I casually toss books into my cart as I stroll through the aisles at my local Target store. Teaching the Princess and the Pirate to read has been the highlight of my summer, and books, real books, the ones you hold in your hands and flip the pages for yourself, fascinate them, like they do me. My babies love books as presents, and I love reading them with the girls, teaching them the words that appear with the most frequency, hoping they’ll remember them next time.
“B-U-G-S”, I say as I tap under each letter dramatically.
“BBBUUUGGGSSS!” they drag out, loud and in unison.
We practice our spider walks with our fingers and buzz around like bees and busy ourselves moving things about like ants. We sit on the porch or walk down the block, hoping to spot some bug or another, and we wonder where the rest of the bug family is hiding. We grab crayons or finger paint to create a bug sanctuary on construction paper, and we look at pictures on the computer of bugs from far away places.
I think of all of this as I casually toss the bug book into the cart. The girls are going to love this one, I muse as I turn toward the checkout.
I remember that I’m in desperate need of an Isley Brothers Greatest Hits CD before I leave, so I double back, heading toward the music section. As I carelessly walk looking too hard at the flashcards lining a top shelf, I nearly crash into a little dark boy sitting on a bottom shelf. The sight so strikes me, that I pause for a moment longer than necessary. He was sitting there reading.
Now, the video game section was only steps away and the interactive books were right across the aisle, but there he was with a magazine in hand reading. I’m ashamed to say that I walked over to see what he was reading, knowing that it was a cheat code video gaming magazine, but it isn’t. Just a run-of-the-mill teen magazine. And this boy is nowhere near teenaged. He couldn’t have been any more than 8 or 9. He was so engrossed that he didn’t notice me hover over him, search in vain for some older relative, and wonder whether I should I suggest some great book to him. All of a sudden he smiles and chuckles softly to himself, never once looking up from the magazine. Never once taking notice of the obviously crazy woman staring at him.
The veteran teacher in me knows that he’s comprehending whatever he’s reading. I also know that he needs glasses, which is why his face is so close to the text. I know that this isn’t the first day he’s worn that outfit since the last wash. I know that he’s alone, and I know that he’s using this Target aisle as his personal library. There’s something about the way he’s sitting, all scrunched up and comfortable that let’s me know that this isn’t the first time he’s done this, and I secretly root for him by saying nothing to the workers about his presence.
Keep reading, little man, I whisper to his soul. It’s the only way out.
I forget all about my Isley Brothers clean-the-house-mix until I walk into my back door, greeted by a pile of laundry I must get to at once. I opt for turning on the news, just to see what’s happening in the world, and what flashes across the screen is the older face of a boy I once taught, accused of murdering another young man. I turn off the television (that’s too real for me at the moment), and I smile as I think of my anonymous little friend sitting on a bottom shelf at Target.
Keep reading, little man. It’s the only way out.