Sunday, September 12, 2021

picture book

In 2007, I started working at my first real office job. This was at a mid-size, East coast law firm. Sure, I had worked in "offices" before, but this time I had my very own office. It wasn't much bigger than a closet, with just enough space to snugly fit a desk, a chair and a couple of narrow bookshelves, which — over the course of the dozen years I worked there — I managed to fill with hundreds of little knick-knacks, action figures, wind-ups and all sorts of odds & ends to give the appearance of the workspace of a six-year old.

When I arrived at my new job, I found a corkboard on the wall of my office that had belonged to the previous occupant. There were a few business cards and outdated memos tacked up in the corners, along with a pin-back button proudly proclaiming a participant in the "Philly READS" program. With a little investigation, I discovered that "Philly READS" was a partnership with area businesses to promote reading among elementary school students. Once per week, participating students were brought in to area offices where volunteer readers (i.e. office rank & file) read appropriate age-level books to said students. It's a mutually beneficial experience in that workers do something for the community and the students hopefully develop a love for reading. In a very un-Josh Pincus-like action, I signed myself up for the upcoming Philly READS session that was scheduled to begin in a week or so. Some of my new co-workers, who had already discovered my cynical, sardonic and sarcastic side, were quite surprised by my initiative. I can honestly say, I was surprised, as well.

On the first day of the Philly READS session, my fellow reading volunteers made their way into the law firm's large library that was housed on the 38th floor of a Philadelphia office building. Soon, a single-file line of the tiniest humans were led in by their teacher, a cheerful vivacious young woman who didn't resemble any teacher I had in elementary school. She read from an official-looking sheet of paper and called out each student's name, followed by the name of one of my fellow office workers. These would be the permanent pairings for reading for as long as the multi-week session lasted. The teacher called out my name and I raised my hand. She smiled at me and guided a little girl in my direction. 

"This is Melody.," she said.

I smiled and said "Hi there, Melody." As I offered a little wave of my hand. Melody shyly shuffled her little feet as she stood behind the teacher. She didn't look at me.

The teacher said, "This is Josh." Melody didn't care. 

I pointed to a nearby table where several other student-worker pairs had already taken seats and began reading their chosen books in hushed tones. 

Yeah! Look at 'em go!
"Over here, Melody." I said. Melody took off her puffy coat, revealing an outfit of mismatched colors. She climbed up on a chair and produced a book from her backpack. She slid it across the table in my direction. So far, she had not spoken a word. I looked at the title and immediately recognized it  Curious George Visits the Zoo. It was one of my son's favorites and I read it to him often when he was a child.  I hadn't read it in years though, as my son — at this time — was in his sophomore year at college. I opened the book and began to read. Melody finally looked at me as I read, but still didn't utter a word.

This particular entry in the Curious George canon is fairly short. I evidentially plowed though the entire story at pretty speedy clip, leaving a lot of time until the session was over. I looked at Melody. Melody looked around the library, seeming to consciously not want to make eye contact with me. An idea popped into my head. I grabbed a blank piece of paper from the tray of a nearby copier and started drawing little doodles that I thought might amuse Melody. I drew a close approximation of Spongebob Squarepants from memory. At the time, Spongebob was a pretty popular cartoon character among children Melody's age... I supposed. Melody studied my pen strokes as the character began to take shape. As I drew his spindly legs and protruding teeth, Melody spoke her first word to me.

"Squidward!," she said.

We're ALL Squidward.
Hmmm..... maybe I'm not as good as I thought
, I wondered to myself. I didn't exactly correct her. I just said, "That's Spongebob." She looked at me as though I was speaking a foreign language. I continued to draw, this time, attempted to capture Spongebob's pal Patrick. When I finished, Melody identified Patrick as "Squidward." I frowned. I tried again, now actually taking a crack at Squidward, seeing as his likeness had been sort-of requested. Melody correctly guessed "Squidward" this time, although technically I was baiting her. By this time, Melody's teacher announced for the students to line up for their return trip to school. I helped Melody on with her coat and waved "goodbye" to her. She beelined to the gathering group of students. She did not return my wave.

The next week — and for every subsequent week — Melody brought Curious George Visits the Zoo for me to read to her. I never questioned. I just read the book, Over the course of the Philly READS session, Melody slowly, slowly, opened up. She began to smile and react to the silly I voices I supplied for the different characters in the book. She began to talk a little. She would get a piece of paper for me to draw pictures for her. She still called everything I drew "Squidward," but I didn't care. Or maybe everything I drew just looked like Spongebob's tentacled pal to her.

One day, after I had finished reading Curious George Visits the Zoo and began drawing pictures, Melody — out of nowhere and totally unprompted — said "My dad shot my mom."

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! was all I heard in my head.

"What?" I asked. Melody repeated the same five words in the same, matter-of-fact tone. She continued to look down, paying close attention to a little drawing that she was doing on her own. She didn't elaborate on her jarring statement and I sure as hell wasn't going to press for details. I just drew my little pictures and Melody just tagged each one "Squidward" — same as always. I didn't question her teacher or other students or anyone. I just let it go.

Soon summer approached and the school year was coming to an end. As an end-of-program special treat, the readers were invited to visit the student's school for reading, pizza and a little surprise entertainment. We were bussed to the school which was not too far from our office. In the classroom, each reader took a seat next to their student partner's desk. We read our books. (Guess which one we read?) Afterwards, the students, as a group, sang a little song and then we all ate pizza. When the final session was over. I said "goodbye" to Melody, telling her it was a pleasure to read to her for the past few months.

Melody hugged me.

I never participated in Philly READS for the remaining decade-plus that I worked at the law firm. Nothing could have topped that.

(Just a quick footnote, Melody is probably 21 by now.)

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