Buddies

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Yesterday, while walking home from school, two girls started calling out to my son from down the sidewalk. They were the most adorable 5th graders and so sweet and complimentary during our quick interchange. I heard them commenting, as we walked away, about Alex’s cute glasses and how much fun they have playing together on the yard. It meant the world to me, though, that they recognized him from afar, called him by name and had connected with him through the school relationship.

At my previous school in the East Bay, I walked into an established “buddy class” relationship when I began teaching back in 1998. Through Monica, the amazing 1st grade teacher I was partnered with, I learned the key tenants to 1st grade reading instruction. She would come in and mentor my 4th graders in strategies that she was using to help her students become fluent readers. We talked about the 1st graders by name, discussed their reading levels, brainstormed strategies and shared joys and successes together. It was such a sweet time of honesty and growth. Some of the strategies she shared with my students during those 10 years of partnership are still phrases and tips that are coming back to me now as my own child enters the stage of a beginning reader.

Even though we had some very special times together to celebrate events with our buddies like the Halloween Parade, making Gingerbread Houses, Valentine’s exchanging and inviting them to our English Tea Party, the relationships were forged between the students during the weekly reading sessions. Those half an hour, weekly encounters were not flashy or glamorous. There was a lot of hard work, many opportunities for 4th graders to exhibit patience and dole out lots of encouragement. 4th graders journaled each week about what they saw with the 1st graders, asking questions, getting strategy ideas from each other and reflecting on each session.

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The gift of longevity in the same school and the same grade level meant seeing the same little 1st graders enter my own classroom, 3 short years later, inches taller, handwriting perfected, minds expanded and reading mastered. Instead of pouring over sight words and using our reading fingers, we would sit huddled together in reading groups, sharing reflections of character’s decisions, discussing the deeper meaning of events or reoccurring themes in literature. We shed tears over relationships with dogs (there was a lot of tragedy in 4th grade literature!—Stone Fox, Because of Winn Dixie, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Strider). We questioned our country’s actions during the time of Japanese Internment while pouring over Journey to Topaz. The Gold Cadillac brought outrage at the injustices of the South during the mid 1900s. We laughed over Roald Dahl’s creativity and imagination in Danny, Champion of the World.

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I marveled, again and again, at the gift of those weekly, consistent relationships during Buddy time. The growth the 4th graders helped with in the 1st grader’s reading was no doubt small. But more often then not, the 4th graders experienced immense development themselves through the mentoring process. I have two places of similar mentoring happening in my own life. A few situations involve regular opportunities to mentor and work with individuals in ministry and teaching. Conversely, I also am growing through being mentored myself through spiritual direction. I am finding, despite different goals and intentions in each scenario, that growth is happening for me whether I am the mentor or the mentee.

Isn’t that the gift of mentoring relationships? Of “buddies”? In that sacred space shared while reading a simple picture book or in the connection forged over tea while sharing joys and struggles, we grow. Sometimes it feels like learning and deveopment are far off and slow going, but I am convinced, over time, that seeds are planted and consistency brings deeper relationships and change.

All this to say, I did a happy dance yesterday after that brief encounter with those 5th grade girls. They acknowledged my little kindergartener by name. He smiled a bit wider and dug out his Valentine from his buddy when we got home. That relationship will no doubt fade a bit as the year comes to a close and summer arrives, but the sentimental mom and teacher in me will hold out the potential that lies there, even in a simple “hello” on the sidewalk after school from a 5th grader.

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