes. He decides to travel away from his own place to explore the solar system. He meets a bunch of extremely strange people on his way to earth; a drunk…
“Why are you drinking?” demanded the little prince.
“So that I may forget,” replied the tippler.
“Forget what?” inquired the little prince, who already felt sorry for him.
“Forget that I am ashamed,” the tippler confessed, hanging his head.
“Ashamed of what?” insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.
“Ashamed of drinking!”
A lamplighter whose planet it so small that he must constantly light and put out his lamp…
“When he lights his street lamp, it is as if he brought one more star to life, or one flower. When he puts out his lamp, he sends the flower, or the star, to sleep. That is a beautiful occupation. And since it is beautiful, it is truly useful.”
And a king in desperate need of a subject…
“Sire--over what do you rule?”
“Over everything,” said the king, with magnificent simplicity.
The king made a gesture, which took in his planet, the other planets, and all the stars.
“Over all that?” asked the little prince.
“Over all that,” the king answered.
There are others he meets on his way to earth. It is a metaphorical book. While the main character is a charming little boy, it is not a children’s book per se.
At first as I read, my students were patient and asked all kinds of good questions. But after a few days of listening to this book they were disinterested. Distracted. It seemed to me that this wasn’t a good fit – no matter how great I thought it was years earlier. I was willing to give it up too. With only a few days left, I said that we could read great picture books for read-aloud time. Several students adamantly said NO! to that. We had started this book and we were going to finish it.
I am glad we did. There are passages in this book that contain so much wisdom and beauty. The first time I read the book it was a borrowed copy. There were a few wonderful passages underlined by the owner. Those same passages were underlined in other copies from other readers. If you own this book, and you were to underline just a few lines, my guess is that you would underline the same ones.
At one point in the story, the Prince, in his wanderings, meets a fox. It is a chance meeting but they are intrigued with each other, if a little frightened.
“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.”
“You have hair like the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
And so the Little Prince comes at a regular time and comes a little bit closer to the fox each day. They gradually come to love and appreciate each other. They have tamed each other. And it is lovely.
Then the time comes for the Little Prince to move on. He knows that they will never see each other again. The fox is sad and happy at once. He tells the Prince that things once ordinary, like wind in the wheat, have been changed for him for now he will be reminded of his friend who had tamed him. The fox leaves his Prince with a bit of wisdom as a parting gift. And the Little Prince repeats it so he can remember it exactly.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
When I meet a new group of students, and watch the old class move to another classroom, I have to remember that we must tame each other if we are going to be family. I have taught with many other teachers who don’t tame their classes or get tamed by them. They go through the day-to-day and turn the page and-do-what-comes-next. In some ways I am sorry for those teachers and those children. For they don’t know how essential it is to tame one another.
This rhythm of moving from class to class, year to year is one I have grown accustomed to. But it is tricky to constantly move in and out of the lives of so many beautiful, intriguing people; to watch them grow up, and move away. It is wonderful to see the adolescents, young adults and adults they become. And it is fulfilling. At the beginning of our time together I must remember to meet at the same time each day, to gradually come a little bit closer, to look into their eyes a little bit at a time so as not to frighten them, and to realize that taming and being tamed – while not strictly taught in methods classes – may be one of the most important things about living as a teacher.
Wait for a time, exactly under the star. Then, if a little man appears who laughs, who has golden hair and who refuses to answer questions, you will know who he is. If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back.