Fifteen minutes really fly by when you are reading to a kid


I don't recall much about being 4 years old.

I did start school at 5 - which I remember vividly - but that was kind of a fluke, being a late-September baby and all. We didn't have kindergarten or preschool in the rural area where I grew up, so at 4 I'm sure I mostly just stumbled around and stared at things, played with the dog and got excited when my dad came home from work.

I certainly was not reading and writing at that age. If I had, my mom would have declared me a genius and embarrassed herself dragging me around to the neighbors and having me do genius-like things on command.

This comes to mind only because I get together every week with a group of 4-year-olds, and even though they're in Head Start, meaning they qualify as 'at risk' kids, they know all kinds of things I didn't know at their age.

OK, they're not exactly reading yet, but they know their alphabets, and they can spell their names and count to 20 or more. I was well into first grade before I accomplished most of those things, and it took even longer for me to make my peace with how the other two Michaels in my class spelled their name, compared to the avant garde spelling my mom had dreamed up.

My own Head Start reading buddies are Holly, Oscar, Cole and Jared - four pre-kindergarten kids with whom I get to spend 15 minutes (each) every Thursday afternoon, and they're about as dissimilar as any four people you could pick out of a crowd.

Because Oscar's birthday was last month, they're now all 4.

The way it normally works is, I read and they listen. But it can vary drastically.

Officially, I'm with them as part of the SMART reading program: Start Making a Reader Today. At my school, Metzger Elementary, the 'regular' SMART kids (in grades K through 3) are in a classroom. Our group meets in a different place, out in this open area beween some other rooms.

Not that we mind, of course. We have a good time. And, in the case of my four kids, it's four distinctly different kinds of good times.

Holly likes to push the envelope. Last week we read the same 'Blues Clues' story four times. Technically, it was really about Blue's friend Magenta. And after we finished it the first time, I closed the book and gave my patented this-story's-over line: 'The end.'

'Again!' shouted Holly.

'Really?' I asked, not sure she was serious, because she usually accompanies such proclamations with a big grin.

'Again!' she said - again with the smile. So we read it again. By the time our 15 minutes were up, we both almost knew it by heart.

The only surprises Oscar brings to our reading time is his amazing attitude.

A short while back, he came marching out of his classroom to the reading area in a spiffy red Spiderman T-shirt and announced, 'I'm having a really great day!'

Last week, he came on a dead run from recess and jumped into the chair from 3 or 4 feet away.

'Boy!' he said, clearly impressed by his own athleticism. 'I was going really fast.'

Cole is very serious. He doesn't smile a lot, and it sometimes takes him several minutes to select a book, partly because he's so particular; he really prefers the books that 'do' something, with pop-ups or wheels you turn or trap doors that open to reveal key plot elements.

And Jared I call 'the quiet one.' He doesn't talk. This is probably because he's unsure of his English, though he seems to understand when I ask him questions. The answers always come in the form of 'yes' or 'no' shakes of the head.

It does amaze me, though, to think what these guys will know as time goes on - when they're, you know, no longer 4.

Former editor of the Lake Oswego Review and former managing editor of the Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, Mikel Kelly handles special sections for Community Newspapers and contributes a regular column.