It’s my turn to be the ‘Mystery Reader’ in my 5 year old daughter, Adelina’s class. Her kindergarten teacher does a neat thing where parents are invited to come in and read some books to the class, all the while keeping it a secret whose parent is going to show up.
Of course I am running late to get out of the house at the assigned time and I have to rush to pick out the books I want to take with me to read. I want to pick ones that will entertain and also reflect Adelina’s taste. I’d also like to pick big picture books that will be easy for all the children to see, but this is one of the first criteria I throw out the window as my time dwindles away. I also try to pick some books that have some diverse characters, but this is easier said than done, because we have returned the Gary Soto books to the library, and I lament my own lame collection of diverse children’s literature. I also blame the publishing industry that seems to ignore or pigeonhole children’s books featuring children of color. As I round up, “Fancy Nancy,” “Ladybug Girl”, and “Bear’s Shadow,” I’m not entirely satisfied, but it’s time to go and these are three books that Adelina especially likes.
I hurry to the school and ring the bell outside the main entrance. It’s a little unnerving to have to wait there knowing that an administrative assistant is eyeing me through the camera mounted next to the doorbell. I feel as if I am being judged. I figure they are on the lookout for disgruntled parents or people engaged in ugly custody battles trying to see their schoolchildren without permission. I try to appear safe and happy. I don’t think it really matters anyway – there never seems to be a long enough time to allow anyone to stop whatever it is they are doing and do any kind of modest evaluation of me through the camera and they probably just buzz everyone into the building. When I walk into the school part of me feels like a little kid and adults seem more intimidating than in other places. I also wonder at the effect of architecture and the arrangement of space and how it is not folly to make our schools more attractive places to spend time for our children, more sunlight and less boxy regimentation of rooms. I am asked to display my driver’s license and they take it and scan it into their computers. They are surprised that I am not already in the system as I should have had my license scanned any time I had come in this year. Usually I showed up there to drop off a forgotten snack or lunch and tell them maybe I’ve never actually gone into the classroom before, but I realize this is not true as there was a holiday party I attended in Adelina’s class and an accompanying schoolwide sing along that quickly devolved into a Christmas caterwauling. Then there were the two times that I joined Aurelio and Adelina for lunch. I don’t tell them all this and just make a mental note that despite the sophisticated security, this school was pretty wide open. I wasn’t much for being scared of some kinda crazy person storming the school anyway, but I can’t help being a little unnerved by that realization, if only because we have wasted a lot of money putting in all these security measures that cannot be fully implemented in the school setting.
I am shuffled off into a conference room where I wait until Adelina’s teacher summons me. This is the kind of room where one would be interviewed for a job to work at the school and as a former elementary schoolteacher myself I imagine such a scenario. Despite the many hesitations, heartaches, and headaches of being a stay at home dad I am still liking this job better than I ever did teaching. Teaching schoolkids was the hardest thing I ever did in my life and I am still not sure if I will ever go back. I’m getting a little freaked out thinking about it and I’m happy when the office ladies finally get a call from Adelina’s teacher and I proceed to the room. All the children are sitting down on the rug when I come in the room and the lights are off. They are all sitting “criss-cross, applesauce” with their knees up and their heads bent down into their forearms. I am surprised that I don’t see any of the kids peeking. I come around to the reader’s chair and take some heavy steps to intrigue them before I sit down. I don’t have time to identify Adelina’s head amongst the crowd. I hold a book up in front of my face and the teacher turns on the light and tells the children they can look up now. I lower the book slowly from in front of my face and the children squeal and squirm, especially the few girls who know me and who have come over our house for playdates, and most of all, Adelina herself who is beaming from ear to ear with mystified eyes. She seems to walk on air as she makes her way to the front to sit beside me as I start to read. After I have read the books to the kids Adelina is allowed to walk with me to the office to sign out and then to the main door to say goodbye. We are both still smiling and I ask her whether she was surprised,
“Yes,” she says, “Because you told me only mommy was going to do it.” We are at the front door now and she says, “Hug.” It is the third time we have embraced on the pretext of my departure and each time I feel all the energy and excitement of her daddy being the mystery reader pour into me as we hug. We say goodbye again and I squeeze her as tight as I can to hold us over for the rest of the day until I can see her again afterschool.