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City Year: Learning to Read

City Year corps members based in Los Angeles write about their experiences.The first time I ever remember reading, I was sitting...

City Year corps members based in Los Angeles write about their experiences.

The first time I ever remember reading, I was sitting in the children’s section of the Chicago Public Library. A young girl about three years older than me sat down and asked whether I knew how to read. I shook my head, worried about earning disapproval from a stranger. In a very calm manner, she pulled out a book from the bin and said, “Well then, I am going to teach you how to read!”

I watched how she traced the pages, moving from the letters “R-E-D” at the top right-hand corner of the page to the center image of a red fish while she read each page aloud. The girl finished reading the book with me, stood up as I thanked her for helping me read, and left without telling me her name. I felt as if a light had been switched on in a dark room. In that moment, a whole new world of books had opened up to me.

Throughout my life, I have always been fortunate enough to have a peer mentor or role model looking out for me. I was in a mentorship program during college and benefited from the wisdom of upperclassmen who took the time to ask me about my classes, grades, social life, roommates, and job. I was always grateful for their assistance because often having a person constantly present to listen was all that I needed.

In my early 20s, I thought back to the role models in my life who had helped me to succeed, and I yearned to be a mentor for someone else. Then I learned about City Year and the idea of a “near peer mentor,” or a seventeen through twenty-four year old who is old enough to be a responsible role model, while still being young enough for children to relate to. I knew the program was the perfect opportunity for me to influence other children in the way that my mentors had for me.

During my first day in school, I gave a literacy assessment test to the students I had been assigned, students who were already considered “off-track,” or at risk from not graduating from high school. I handed one of the fourth graders a packet filled with three letter words and asked her to read them to me. After the first page, I realized she had not yet grasped the key linguistic concepts of the English language. My mind raced back to that day in the library and I realized I had finally taken the place of the kind stranger who had bravely taught me.

I reassured my new student that I was going to work with her every day. We began with simplified books to grasp basic sounds and rhyming words and plowed through many different grade levels in the span of only nine months. At the end of the year, I gave her a fluency sheet intended for a native English speaker, just to see if she had improved from our initial meeting. She began reading the page with minor errors, but as she progressed, she gained confidence and I heard her pronounce each word correctly until the end of the passage. I looked at her with eyes as proud as a symphony conductor of an orchestra, grateful for the effort she put into our time spent working together.

Twenty years have passed since I met that girl in the Chicago library. I wish that I could tell her how she impacted my life. I give thanks by inspiring another young person to do the same.

Claire Matienzo is a team leader for City Year in Los Angeles.

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