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Amy Ludwig VanDerwater: 5th-grade student becomes the teacher

Seventeen years ago I was a fifth-grade teacher. I stocked our classroom library with many authors and genres, award winners and Goosebumps titles, all sorted into colorful bins, all organized by the students themselves. Many books were from my personal collection, and we cherished our reading time every day.

One morning, a student handed me our copy of “A Light in the Attic.” Underneath the inscription from my friend, written in black ink, the mother of all swear words glared from the page. I was angry. And I was hurt. I did not yet understand why – how – a child could deface a book, our book, my book. I called my class to the rug for a meeting.

“Students, someone has written a swear word in this book,” I held it up solemnly. “This book was a gift to me, and I expect that the person who wrote in it will admit to having done so.” I knew who it was. I recognized the handwriting, yet I wanted my student to come forward, tell the truth, be forgiven, and move on with a new respect for books and property, too.

For two days we waited. I cautioned, “If the person who wrote in “A Light in the Attic” does not tell me today, I will take the books away. In order to keep the books, keep my books in this class, I need to be able to trust you.” No one came forth.

That afternoon a handful of students stayed after school to pack boxes with stacks of Gary Paulsen, piles of Patricia Mac-Lachlan. It felt like a funeral as we remembered our old friends and said goodbye to them one by one. The next day, my students entered a room with empty bookshelves. Our voices echoed off of the empty plastic bins. I hoped the writer would talk to me in the next day or two. No luck.

As a young teacher, I had the same attitude I have now as a parent of teenagers: “Stick by your word. If you say you’re doing something, do it. Don’t negotiate, cave, don’t make decisions based on guilt.” So I was trapped. I had punished everyone, we had no books, and it seemed the shelves would be bare forever. We were sad and unsure of what to do to heal our reading time and ourselves.

On a rainy morning a couple of days later, having shed our raincoats into the coat closet, we met on the floor for our usual attendance and visiting time. Max looked around at everyone as he pulled a small stack of Great Illustrated Classics from behind his back. “I know that Mrs. LV doesn’t trust the class, but I trust the class. These are some of my books I brought to share with everybody.”

It was quiet for a few moments as everyone looked at Max and at me. I looked back at them and at Max. Max had opened a door. He had saved me from my own punishment, had forgiven and had offered hope. I blinked a few times and looking right at him said, “If Max can trust the class, I can too,” I said. “Let’s unpack the books.” With much rejoicing, we did. Our plastic bins were full, and even though the swear word writer had never come clean, I believe this child also learned something.

Later that day, one of the girls who had stayed to help pack books a few days earlier said, “I wish I had done what Max did today.”

Max was our teacher. Seventeen years later, he still is.