My friend and colleague, who I’ve known since 1st grade is now a 4th grade teacher in the exact classroom that we both had 4th grade, 18 years ago. It's unreal to think of how long ago we were sitting in our mini desks pondering how old we'd be in the year 2000. In February, he reached out to some of his former colleagues to ask us to take part in a pen-pal program with his students, and I was so excited to participate.
After a few weeks of finger crossing, I received my first letter. What started off as an awkward exchange of favorite colors and hobbies has turned into an understanding between two worlds. The student I write to loves to read and loves animals. And her words, which are simple yet colorfully expressive, brought me back to my childhood, where school was fun, and reading for school wasn’t a required task, but an opportunity to explore the unknown. She asked me what my favorite books were and I responded with a condensed list, including, “To kill a mockingbird,” which I strongly recommended she read by 7th grade.
“Is that book really about killing a mockingbird? I don’t think I would like reading that.”
This sentence was one of the many unsolicited journeys that I took while reading her letters. I scribbled out several explanations of what and who the mockingbird represented before realizing that 4th grade is a place where crimes aren’t justifiable and spending hours on the meaning behind character actions don’t exist.
I’ve come to learn that 4th grade is the calm before the storm. It’s fun to read, because there’s no dark turn to Mr. Popper’s Penguins. James’ parents’ death by rhinoceros stampede is comical and forgetful in James and the Giant Peach. 4th grade readers have conquered the idea of long chapters and story structure, but they’re not quite in a place where death-stricken moral dilemmas can be explained.
So now, it’s the end of the school year, the last of the letter exchanges, and I had decided to get my pen-pal a 5th grade reading level book, a whole new platform of worlds to choose from. I definitely thought she could handle the reading level, so I sought out to find something suitable for an animal lover.
I soon found out that a majority of young adult authors think, “in order to introduce death-stricken moral dilemmas, which is a required lesson for reading comprehension, we should start with dogs.”
Every book that I recalled reading in the 5th grade, involved the main character’s dog dying, which is seemingly a requirement. Where the Red Fern Grows, Sounder, Old Yeller, Stone Fox, I could keep going. 5th grade is simply not an animal lover’s year, and I had genuine concern for the challenge my pen-pal would have to endure in the coming future.
I pondered, Call of the Wild, because the owner dies, not the dog. I finally settled for “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” about a girl living on an island by herself with a bunch of dolphins…
…Of course the reason she is alone is because half of her tribe died, the other half abandoned her, and a pack of wild dogs ate her brother. Whatever, the girl has to learn sometime.