At first glance, Ronny looked like every other kid in the first-grade classroom where I volunteered as the Reading Mom. Wind-blown hair, scuffed shoes, a little bit of dirt behind his ears, some kind of sandwich smear around his mouth.
On closer inspection, though, the layer of dirt on Ronny’s face, the crusty nose, and the packed grime under his fingernails told me he didn’t get dirty at school. He arrived that way.
His clothes were ragged and mismatched, his sneakers had string for laces, and his backpack was no more than a plastic shopping bag.
Along with his outward appearance, Ronny stood apart from his classmates in other ways, too. He had a speech impediment, wasn’t reading or writing at grade-level, and had already been held back a year, making him eight-years-old in the first grade. His home life was a shambles with transient parents who uprooted him at their whim. He had yet to live a full year in any one place.
I quickly learned that beneath his grungy exterior, Ronny possessed a spark, a resilience that I’d never seen in a child who faced such tremendous odds.
I worked with all the students in Ronny’s class on a one-on-one basis to improve their reading skills. Each day, Ronny’s head twisted around as I came into the classroom, and his eyes followed me as I set up in a corner, imploring, “Pick me! Pick me!” Of course I couldn’t pick him every day. Other kids needed my help, too.
On the days when it was Ronny’s turn, I’d give him a silent nod, and he’d fly out of his chair and bound across the room in a blink. He sat awfully close -- too close for me in the beginning, I must admit -- and opened the book we were tackling as if he were unearthing a treasure the world had never seen.
I watched his dirt-caked fingers move slowly under each letter as he struggled to sound out “Bud the Sub.” It sounded more like “Baw Daw Saw” when he said it because of his speech impediment and his difficulty with the alphabet.
Each word offered a challenge and a triumph wrapped as one; Ronny painstakingly sounded out each letter, then tried to put them together to form a word. Regardless if “ball” ended up as Bah-lah or “bow,” the biggest grin would spread across his face, and his eyes would twinkle and overflow with pride. It broke my heart each and every time. I just wanted to whisk him out of his life, take him home, clean him up and love him.
Many nights, after I’d tucked my own children into bed, I’d sit and think about Ronny. Where was he? Was he safe? Was he reading a book by flashlight under the blan-kets? Did he even have blankets?
The year passed quickly and Ronny had made some progress but hardly enough to bring him up to grade level. He was the only one who didn’t know that, though. As far as he knew, he read just fine.
A few weeks before the school year ended, I held an awards ceremony. I had treats, gifts and certificates of achievement for everyone: Best Sounder-Outer, Most Expressive, Loudest Reader, Fastest Page-Turner.
It took me awhile to figure out where Ronny fit; I needed something positive, but there wasn’t really much. I finally decided on “Most Improved Reader” -- quite a stretch, but I thought it would do him a world of good to hear.
I presented Ronny with his certificate and a book -- one of those Little Golden Books that cost forty-nine cents at the grocery store checkout. Tears rolled down his cheeks, streaking the ever-permanent layer of dirt as he clutched the book to his chest and floated back to his seat. I choked back the lump that rose in my throat.
I stayed with the class for most of the day; Ronny never let go of the book, not once. It never left his hands.
A few days later, I returned to the school to visit. I noticed Ronny on a bench near the playground, the book open in his lap. I could see his lips move as he read to himself
His teacher appeared beside me. “He hasn’t put that book down since you gave it to him. He wears it like a shirt, close to his heart. Did you know that’s the first book he’s ever actually owned?”
Fighting back tears, I approached Ronny and watched over his shoulder as his grimy finger moved slowly across the page. I placed my hand on his shoulder and asked, “Will you read me your book, Ronny?” He glanced up, squinted into the sun, and scooted over on the bench to make room for me.
And then, for the next few minutes, he read to me with more expression, clarity, and ease than I’d ever thought possible from him. The pages were already dog-eared, like the book had been read thousands of times already.
When he finished reading, Ronny closed his book, stroked the cover with his grubby hand and said with great satisfaction, “Good book.”
A quiet pride settled over us as we sat on that play-ground bench, Ronny’s hand now in mine. I at once wept and marveled at the young boy beside me. What a powerful contribution the author of that Little Golden Book had made in the life of a disadvantaged child.
At that moment, I knew I would get serious about my own writing career and do what that author had done, and probably still does -- care enough to write a story that changes a child’s life, care enough to make a difference.
I strive to be that author.