We were two chapters into our second volume of Pippi Longstocking when Isabella entered our classroom for the first time. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I know who she is.” Apologetic but reassured, we resumed reading where we had left off the day before.
Pippi and her two best friends, along with Pippi’s monkey and her horse, were on their way to their planned, pretend shipwreck. They had repaired an abandoned boat, packed their “provisions” and the empty bottle they would need to enclose and float their desperate plea to be rescued.
Pippi walked along the shore of a neighborhood lake with her motley crew until they spotted their perfect desert island. Pippi stepped on board her boat; Isabella leapt to her feet.
“The horse, Mrs. Rogers! What about the horse?! How will Pippi get the horse on the boat? It will sink!”
“Don’t worry, Isabella,” Xavier said. “Pippi always has a plan. She lies a lot, too. You never can tell when she’s telling the truth.”
Pippi of course did have a plan and a fantastic story to tell. Isabella entered into Pippi’s adventures as easily as she joined our class. She added humor and excitement to our days, a beautiful blond with a fascinating background and a glorious English accent.
When she listened to a story, she propped herself up on her feet, tilted her head, worried, laughed, imagined and anticipated. Every afternoon we finished reading and kept talking, so we could continue to enjoy the story and the music of Isabella’s voice.
The puzzle maps came to life. Isabella moved to the United States from Russia; her parents were born in South Africa. She knew and loved the flags of these three nations. Xavier wanted to show her the Mexican town where he was born, and the Mexican flag. Katie found her maternal grandmother’s first home in Greece on the map of Europe, as well as her paternal grandmother’s in Poland.
Katie, Xavier and Isabella studied the atlas, consulted each other and peers for proper pronunciations, identified continents, countries and flags, traced and painted and labeled. Their geography work very quickly surpassed their teacher’s knowledge.
Weeks later, I gathered the youngest children in the class to read Michael Rosen’s classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. It had been raining all morning; we knew there was no chance of outdoor play. The repeating verses and the familiar refrain delighted the children. Michael Rosen’s genius was in creating a story that forces us to engage and move. It never gets old.
At the story’s end I told the children I regretted the rain, “Otherwise, we could go outside and have our own bear hunt,” I said.
Isabella was on her feet again. “Don’t worry about me, Mrs. Rogers,” she said. With all the poise and grace of a young Mary Poppins, Isabella stood and pointed the toe of her pink polka dot rubber boot. “I’ve got my wellies on!”
In a hilarious flash of full preschool community comprehension, we knew what wellies were, and wished we had a pair. We laughed until our bellies hurt, gasped for breath, dried our eyes, and returned to the story. One time through a good story is seldom enough, we agreed, especially in the company of a grand new friend.