Last week I was the Friday Reader at my son’s Kindergarten class. After the Pledge and morning announcements, I sat down on a tiny chair and the kids all gathered on the carpet around me, criss-cross applesauce, faces expectant and bright as new pennies. (If you’ve never read to a group of five- and six-year-olds, do it. I can think of no gentler power than sharing a beautiful story with eager listeners.)
I should have known what would happen. As I read the first simple line—Once there was a tree—I felt my throat tighten. THE GIVING TREE by the peerless Shel Silverstein is the story of selfless giving and unconditional love. In it, an apple tree loves the little boy who comes to swing from her branches and rest in her shade. As the boy grows older, he begins to want things, so she gives him her apples to sell. But the tree was afterward often alone.
I looked out at the shiny faces of the kids around me, and in particular, the sweet face of my own little boy, who just turned six and who still loves to climb into my arms and rest in my lap. I continued reading. The boy in the story returns to the tree and tells her he wants a home and a family, and she gives him her branches to build a house. The tree is happy when the boy accepts what she has to give.
Years later, he returns again, unhappy in his life, and he tells her he wants a boat in which to sail far away. The tree—briefly—is happy, because she can give him her trunk so that he can build a boat, even though it means he’ll leave her once again.
I looked again at my baby’s face, and imagined what he’ll look like when he’s older. I had a vision of him sitting in the driver’s seat of his first car, packing up his room before going off to college, getting married. I thought of the things I would give him from now until then: my arms for branches, my love for shade, anything I could. Everything. My voice snagged in my throat and the children looked at me.
Many years later, the boy, who is now a very old man, goes back to the tree. He’s too old to play, too weak to eat apples. What he needs is rest. All the tree has left to give is her stump. But a tree stump is good for resting, and the boy accepts this last gift.
And the tree was happy.
I was crying openly by then, and I tried to laugh. I caught the eye of the teacher, and she was sniffling, too. I closed the book and picked up another one I’d brought along, thankfully something light and bright about a mouse.
“I’m sorry, everyone. I didn’t mean to cry,” I said. “But sometimes, good stories can do that to a person.” A few of them nodded, but they didn’t really understand.
Someday, when they become readers and later, parents, they will.