The life of a high-powered literary agent in New York City seems about the farthest thing from my life as a teacher serving largely low-income students in southeast Nashville. It is certainly far removed from the life of my students, many of whom are recent immigrants from Africa and South America. But the kindness of a complete stranger brought these disparate worlds together to change a student’s life. What may have seemed like a small action helped open up a new world for my student and enabled him to connect with his classmates.
Early this school year, I met a brand new fourth grade student who moved from Egypt to Nashville. He only spoke Arabic. This is not unusual at Rocketship United Academy, as we have a wildly diverse student population. Our students come from dozens of different countries and nearly 50 percent are classified as English Language Learners. Nonetheless, language barriers are challenging. I could not read, write, speak or understand a single letter in Arabic.
During the first week of school I pulled him out of class and used a translator app to ask him a series of questions to learn his story. He shook his head yes or no and sometimes shrugged his shoulders. After an hour I learned that he loves animals, playing dodgeball and has two little sisters. He headed back to class with a tremendous smile. He had been heard.
In my student’s fourth grade humanities class, we use “read alouds” to give students a chance to get lost in the magic of a story. This fall, we were reading the hit book-turned-movie, “Wonder.” It’s a wonderful story for all ages—if you haven’t read it, you should. My students love it. Except for my new friend from Egypt. As I turned the page, I would catch a glimpse of him zoning out due to lack of access to the text. So I tried to order him a copy in his home language so he could enjoy the story too. But when I went to order the Arabic text it came up as $600 or not available.
This didn’t seem possible. It is 2019, “Wonder” is one of the most popular children’s novels of this generation and Arabic is the fourth most common language in the world. The book’s publisher said it has been translated into more than 40 languages, yet I was unable to find an Arabic copy.
I asked some colleagues and friends for help. We all fell short. Next, I tried a college friend who works for the publisher, Random House. No luck. So I tried a cold email to another department at the publisher. And then when that didn’t work, I tried another one, was redirected, and got a bounce back with an “out of office” message. At this point, it felt like a dead end. But every day it killed me to see our student unable to join his classmates in discovering the joy of “Wonder.”
A few weeks later an email from an unfamiliar name popped-up in my inbox:
We would love to send you a copy of Wonder in Arabic for your student. Would you send me your preferred mailing address, please?”
The book arrived less than a week later with a letter, again from an unfamiliar name and company. Tracing back the email chain and upon some Google searches I realized that the book was sent from the agent of “Wonder’s” author! Her assistant is the one who reached out and mailed the novel.
A Smile Lit Up His Face
Bringing our student the unopened package has to be one of my favorite moments as a teacher. As his class filed in from lunch, they began whisper as they eyed the mysterious package on the table, knowing something special was about to happen.
I beckoned my student over and he slowly opened the box. First taking out a letter resting on top, he quickly put it to the side and grabbed the book. I think it took him a moment to realize what it was, but once he recognized the book art, his eye widened and a smile lit up his face.
His classmates clapped and were so excited for him to get to experience August’s journey with them. This person who is working in New York City, a thousands miles from Nashville, Tennessee, has no idea how happy they made a student and how much this mattered for him to feel a part of a shared experience with his classmates.
Recently, my colleague asked the student what he likes about his new school. He said, “People care about me here.” When she asked him what makes him feel that way, he didn’t say a word. He just pointed to his Arabic copy of “Wonder.”
Before a child can learn in a classroom they need to feel safe and cared for. In doing so, their affective filter is lowered so they are open to participate, even when it’s hard or means making a mistake. His copy of “Wonder” has been symbolic of that. Now, the book sits on top of the shelf in his reading class, across from his desk. Even though the class finished the book he still keeps it out to look at and remember he’s cared for.
Breakthroughs like this are why I love teaching. The lightbulb moments when a student becomes fully immersed in the joy of learning. To the literary agent who made this breakthrough possible, thank you.