Michele Grgas Postal, The Triplicate

Symbolism hard to miss as caterpillars turn into butterflies

At a Rotary Club meeting about a year ago, I listened with interest as Bonnie Finley told our group about a program she's involved in through United Way called Schools of Hope. Bonnie stood at the podium asking for volunteers to tutor first-graders in reading.

As someone who has spent an entire career dependent on people who want to read, it seemed only natural to put my name on Bonnie's sign-up sheet. She was asking for only one lunch hour a week to help a child learn to read. Surely I could do that.

After fingerprinting, a background check and a brief orientation, I was dispatched to Joe Hamilton School with a name tag, a packet of paperwork and some suggested assignments. A few days prior, as instructed, I had e-mailed a first-grade teacher introducing myself and she replied with the names of the two students I'd be tutoring.

It had been many years since I walked into an elementary school office to sign in. On that first Wednesday afternoon last fall I was nervous and, I'll admit, coping with some feelings of regret about volunteering so hastily for this commitment. What was I thinking?

I found Room 9 where Mrs. Walsworth's class was beginning story time after lunch. Mrs. Walsworth seemed relaxed in a rocking chair while her students sat on a carpet at her feet waiting for her to show them the page of the book she was reading out loud. She introduced me to the class and to the two students I'd be working with. In a designated reading room around the corner, I spent the first 20 minutes with the little girl and the last with the boy.

After a few weeks I brought two puzzles on a hunch that there was some learning to be done beyond the books we read. Puzzles have become rewards for hard work. We have about a dozen of them now. I am not a trained educator, but I have raised children and I know it's important to make learning fun.

After these few months of working together, I can't be certain that I've helped "my kids" score higher on their achievement tests, but if they are graded on their growth in interpersonal relationship skills, I'm confident they each deserve an A+.

Sometimes I arrive at their classroom a little early, before their lunch recess is over, and wait for them. Mrs. Walsworth decorated her room with all types of animals and on a table near the front door she and her class have been raising caterpillars in a mesh cage. I've watched those caterpillars grow for several months.

When the weather turned warmer, we decided take our reading outside on a picnic table. And the past couple of weeks, instead of taking turns, my two students and I have spent our entire allocated 45 minutes together. We read to each other and write sentences about what we've read and then do a puzzle together.

Last week, while we were outside, the door to Room 9 opened and Mrs. Walsworth led her entire class to a planter of flowers next to the picnic table where we were working.

"We're letting the butterflies go now," one of the children said.

Somehow I'd missed the hatchings, but now the cage that held those fuzzy caterpillars was filled with brightly colored butterflies. As her students crowded around Mrs. Walsworth opened the cage and gently turned it upside down. The butterflies were hesitant at first, but with a little coaxing from the class they eventually ventured out of the cage. The first one out flew a few feet and landed on my shoulder, where it stayed for what seemed like a very long time before taking off beyond the courtyard, beyond the school.

The symbolism wasn't lost on me. My students are like the butterflies. The school year is nearly over and soon it will be time to let them go.

I'm very grateful to Bonnie for introducing me to the Schools of Hope program and want to thank Joyce Walsworth for her confidence in me. But mostly I'd like to applaud Ana and Shane for their good work.

They have been a gift and an inspiration to me. They are more beautiful and free than the butterflies. I wish them safe and spectacular flight in the years ahead. Memories of our Wednesday afternoons together will always warm my heart.

Reach Michele Postal, the Del Norte Triplicate's publisher, at mt-ho-mas-@triplicate.com, 464-2141 or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.