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The Difference a Book Can Make


Seven years ago, I was working at Harbor House, a subsidized after-school program, in Oakland, and we had the chance to have a children's author, Mac Barnett, come visit the kids. I emailed his assistant and asked her if he could visit both groups of kids: the K-2nd grade and the 3rd-5th graders. She wrote back and said he was only prepared to visit the younger kids (I think that was his policy at the time). 

Well, a kid who I'll call "Adam" in 5th grade, had found out that Mac Barnett was coming and in preparation, had read a chapter book Mac had written (The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity; check it out but preferably from your local bookstore). This was big news because it was the first chapter book Adam had read. In his entire life. So I told him to write a letter to Mac and I would scan it and email it, asking for an exception because he was such a big fan. I told him to ask if he could sit in the back very quietly as a helper, and told him to put a few details in so Mac would know he’d really read the book.

Well, Adam not only wrote a letter; he wrote an amazing book report that he enclosed. He knew that book backwards and forwards and put his opinions about every single character and why he liked or disliked them. Apparently Mac couldn't say no, and decided to talk to both groups of kids. 

The presentation was a resounding success and Mac has become a friend of Harbor House. But more importantly, he’s become a friend of Adam’s. He and Adam wrote to each other a few times and he asked me if I thought it would be OK if he took Amir out to lunch for his birthday that summer, and invited me along. 

We have been doing this yearly lunch for seven years now (apart from last year, pre-vaccine pandemic). We have done this through moves for all three of us, through rocky situations for at least two of us, for changes in schools and guardianship for Adam... every August, we have celebrated Adam’s birthday at a restaurant of his choice. 

We did it last week, at an outdoor restaurant. Adam brought along a friend who has also become a fan of Mac, not least because this friend reads only graphic novels and Mac, an author, told him that was totally fine and to read anything he loved. That validation made the friend decide he’d read Mac’s chapter books too. I’m telling you, when kids know you respect them, it goes a long way.

During the lunch, Adam apologized to me for being "bad" when he was ten. Before I had a chance to say anything, his friend said, "Yeah, I was a bad kid at that age too." I said that there are no bad kids and Adam rolled his eyes, punched his friend on the arm, and said, "See, I told you she'd say that." To me he said, "You’ve been telling me that as long as I’ve known you.

I said, "Well, am I wrong?"

He said, "I think I was just misguided."

The same kid accidentally set his bed on fire last year ("I knew it was a bad idea to look for my phone using a lighter but I realized it too late") so it’s not like his a paragon of wisdom, but he’s come a LONG way.
Adam working with kids now and said he sees a lot of himself in the kids and sees how much they need encouragement just like he did/does. I love hearing teenagers talk about working with kids because they’re always about 5-7 years apart and they talk about them like they’re a totally different generation.
Adam’s buddy came along. I’ve met him before; he has to do another semester of high school "because I only went to Zoom class once last year" but then said he’s determined to graduate, continuation school or not, because "I want to take my diploma and wave it in the faces of the teachers who said I couldn’t do it!"
I told him I didn’t care where he graduated from, a diploma is a diploma, and that is a perfectly valid reason to want to graduate. He said, "No teacher should ever tell a kid they can't do something. I wish you was my teacher."
They talked about how much they want to go to college and how they don’t want kids early because they want to be "financially secure" so they’ll wait till their 30s.
Then they started wrestling and insulting each other and making bathroom jokes and I remembered that they were still kids. 
I talked to Mac briefly after the boys left. I don’t know him well but I suspect that he was having some of the same feelings that I did. Pride that they’re growing up and, maybe more than anything, feeling honored that we get to be any part of this amazing journey that their lives are on.


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