As a tutor in writing and literacy for children, I learn so many valuable lessons from my students. Lessons like: paint the sky violet with pink hearts, ask how things work, and fall in love with the small things often.
For the last year, I’ve been sharpening pencils for an eight-year-old girl, Lilly, who fills her journal pages with scathing reviews of sad, soggy cafeteria food, stream-of-conscious rants about her younger brother giving her the finger when adults aren’t looking, bossy girlfriends, and how having to do everything grownups tell you to do is just, like, totally unfair. When we began working together, she was frustrated when I asked her to write fiction.
“Name three things that you can’t live without,” I prompted.
“I don’t know,” she replied
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I tried.
“What if a unicorn could fly you to school every day?” I asked, trying to get her attention.
“That could never happen.”
I surmised that her imagination may take a backseat to her rigorous extra-curricular schedule of piano lessons, soccer practice, gymnastics, and academic tutors. She rarely just plays outside or visits the children’s park steps away from her house.
While a lack of time may limit her daydreaming, Lilly is also an inherently a pragmatic person and, like me, she enjoys writing about the real. I stopped asking her to write about what she couldn’t see and focused on her feelings and real-life experiences – culinary delights, complicated friendships, and familial highs and lows. I cued up videos about Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, and Marie Curie and assigned her writing prompts involving inventions, discoveries, and top-secret cases. Anything that has a key or code is fascinating to her. She loves secrets and knowing the truth about things.
Last week, I asked her if she knew how our mail system worked.
“Planes,” she replied, rolling her eyes at me.
I pressed on. “What about before airplanes and trains?”
She shrugged her shoulders as I adjusted the volume of an animated film about the Pony Express. Afterwards, I gave her two options: write about delivering mail in the 1800s or choose a person to send a letter to and describe how it will be delivered to them today. She put her head down, pressed a number two pencil into the lined paper and stopped after the first sentence.
“Do you need help?” I asked.
“Why do I have to pretend to write a letter? Can’t I just write it instead?”
I squeezed the hand of my little memoirist. “Good idea. Write the real letter.”
I used to scribble down my own story alongside her and, at the end of the hour, we’d read them to each other. Since the school year started, we’d shifted focus to the editing process: penmanship, grammar, and spelling errors. I stopped writing and waited to correct her mistakes. As she was writing her letter, I was unconsciously doodling tulips on a piece of paper. Lilly looked down at my paper, flipped over my drawing, and patted the stark white sheet of paper. Write your letter, that pat said.
I nodded, wrote two words, and laid my pencil down to rest. I could’ve chosen anyone in the world, real or imagined, but these days, the only name my right hand will write is Dad. I knew that I couldn’t carry on without crying and, while I’d written and shared several essays about his recent passing in writing classes and at readings around the city, none of them were addressed to him. I looked at the glitter clips holding Lilly’s braided bun in place and remembered how my Dad weaved Goody barrettes into my hair and told me that everyone should see my pretty face. My eyes caught the edge of Lilly’s journal; she was writing about her dad too.
The pencil became a heavy weight to lift off the industrial wooden desk we worked from as I angled the leaden point onto the page and traced over the letters.
Lilly looked over her shoulder at my page, then respectfully gave me my space as I’d taught her to do.
The pencil negotiated the emptiness of the paper, creating loops and lines that were intrinsically intertwined. The soft “a” needed a straight “t” to be understood. Consonants and vowels spilled onto the page like a sudden rainstorm that left as soon as it came. I had no idea what my story was about. I frantically swallowed tears while racing through strategies to avoid sharing my letter with Lilly. Adults are not supposed to cry, especially tutors hired to teach verb-tense agreements, using the five senses, and how to be an awesome grammar girl. I checked my phone for the time. We had 10 minutes left for sharing.
“Let’s hear your story,” I said.
During our sessions, we’d worked on projecting our voices, pausing at the end of each sentence, and reading with intention and emotion. Our voice tells its own story, I’ve told her.
