About 16 or so years ago, my wife and I went to an open house at C.J. Hicks Elementary School to meet our son Zach's kindergarten teacher. We were told about the curriculum, class rules, and what would be expected of us as parents. We sat on the edges of the little chairs next to the other parents and listened intently while our son's first teacher in "big boy school" told us all the things she'd be teaching and how we could help her make sure he stayed on track. We wanted to do everything right and make sure she knew we were good parents. There was a sign-up sheet for room mom, one for donations for class parties and extra school supplies, and one for miscellaneous volunteer time. My wife quickly signed up to be room mom, and, not to be outdone, I signed up to buy a couple of boxes of Kleenex and to come to read to the class one day in the first few weeks of school.
The morning I was to read to the class was pretty nerve-racking. I stressed about the book I chose to read. I worried whether the kids would think I was weird or stupid or both. I even questioned whether my reading in front of the class would lead to my son being picked on by his classmates. This all sounds ridiculous to me now, but I was a mess when I walked through the front door of the school with "The Cat in The Hat" tightly gripped in my sweaty hand. I checked in at the office and was given my hall pass and the go-ahead to walk down the classroom. When I poked my head in the door and saw my son grinning ear-to-ear all the worries and doubts I'd carried into the building floated away. Several of my son's classmates who knew me from our neighborhood or birthday parties shouted "Hey, Mr. Best!" or "Hey Zach, your daddy's here!" They were happy to see me, and Zach was proud that I was his dad and in his classroom.
The teacher had me sit in the front of the class and she told all the children to sit on the rug in front of me so they could get a good view of the book. Zach made a couple of his friends scooch over so he could be right next to me. Man, that made me feel good. I read the book to the class the same way I'd read it to Zach many times before. I read loud and silly with my eyebrows raised as high as I could get them when I spoke for the Cat in the Hat. I used nasally English accent, one that I was particularly proud of, for the stuffy old fish who went Up! Up! Up! on a rake and said "No, I do not like it, Not one little bit!" All the kids giggled and Zach gave a big snaggle-toothed smile even though he'd heard me read the story that way dozens of times. When it was time for me to leave the kids asked if I could stay and read another one. I promised I would come another day if it was OK with their teacher. She said it was OK, so I kept on coming back. I was hooked.
My daughter, Morgan, entered kindergarten when my son started the fourth grade, so I started sharing my reading days with her classmates until he made it through fifth grade (it stopped being cool to have your dad read to the class that year). I followed her to Simms Elementary when we moved across town, and the positive reaction from the children and teachers remained the same. Those hours with them and their classmates through those years are some of my fondest memories. I run into young men and women at Publix, Subway and Walmart who are in their late teens and early 20s that still remember me reading to them when they were in elementary school. It's not exactly what I had in mind when I dreamed of being famous as a teenager, but it's still pretty cool.
My kids are 22 and 18 years old now, so I'm texting and emailing them instead of reading to their classes these days. One's living in Montana soaking up the great mountain views and new life experiences, and one's a freshman in college. I'm still reading to students at C.J. Hicks Elementary School. My stepmother has been a teacher's aide there for more than a dozen years, and she seems to have no trouble finding an hour or so slot for me to read once or twice a week. The school is different -- the beautiful new C.J. Hicks is across the street from the old building where my kids started their eduction -- but the kids haven't changed. If you're ever down or discouraged about the state of the world (or that both your children have left the nest), I encourage you to spend some time with first-graders. I promise the weight you feel on your shoulders and in your heart will be a little lighter. There's so much promise and hope and joy inside the schools in our community. Teachers are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to educating our children, but they could definitely use a little help if you have the time to give it. If you're like me, you'll get back a lot more than you give.
Patrick Best is the co-founder of Halfoffdepot.com. He lives in Conyers.