Little girl sat on my lap, her hand running under big letters on the page. She looked at me, as if to say, “Am I doing this right?” The letter sounds came out haltingly. An explosive p, a nasal aaa like she was afraid, and a long Mmm. She looked at me again, another insistent, searching look that said, “are you absolutely sure I’m doing this right?”
“Say all the sounds again, only this time, faster.”
Her finger pointed to each letter. “P...a...m. P-a-m. Pam. Mama! I know what that says! It says Pam! Like Miss Pam! At the Pantry! I know her! She loves me!”
Her finger streaked under the word again, this time she stood up on her chair and shouted without hesitation: “Pam!”
I’ve been taking my children to serve at our local food bank for years now. It started small, just one serve day for our homeschool friends, organizing canned goods from the food drives at local schools. The children were so young, they couldn’t read yet so we’d coach them, “If you can’t read the words on the front of the cans yet, that’s okay, you can still help. Match the pictures together. See? Carrots goes with carrots. Corn goes with corn.”
Miss Pam coordinates the Pantry—the volunteer schedule, the food donors. She’s a Michigan-born farm girl in her sixties who pinballs between a thousand things on prep days, full of laughter and banter. She’s an exposed wire of love and joy; her energy arcs and radiates to anyone she’s near. After we serve, she prays over the children. She opens her arms wide and they all rush in for a hug and a blessing. When the children were younger, she looked like a mother hen with chicks. Now the boys are starting to stretch up, now they work like men and are eye level with her. She checks with them before drawing them into her arms. “Do you guys still do hugs?” They look at each other shyly for a moment, asking each other that question silently: “Do we still do hugs?” The biggest ones lock eyes, nod slightly, and then rush into her embrace, like they’ve done their whole lives, to hear her pray.
I look into my children’s eyes if I want to see if they’re understanding, even before they can speak. When their eyes are wide and unblinking, I know they’re receiving everything, even if they can’t express it yet. Receptive vocabulary develops before expressive vocabulary. Good education is a current that pushes us from passive receptivity to active application. There is always that beautiful moment of synthesis, where suddenly something inside of them is set free and newly unlocked possibilities present themselves. They get it. They beam, in those moments. They light up like a city at night. I look out for those moments the way I’ve seen my sister-in-law forage for herbs in the forest. Nose-down, intent in the search. The more I look for them, the more I see them.
Years ago, when the first son was learning to read, he read Isaiah aloud to me. He read to me everywhere in the house, laundry room, bathroom, kitchen. One day, I was in the kitchen doing dishes, exhausted from interrupted sleep because of the baby, dishes clanking, water rushing, I wasn’t really listening.
“Mom, did you hear that? What I just read? It’s just like Miss Pam at the Pantry.”
I turned off the faucet and shushed the baby on my hip. “Sorry, go again?”
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.”
“Mom, did you hear that? It’s just like Miss Pam at the Pantry. Giving food away for no money. We do that too. It’s just like us too. Did you hear that?”
“I heard that.”
I wish I could say that I architected these moments on purpose. I don’t. They bubble up and surprise me every time. I’m not smart enough to foresee what will happen to all these words and conversations I heap onto my children. I don’t ever know what the outcome will be for sure, what the children will or won’t understand. What they will or won’t express. I don’t. I can only pray and look with childlike eyes, hunting for the miracle of their understanding by seeing the light in their eyes.
I do know that it starts small: with a says ahh. With a loving embrace. With letting them start small, wherever they are.
I look for the light in their eyes. I make sure it’s mirrored in mine.
Just like Miss Pam.