That night, she spoke uncharacteristically clear and loud. There was an urgency in her voice. A determination to be heard, for her needs to be met.
“Dear Dad, I miss you soooooo much!!!! When are you going to visit me? I hope that you will be here soon and we can go to the movies together. I learned that it will take eight or 10 days for you to get this letter, but it used to take a month with the Pony Express. Now they have airplanes and postmen. I was a bumblebee for Halloween and Jake was a pirate. So can you be here soon? Love, your daughter (who hasn’t seen you in a long, long, long time).”
I knew that her dad lived in London and visited a few times a year. I’ve picked up on the ways that his absence has shaped her personality. She’s guarded, but sometimes she forgets herself, slipping an arm around mine or resting her head on my shoulder while we read books to each other. She’s not overly sentimental, but she’s intensely thoughtful. She’s taught me the difference between the two.
“Read me yours,” she prompted me.
I inhaled. “Not today. Why don’t you design a stamp and envelope to send your letter with?” I tried, hoping to distract her.
If there’s something Lilly could do all day, it’s art projects. No matter how many times I’ve reminded her that I’m her writing tutor, she still begs me to let her draw and make things. I allow her to sketch pictures to accompany her stories; sometimes we make books or writing wands or mobiles. But that day, she ignored my question, gently removed the tear-stained paper from my hands, and read my letter aloud:
“Dear Dad,” she started as she swung her head back like an adult. “I was thinking of the time you bought me a kid’s bed that you swore was a full-sized mattress. You came to visit me because there was a train strike and called dibs on my bed. I listened to you tossing and turning from the pull-out couch followed by a loud thud as you fell off the stupid mattress.”
She paused. “Wait, why did he buy you a kid’s bed? Didn’t he know that you were a grown up?”
My irises sunk to the bottom of two wishing wells. “I guess not.”
She cocked her head and returned to the page.
“We laughed uncontrollably as the moon threw a spotlight on the wooden floor of my tiny West Village apartment, not just because the bed was ridiculous, but because we were both so stubborn.
“When you really want to have things your way,” I supplied.
“Okay.” She continued. “We dress in rough leather jackets to hide our eggshell hearts.” She looked at me again. “How is a heart like an egg?”
“It means that our hearts are fragile and can be broken.” I knew that this was something she’d ask me about weeks from now. When we think that kids don’t understand or are aren’t listening, they are turning our words over in their minds like a song.
“You forgot to write ‘The End,’” she reminded me.
The end. Everything that I’d stuffed inside me found its way outside of me. I coaxed heaving sounds down my windpipe and wiped my face on my sweater as she put her tiny arm around my shoulders.
“It’s okay, Marnie,” she told me.
I cried even harder.
“You miss him a lot…I miss my dad too.” She hesitated. “Then, your dad… he died?”
“Yes, but he was very old.” I regained my composure, reminding myself that I was there to do a job. Not just to teach, but to be the adult for her. “You know, he’s an angel now, so I don’t have to write him letters. I can talk to him anytime.” I didn’t believe this, but it sounded good, I thought.
She considered this. “I think that you should still write him letters.”
“Where do I send them?” I was asking myself, but I said the words aloud.
For years, I’d written letters to my dad that I’d never sent, especially during the times when, like Lilly, I felt like I wasn’t being seen or heard by him. I wanted to be the most important person in his life. But unlike Lilly’s father, my dad was a constant in my childhood. He was my best friend, my protector, my first date, my superhero. When I grew up, we drifted apart. I spent years trying to find a way back to him, but before I could figure it out, his heart gave out. Mine carried on, aching for the dad I knew that he was capable of being.
During that writing session, my eight-year-old first grade reader gave me the answer on how to speak to my father again.
“Just put it in the mailbox. They’ll know how to deliver it to him.”
Maybe it was that simple. If I write the words and address it to him, the words will find him.