New York Times
JUNE 20, 2020
During the coronavirus lockdown, a fifth-grade teacher, Linda, contacted me asking for help. She teaches in a school district in Southern California where over 80 percent of the students qualify for free lunches. Linda was struggling with students’ not showing up for online class. “Before the lockdown, I had started reading ‘It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel,’ so I thought of asking if you have any ideas,” she said. “The kids all related to your story about being an immigrant and having to translate for your mom.”
My immediate reaction was to do a weekly book club where I read to the students. This idea came to me not because I’m a writer, but because of Mrs. Sandberg, my first teacher in America.
When I moved to Whittier, Calif., from Iran in 1972, I spoke seven words of English: white, yellow, orange, red, blue, green, purple. Despite the language barrier, I immediately loved school, especially my second-grade classroom, where children’s artwork hung on the walls and where Mrs. Sandberg gave us small gifts when we finished our assignments. I had never experienced a teacher like her before. My teachers in Iran ruled with fear, not with eraser heads and scratch-and-sniff stickers.
I liked recess a lot less. Never having had P.E. before, and lacking both courage and upper-body strength, I found the monkey bars, those beloved stalwarts of 1970s playgrounds, to be the bane of my existence. One time, my friends Connie and Heather, who used to effortlessly zip back and forth on the monkey bars, managed to hoist me to the top, only to discover that I did not know how to get down. The bell rang. The playground emptied. There I remained, perched on top of the metal structure, like the last pomegranate on the highest branch of a tree. Minutes later, Mrs. Sandberg showed up, trailed by the entire classroom, their faces lit up, eager to witness what would undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most memorable days of second grade, for them. They formed a circle around Mrs. Sandberg, who repeatedly assured me that I could trust her. Wearing my new outfit from the Pretty Plus section of Sears, I hesitantly lowered one leg, then the other. After gentle coaxing, I finally let go. Holy backache, Mrs. Sandberg caught me in her outstretched arms!
My favorite part of the day was after lunch, when Mrs. Sandberg asked us to fold our arms on our desks and rest our heads while she read to us. Her kind and steady voice transported me to magical places where animals could talk and where kids, far braver than I, and probably with upper-body strength, had grand adventures.
At the end of second grade, I received an award for perfect attendance. I had not missed a single day of school, not because I never got sick, but because I refused to stay home and miss story hour. Any of Mrs. Sandberg’s unfinished stories was a cliffhanger for me.
And thus it was with the joyful memory of being read to that I named our group the Coronavirus Book Club: Reading Is Contagious!
At the first session, five kids showed up. I read to them and tried to engage in conversation. Whenever I asked a question, I was met with complete silence.
The following week, a few more kids showed up; they hesitantly started responding, but with one-word answers. I started singing my questions, imitating bad opera. I told them that I would continue singing until someone answered. Who knew the absence of vocal talent was an asset? The kids started answering more questions.
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The next session, they gave longer answers and more students participated in the conversations. I sang less.
The Coronavirus Book Club has quickly become the highlight of my week. I have slowly gotten to know the students and have grown fond of every single one of them. They have gone from being kids who never said a word to kids who are steadily but hesitantly sharing tidbits of their lives with me. I have seen their younger siblings on video, who are invited to stay and listen.
Reading out loud forces me to forget everything else for an hour. Immersed in a book, there is no pandemic, no rampant unemployment, nor is the country divided. I am on an amusement ride, totally engrossed in a different world.
I recently wondered if our post-lunch reading hour gave Mrs. Sandberg a chance to forget her world, too. The year 1972 was not an easy one. There was an unimaginable terrorist attack in Munich, Watergate was unfolding, and the Vietnam War raged on. The future looked frightening and uncertain.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that I loved Mrs. Sandberg and I couldn’t wait to hear what clever thing Charlotte, that ingenious spider, did next. During story hour, I could have a joyful childhood. I was not an outsider, or a child worried about her mother who didn’t speak English.
The school year ended a few weeks ago for my book club members. They are no longer required to attend online class. We took a vote to see what to do next. It was unanimous. The Coronavirus Book Club lives on!
While listening to “Charlotte’s Web” as a second grader, I was devastated when Charlotte died. The lessons I learned from her, however — make a difference, be kind, take care of one another — stayed with me.
I like to think that Mrs. Sandberg, who is no longer with us, would be proud to know that her legacy lives on in so many ways. I can’t pick up the phone and tell her about the book club or properly apologize for her having to carry me off the monkey bars, which in no way was part of her job description. But I can thank every educator like Linda who is trying to find creative ways to carry their students to safety during these difficult times. What you are doing now was never a part of your job description, and we know that. You will always be remembered, and that is a legacy reserved for heroes.
A version of this article appears in print on June 20, 2020, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: Why I Created a Book Club for Fifth Graders.