Skip to main content


December 24, 2009

Susan Arnout Smith: Glitter Mom

Posted by admin

This Christmas Eve, Susan Arnout Smith --- author of THE TIMER GAME and OUT AT NIGHT --- shares a moving story about the selflessness and generosity of one young child to another during a time of need, while also passing on one of the best gifts of all --- literacy.

My youngest child --- I have two --- is now a senior at Stanford, but when the kids were little, one of my favorite jobs was Glitter Mom. I was the mother who breezed into class bearing gifts: colored paper, glue, bits of feathers. I loved the job because it required little and gave much: I was in my kid’s classroom having fun: putting faces to the names in the stories my child told me after school; seeing for myself how the teacher worked her magic; watching from a warm and companionable distance my child playing nice and not running with scissors.

All of that changed at Cabrillo Elementary in San Diego the year Martha was eight.

Mrs. Hille listened in silence to my practiced spiel about how I was a writer. How I loved being in the classroom. But how, see, I only had time to do it one hour every other week. Actually.
The pause went on awhile too long. “Usually I just cut things out,” I offered. “Mop up the glue. Pick up scraps at the end. I’m very good at cleaning things up.”

Which was a lie, but she didn’t need to know that.

Another pause.

“You’re offering me an enormous gift,” Mrs. Hille said finally. “I need to think of the best way to use this.”

A month went by. “Still thinking,” Mrs. Hille said.

Another month. One day when I was gathering up Martha after school, Mrs. Hille stopped me. “Okay, I know what I need you to do.”

She laid out the details. My heart stalled.

She wanted me to teach Esteban to read. I knew this kid. All the mothers did.

Esteban (I’ve changed his name, but the story’s real) had been thrown off the bus as an eight year old for mooning the other kids. He’d spent time in the principal’s office for talking back, shoving, bending back kids’ fingers, throwing books, pencils, wads of gum. Tripping. Pummeling. Smashing body parts.

He was a bus-in kid from the Barrio. Mrs. Hille had spent the past two months testing all the kids in class. Somehow, Esteban had managed to skate in two languages. He barely knew the alphabet.

“This is third grade,” Mrs. Hille said. “My theory is, if we haven’t caught them by the end of third grade, they’re lost. Or can be.”

Esteban squirmed as I sat with him in the rear of the class, listening to a recording of a singer bleating out alphabet letters. He rocked his chair back onto two legs. Made oinking noises. Picked up a pencil and measured the distance between his desk and the back of the neck of a little girl quietly absorbed in Mrs. Hille’s lecture on fruit bats.

“We will listen to this,” I said. My voice had an edge.

“Or else what?” Esteban yawned. He hefted the pencil thoughtfully between his fingers.

“Not an or else what. It’s an and then.”

I was riffing and he must have known it. His posture tensed like one of those hyenas in nature films going after the slowest antelope. He stared at me with flat brown eyes. There was no light in these eyes, but he put down his pencil. “Go on.”

“And then.” I was at a loss. “And then. We go outside. We walk around the playground. But once. Only once.”

He rocked his chair back to its normal position.

He listened.

Outside, we had just passed the jungle gym and swings when I asked what his dream was for himself. About reading.

He stopped in his tracks as if he’d been whacked by a baseball between the eyes. He took a small staggering step. He muttered a single word.


There was something soft now in his eyes, eyes bright with despair and a kind of fury. He said it again, his voice so low I had to strain to hear. “Goosebumps.”

I bent down so that I was eye level. “I promise you, Esteban. I promise you. That by the end of this year, you’ll be reading Goosebumps.”

Immediately, panic engulfed me. What was I thinking? What was I promising? I stepped up the number of times per week I came to class. I pushed him. He pushed back. He learned.

A couple of months in, Christmas was coming. I wanted to buy him books. Wrap them up. Present them as a gift for his hard work. As a promise that he was on track. That his dream was not out of sight.

You’re thinking my favorite book to give was a Goosebumps, right?

Wrong. My favorite book to give, was one I didn’t give at all.

Martha, my beautiful eight year old, my little girl who suddenly had to not even share me with another child, but relinquish me to that other child three times a week for intensive work --- my beautiful little girl, when I explained why I was sacrificing my time with her --- and it was a sacrifice for me, it was --- when I explained how he couldn’t read yet, and how important it was, and how I was going to buy him books and give them as a present, my tender-hearted, generous little girl did this.

One night, as I was tucking her in, I felt something hard on her chest under the covers. Resting on her chest were books.

“They’re my favorite ones, Mommy. My favorite books.” She took a deep breath. Her small hand patted the books gently. She was giving something she cherished to another kid.

So. My all-time favorite, ever, book that was given, was that Christmas years ago, when my eight year old passed along to another kid the joy of reading a book that starts with the magical incantation: In the great. . . green room. . . there was. . . a telephone . .and. . . a red balloon. . . and. . .a picture of a cow. . . Jumping! Over the moon.

And yes. By the end of the year, Esteban was reading Goosebumps.

-- Susan Arnout Smith

Join us tomorrow, as Sandra Brown recounts a tale of love and loss, and sharing the true meaning of the holidays.