The most striking thing about reading to a class of four year olds at Opportunity School was seeing their eyes on me. Ten pairs of clear, bright, hopeful eyes; looking up at me from where they sat on the floor, waiting to see and hear happens next. I’m not used to it. I’m used to being here, tucked away in the shack, by myself, unnoticed. Those twenty young eyes took me back.
They took me back thirty years ago, when my two kids looked at me like that. What’s for breakfast? Where are we going? What are we doing? Such innocent questions. Such hopefulness. Only four eyes in my house, but they saw everything. I was constantly reminded of my responsibility as the adult. The parent. It’s important how you answer.
It took me back to when my kids went to this school. In fact, I was a visiting Dad in this very room. So many kids have gone to this school. It started in 1968 as the brainchild of a thinking woman from the church where it is still housed. Put kids in groups. Let them play together. Guide their energy more than teach them. Make school a positive experience. My kids were once sitting cross legged on that floor.
The teachers of course were in charge from the time I walked through the door Wednesday until I left. The kids were already in their places, marked by tape on the carpet, sitting quietly. One of the teachers introduced me and they greeted me with smiles. Most volunteered their name. It was a chorus of names and engaging smiles, trying to get my attention.
I sat down on a bench by the wall. That’s when the impact of their eyes hit me. I was on. I asked them if they liked listening to people read. They nodded. One smiling kid said his Grandpa read to him. I said I sometimes liked to listen to books being read through ear buds. We were underway. I had begun.
A talkative boy in the middle, busting to say something, said he had new shoes. He extended one leg and pointed. He demonstrated how they fastened with Velcro. A girl on the edge of the group, not to be outdone, announced that she had new boots. The group was pretty interested. I was losing it quickly.
You forget so easily that phrases like “off the subject” represent adult concepts. I think to the four year olds we were simply engaged in a talk. And if you said something, that was indeed talking, and it fit right in. My discomfort that we were suddenly talking about shoes rather than the topic I had introduced, listening to people read, didn’t register in those twenty eyes. The teacher reached over and touched the boy on that new shoe he had shown me.
“Let’s see what book Mr. McClure has picked out for us to hear.”
Thank you, I thought to myself.
And I launched into Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. As soon as I began to read they settled in. They listened very well for the most part. At one absolutely random point the kid with the new shoes began talking about his new video game. I realized I had picked a book with a lot of words for four year olds. I began to read faster, and pointed out the illustrations. I had to work to keep their attention.
I like the book because it is built around an outrageous concept. Grandpa is making pancakes for his grand kids, recklessly, and flips one through the air. That inspires him to tell the story of the town of CHewandSwallow, where it doesn’t rain rain, it rains food. The people of ChewandSwallow don’t go to the store to buy food. Instead they carry plates and cups, forks and spoons, and napkins of course, with them as they go through their day. And when it is time for lunch, for example, they go outside, hold out their plates, and catch a hamburger that falls from clouds, usually followed by ketchup and slices of onions, with French fries blowing in from the east.
There is enough food for everyone. City workers clean the streets after meals like bus boys and dispose of the leftover food in an ecologically friendly way, and life in the small town of ChewandSwallow goes merrily along.
The kids sat rapt, their attention on the growing amount of color in the illustrations. I pointed out the syrup falling in perfect drops on nicely rounded pancakes, and milk filling glasses held outside of umbrellas.
“If you lived in ChewandSwallow what kind of food would you like it to rain?”
A chorus of responses resulted. The teacher quickly announced they should hold their hands and wait till I called on them. They obeyed. I pointed to the girl on the outside of the group with the new boots.
“Salad with ranch dressing.”
“Oh yeah,” I said.
“How about you?”
I called on the quiet boy in the first row. He was sober and thoughtful. Finally he decided.
“Spaghetti with the kind of sauce that has hamburger in it.”
A murmur of approval went through the small crowd.
“And you?” I had called on the boy with the new shoes.
The very thought of pizza falling from the skies brought the house down. One girl jumped to her feet. It took a while to establish decorum after that. Thank god for the teachers.
Conflict, which is needed in every book, is created in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs when the weather turns violent. Huge porterhouse steaks crash through skylights and windows. Mashed potatoes pile up in the streets like snowdrifts and city crews can’t plow through them. They abandon their efforts. Pancakes become so big they cover the houses. One covers the school and the students can’t get out.
“What if a pancake covered this school?” I asked. I pointed to the window beside us. “We would look out and all we would see was pancake.”
They looked at the window incredulously. I went back to the text.
“And then one day they heard a loud sound and what did they see but a tomato tornado!”
I pointed to a large red funnel cloud with tomato stems and seeds flying around inside it. The mere sight of the tornado produced a chorus of comments.
“”We saw a tornado too and my Mom took us to the basement with our cat.”
“My Grandpa went to the basement but he left the door open upstairs and when he came up everything was blown all around. He can’t find some of his stuff.”
The stories continued. Unlike before, the teacher and I looked at each other and silently agreed to hear them out. It seemed cathartic. I had forgotten all about the tomato tornado. Just a month ago a tornado hit our community. That there was a tornado reference in the book I picked was a fortunate coincidence.
And then I closed the book and the teachers directed them to thank me which they did profusely. Loudly. Especially the kid with the new shoes.
“Mr. McClure can we take your picture?”
The kids crowded around me where I sat on the wooden bench. I was hoping I could get off that bench gracefully. She needed them to get closer. They crowded in. I felt a tiny hand on my calf. It was the quiet guy who wanted it to rain spaghetti. I looked out of the corner of my eye at him. He smiled.
“Look at the camera.”
We both looked straight ahead. The teacher took the picture.