Tennyson Street School: vision

Vision: (n) the faculty of being able to see; eyesight, sight, observation, view, perspective
(n) an experience of seeing someone or something in a dream or trance, or as a supernatural apparition; hallucination, illusion, mirage
(v) imagine

“My dad came from Mexico.”

“My dad too.”

“When he married my mom, then he didn’t have to go back to Mexico any more. He got to stay.”

“One time I visited my relatives in Mexico; they were nice.”

When we made our passports, we began telling origin stories, where we come from. I had originally envisioned our craft project as symbolic of a Passport to College and New Ideas. But like many passports, it had become an interwoven tale of where we come from and where we wanted to go. I had cleverly torn blue carnival tickets from a roll and stapled them to their passports under the catch-phrase, “Reading Is My Ticket,” as in, ticket to learning, ticket to upward mobility. I hadn’t thought through my own role very well, however.

Even with my slick sales pitch for the Literacy Lab, it was evident to the kids themselves that they had a lot of hard work ahead of them if reading was going to be their ticket to anything beyond a driver’s license and an entry-level job. Most of them knew their test scores, their defined reading levels. The price of their ticket was already fairly steep.

Sometimes I become so enthralled with my own vision that I forget to take a clear-eyed look around. When I get into that state of mind, I think I must appear quite near-sighted to people around me. A bit dreamy. Unrealistic.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. And…the unrealistic dreamer is true. They’re both true.

When I was a kid, I got to take gymnastics one year, before it became too far to drive from our farm and too expensive to continue. For that year, I was following in the iron-toed footsteps of the tiny Olympian heroes of my day – Olga Korbut from the Soviet Union, and later the Romanian star Nadia Comaneci, she of the perfect 10s. I learned to walk on my hands, vault over a pommel horse, hang from rings, and swing nearly a loop around the lower of the uneven parallel bars. And best of all, I learned to traverse the balance beam.

I loved the balance beam. With the wiry strength of a rambunctious 7-year-old and the fearlessness of a circus high-wire performer, I followed where Olga led, toes pointed with each steady step forward, lifting onto the balls of my feet and simultaneously pirouetting then solidly down onto the bar again, now facing in reverse, arms outstretched to the sides or one forward, one back, fingers pointed like a dancer on a cliff’s edge. I learned to dip-step, one foot scooping down from the beam and back up, then the other, a pretty little prance so joyful it made me smile. With a spotter, I practiced tucking into a somersault along the beam, regaining my feet in one smooth motion and standing tall, then lifting my arms like a salute – before taking a cartwheel off the end.

On the balance beam, you have to envision yourself graceful and acrobatic, a dancer on a narrow ledge high above the mundane world. You must believe you can flip and spin in that tiny orbit. You must trust your slender footing, and then you have to leap – and immediately land, leap and land again. The beam is hard and unforgiving if you miss, but reassuringly solid when your feet alight, toes gripping, legs steadying, arms like wings. You must believe you can fly, and then, you must cartwheel into space and hit the earth like a meteor. Rock solid. Stick the landing like a mountain. Thrust out your chest with pride, chin held high because you dared to believe in yourself, and then you dared to return to the mortal world without apology.

Hailey struggled the day we made our Passports to New Ideas. She struggled with her belief in herself. I saw her lip quiver.

“Hailey?” I asked very quietly, crouching next to her as Harrison and Poppy put their drawing materials away on the shelf, chattering happily.

“Reading is not my…it’s not my…,” and her lip quivered again.

“What is reading like for you, Hailey?” My voice was as soft as I could make it, my eyes searching for hers under her mop of bangs.

She looked up, then down at her passport. “A hard job.”

I nodded. I nodded until she looked up and saw me nodding. “Then that’s what you can write. ‘Reading is my hard job.’ Right there.” And she did.

“Do you want this?” I asked, holding up her carnival ticket. She nodded. “Where do you want me to staple it?”

She pointed to the same place everyone else’s tickets were attached. I clicked the stapler. Reading Is My – blue ticket. Her ticket opened like a lift-the-flap toddler’s book, revealing words only she and I knew were there.

“Good for you, Hailey: that’s honest. That was brave, to say what’s true for you. Good for you.” She gave me a bashful half-smile.

Sometimes we need a vision held over our truth, a reminder that we, too, can believe in ourselves. We need an Olympic hero, a strong coach to spot us, to strengthen us, to cheer us. What we get might be a starry-eyed dreamer with a love of dancing on the edge of possibility; but isn’t that someone who understands what a hard job is?

“What’s that line on your glasses? Are they cracked?” Harrison asked, staring intently into my bifocals.

“Yeah, in a way. But it’s on purpose. I have two ways to see with my glasses – one way up here, and another down here.”


“Yeah. Pretty cool, huh?” I stood up tall, and reached a hand as gracefully as I could toward Hailey, inviting her to join me. “Ready?”

She smiled and stood, and we all walked proudly back to their classroom. “Because we are Literacy Lab students,” I’ve taught them. We work hard, believing in ourselves, taking those leaps of faith.