This past school year I was part of a volunteer program called Read to a Child. Every Wednesday at lunch, each adult partners with the same child for the whole school year and spends the lunch period reading to him/her. I partnered with another volunteer so that we could alternate weeks and we had many email conversations trying to figure out the kid we read to. Let’s call him Mike.
The program sponsors told the volunteers early on that the kids selected for the program fall into two categories: Either they are behind in reading skills or they just need some extra attention. We were advised we would know early on which it was for our kids. It didn’t take long to uncover which was the case for Mike.
If you have ever seen me around kids, I am usually totally goofy and high energy. Kids tend to respond to me off the bat. I am used to bonding with kids so I was a bit taken aback when I first met Mike. He’s a shy and very introverted kid. It was difficult to gauge his mood or know if he was enjoying reading time. After each book that we would read, we would have to ask the kids how much they enjoyed it. They would select a smiley face that ranged from really disliked to totally loved it. No matter what we read to Mike, he always picked the happiest smiley. Sometimes when reading he seemed a bit distracted so I was never convinced he was totally into the whole story thing. I would look around the room at the other kids and their volunteers and notice such different behaviors. The kids would be excited and initiating conversations with their readers. Most of them were leaning into the adults as they were being read to whereas Mike often sat across from me or if next to me, there was a noticeable gap between us.
He never really laughed or smiled and it actually made me a bit sad. I wondered if he was always like this at school and at home. Was he getting enough attention? Did he have friends to play with? Was he the kid who just went unnoticed?
Then one day, I selected a classic Curious George. The story was about George and the Man with the Yellow Hat going to a vet’s office where George got into some trouble (spoiler alert!) and let puppies out of their cage. Mike for the first time laughed, smiled and got excited. “Whoa! Look at the puppies!” He was so enthralled with the book that he was stopping me before flipping pages and making observations and comments. It was one of the sweetest things I have ever seen.
Slowly as the program went on week after week, my partner and I were noticing subtle differences in Mike. We got a better sense of what books he really liked and he seemed less distracted by the other kids. He would ask questions and turn pages back if he wanted to look at something again. I even noticed he was sitting a bit closer to me and every now and then I would get smiles from him. The last session, both my partner and I went to read together. We also were able to gift him a book so you can guess what our selection was (not surprising, it was a compilation of Curious George stories). He seemed so touched by the gesture and the attention and it was such an endearing session. We got feedback from teachers on how much of a difference the program made on Mike and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me a little teary eyed.
Of course volunteering is about giving back to someone else. That’s a given. I too though got so much out of it. It brings to life the cheesy cliché about how if you make a difference in even one person’s life, you have done your job.
The bigger lesson though I realize is the importance of not overlooking the quiet ones. Whether it is children or adults, it is so easy to gravitate towards the liveliest person in a room or the prettiest or the funniest. People are drawn to energy, that too is a given. But sometimes the person who needs a little nudge or attention is the one who we almost don’t notice. We take for granted that even the tiniest gestures can make the biggest difference on someone. Mike made me work a bit more than the average kid to gain his trust and boost his confidence. I know that by coming back week after week even though he wasn’t overtly telling me “thanks Missy I love this reading program!” helped him get a little extra bounce in his step.
It is easy to judge the quiet ones and make false assumptions (believe it or not, I am innately a shy person and I have been told that my quietness has been mistaken for snobbery). So my parting advice is to not give up on someone if your first attempt at contact doesn’t result in a warm reception. Some of us, kids and adults, take longer to warm up to people. When you hang in there especially with kids and gain their trust, it is amazing the impact you just may have on him/her.