My Reading Buddy (Continued Part 3)

It was a warmish, sunny spring day when I went to see my mentee for our next reading session. I was in a hopeful mood. It was one of those days in New England that felt almost like spring, despite April snow.

The moment I stepped into the school, I heard yelling. One female student was chasing a male student. There was a teacher’s voice coming from behind the corner in the hallway. The girl looked to be no more than a fifth grader. She grabbed the boy and immediately began punching him violently and screaming at him. The boy did not do much more than attempt to shield himself from her blows. By the time I reached where they were, several teachers had caught up to them and were dealing with the matter. I was signaled to continue to the lunchroom to meet my student.

As we walked out of the lunchroom, a large, middle-aged man was standing in the middle of the cafeteria, yelling at the students for their inappropriate behavior. This is something that seems to happen fairly regularly. I asked my mentee about it and she told me that sometimes the students are wild and, in her opinion, they don’t calm down and “act right” until someone yells at them. I have heard the students threatened that if they did not behave they would have silent lunch. I wonder to myself how often violence occurs at this school. I wonder if my mentee feels safe there.

I recently introduced my student to poetry. I had taken one of the huge binders of poems out of my bag during one of our sessions. She stared in amazement and said, “I can’t believe you have so many poems in there! Are they all different?”

She wanted to know if I knew them all and what were my favorites when I was her age. I recited from memory Langston Hughes’ poem Dreams and  his  poem Harlem (Dream Deferred)

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


I gave her a copy of both poems and asked her to circle the words she found interesting and things she liked in the poem. She loved how Hughes used metaphors. She talked about the meaning of the poems. The way Hughes used language seemed more interesting to her than the meanings. I saw that familiar spark I often see in my students when they are reading or writing poetry in class.

We talked about the Harlem Renessaince, what was happening during that time in history and what it might have been like to live in Harlem then.

We read  Claude McKay’s, The Tropics of New York.  I got out my phone and showed her the animated version of the poem featured on the National Poetry Foundation website. She loved it. I challenged her to write a dream poem using some of the techniques we saw in the Hughes and McKay poems. I saw a mixture of excitement and doubt. She got out her pencil and started to write. “Remember your five senses,” I said. She wrote for several minutes and then pushed her paper towards me, watching me in silence.

Her poem was a dream-poem about the Dominican Republic. She told me her parents were from there and she knew they missed it very much. She remembered being there when she was younger. In her poem, she described a vivid beach scene.

She left our session with a smile on her face. I was aware  that I had veered completely away from the stated purpose of the mentoring program: reading a book aloud to your student. I would need to check with the organizers to ensure that a poetry focus.