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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thank You, Mrs. Ruthenbeck

Pin It How could I possibly choose a favorite book from my childhood?  I could just as easily have been asked to choose a favorite friend from my childhood, as this is what books were for me back then - trusted friends.  As I revisited each of my dear book-friends in my mind and thought of the lessons they've taught me and the moments we've shared I was able to narrow my choice down to two that really stand out. Both of these books were introduced to me in kindergarten.

As a child of parents who are both Deaf, sign language was the main method of communication used in our home and the one I was always most comfortable with.  We had family gatherings with my Aunt Betty and Uncle Jack, who were also both Deaf, and their kids.  We went to church with a Deaf congregation and pastor, and played with other kids at the local Deaf club on weekends.  From my 5-year-old perspective, the world was as fluent in sign as my family was.  Then came my first day of kindergarten.

I was excited, but apprehensive about being there.  My mom left when the other parents did, and my teacher, Mrs. Ruthenbeck, had us introduce ourselves to everyone.   Because I didn't know any better and felt most comfortable with signing, I used my hands rather than my voice in stating my name and favorite color.  To make a long story short, I learned that day the terrible truth that most of the world was not fluent in ASL.  I went home early because I refused to speak.  I cried.

This was the beginning of the discovery that I was different.  I was someone who did not completely fit in to the world of the Deaf or the world of the hearing.  The other kids must have thought I was strange due to my behavior on that first day - no one ever talked to me.  I became so quiet at school that my teacher worried.  She would come sit next to me along the kindergarten wall at recess and try to encourage me to play with the other kids.  She eventually asked if I'd like to stay inside the classroom and color or read a book.  This was how I ended up spending a good part of my kindergarten play time - at a table near the window, reading one of the many books in Mrs. Ruthenbeck's little classroom library.  Oh, how I loved to read.

One day I noticed a book I hadn't seen before, Leo the Lop. 
Even now as I write this, I feel emotion welling up inside of me. The story is about a rabbit, Leo, who is different from the other rabbits because his long ears hang down to the ground.  Leo tries to fit in and be like the other rabbits whose ears stand straight up, but his ears don't cooperate.  He and the other rabbits then meet a possum who teaches them that normal is whatever you are.

Normal Is Whatever You Are.  Normal is talking with your hands or your voice.  Normal is living in the Deaf world or the hearing world.  Normal is playing outside at recess or quietly reading a book to yourself.  Normal Is Whatever You Are.

Oh, how I loved those words!  I continued to read every day but always started or ended my play time in kindergarten by reading Leo the Lop.  And I still own a copy of the book today.

My other favorite book came about during Nap Time, when Mrs. Ruthenbeck would read to us from Charlotte's Web as we lay on our nap mats. 
I loved hearing of how Charlotte, a spider, became friends with Wilbur, a pig, and how hard she worked to make his life better.  I would lay there each day, eyes open wide, excited to hear what would happen next in Wilbur's adventure.

One day, near the end of the story, Mrs. Ruthenbeck stopped reading.  She told us that a very sad part was coming up and that it always made her cry, so she just couldn't read it to us.  In the same moment that I was thinking, You can't stop reading!  I need to know what happens next! she turned to me and asked, "Gerberta, would you read this part to the class for me?  You are such a good reader and it would be a great favor to me."  I couldn't believe it.  That looked like a pretty big book to a kindergartener.  I was scared for the tiniest moment, but of course I couldn't say no.

I walked to the front of the class, sat in Mrs. Ruthenbeck's Reading Chair, quickly glanced out at the faces of my classmates (who seemed just as surprised as I) and started to read.  I was amazed by how easily the words came to me and my confidence grew with each one.  I remember thinking, if I can read this book then I must be smart!

What a gift my teacher had given me.  Something magical happened after that day.  Somehow, things started to get better for me in kindergarten.  I started to play outside sometimes.  Kids would ask me to help them with letters or words that they couldn't quite get.  I started to look forward to going to school.  And Charlotte and I have remained great friends over the years.

All thanks to an amazing, intuitive kindergarten teacher.


Brown Thumb Mama said...

What a wonderful story! I, too, didn't fit in at school and was very shy. And most of my friends were books. Great teachers are true life-changers.

Gerb said...

BTM- Great teachers are the ones we never forget. Same with great books. :)

Kalei's Best Friend said...

Both of those books I remember.. I will never forget my oldest crying through Charlotte's Web.. Leo the Lop was a favorite as well.

Gerb said...

KBF- They're both great, aren't they? I think every kid should read them.

Teachinfourth said...

Leo the Lop is one of the books from my childhood that I remember so well. I'd forgotten about it, but now I remember just how wonderful it is.

Gerb said...

T5- All of the Serendipity series are pretty great, but Leo definitely stands out as my favorite.

Rachel said...

Yes! Leo the Loop!!! I'd forgotten about that one.

Growing up without a tv in the middle of no where books were my best friends. Oh the places I traveled, the things I became, the heros I cheered for, the tears I shed for the defeated.........

In 3rd grade I remember feeling so proud and confident because I was the best reader in my class. I felt I was terrible at everything else but I could read!

Lori said...

Gerb, what a beautiful, touching story, and such a fitting tribute to both of these stories. I can totally see you as a little girl.

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