The Gwendolyn Strong Award for the Love of Reading and Never Giving UpJune 19, 2018 by Victoria Strong
It's hard to believe Gwendolyn would have just finished 5th grade, preparing for 6th -- her last year of elementary school. The end of each school year always brings a lot of emotions, highlighting the passage of time sharply. Amongst a flurry of preschool activities for our busy second-born, I still felt the weight rising, the pang and the pride as I saw Gwendolyn's ever-growing peers celebrating, knowing this was the last end-of-year photo for my little girl. A second grader, so excited for third.
I was consciously setting that mixed bag of emotions aside to be fully present with our littles and their achievements, but the nagging still pulled, ever so slightly. And that rabbit hole of grief wondering was always a thought away. The longing to know the unanswerable: what my 10 1/2-year-old would want to do this summer or how too-big-for-her-britches would she feel as a 6th grader or who her closest friends would be now or, or, or...?
And just as those darker thoughts began to creep up, the worries that they no longer remember her, that her life is growing distant for so many, I received an email from her second grade teacher, Ms. Van Wickle, pictured here. And it was everything I needed.
"Dear Victoria and Bill,
This week, when I talked of our end of the year awards to the children in my class, I realized this class was so young when Gwendolyn was a familiar and beautiful presence at Washington. I talked of Gwendolyn's love of reading, the pile, the stack, of books that she read each day. Not for any other reason than to enrich her life, to enjoy. I shared her metaphor poem about herself, the one that starts with "I am a beautiful dolphin..., " and the children were mesmerized.
I just wanted you to know that the "Gwendolyn Strong Award for the LOVE of Reading and Never Giving Up" is still the TOP prize in Room 8 at Washington School. I have two very different recipients, but both very deserving, and will honor Gwendolyn's spirit so well. When I first met J, he told me he didn't read, and it was true. However, the world of books opened his eyes to amazing opportunities. At the end of the year, he now is our top AR reader, passing over 58 tests. He loves science, animals, and butterflies! I think Gwendolyn would love to read side-by-side with J, cooing in delight, helping him discover the wonderful world. The other very worthy recipient of the of the Gwendolyn Strong Award is JP. He is a brilliant reader, and possesses the joy of learning and reading that Gwendolyn embodied. Like Gwendolyn, JP is a very prolific reader. Like Gwendolyn, JP decides what he likes to read, and pursues his love of learning, for himself. That gives me great joy.
This is my last year of teaching, and as I pack up my books, I cannot help but think of Gwendolyn. Her self-determination, pursuing knowledge for life's sake, was inspirational to me. Her spirit definitely was felt in Room 8, as we wrote our metaphors describing ourselves. Every move-a-thon at Washington reminds me of the importance of Gwendolyn and the value of each student. And, I always remind the students that sitting and reading on the Gwendolyn Butterfly Bench, outside of my classroom, is a privilege. What a blessing for me, your daughter Gwendolyn. It was a true honor to be her teacher."
This. This. This. It means the world. I wept reading each thoughtful word. And then reread it and reread it again. Hearing someone else speak about Gwendolyn helps me focus on those things too. Allows me to remember the essence of my amazing child. The beautiful life she lived.
I always cry when talking about Gwendolyn. I likely always will. But the tears from something like this come from a well of love that heals. What a gift it is for someone to initiate a memory and share loss with me. Hearing my child's name, sharing a meaningful memory of her with others is a salve. And I will always be grateful.
Thank you, Ms. Van Wickle, for remembering Gwendolyn so well. For sharing her life and legacy with such pride and grace. For loving her and for seeing her. We know she loved you and blossomed because of you and the inclusive classroom you created. And thank you for giving me the gift of sharing your memories with me of how she lived.