Penny & Anna: 8 Years of Reading Together

A GBJCL volunteer & her tutee

During this 75th year of JCRC, we're taking time to mark important milestones. The end of the school year is a very special moment that happens annually, when students and teachers reflect on all the learning that has taken place over the year and take pride in their accomplishments. Our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) marks this moment together with our 29 school partners through end-of-year celebrations where students have an opportunity to say goodbye to their tutors. This year, GBJCL was able to present over 800 books with accompanying newly created literacy kits to students at their school celebrations, so that they can feel empowered and motivated to continue reading and learning in fun ways over the summer.

Every tutor-student relationship is unique. There are some students who are quiet and reserved and can take weeks or months of one-on-one attention to come out of their shells. Some students open up right away. Sometimes these bonds are so strong by the end of the year that the tutor becomes a core part of the student’s growth, and the student now has another adult role model who provides undivided attention and strengthens their self-esteem. And sometimes, that volunteer will be able to work with the same student as they move on in school. In the special case of one volunteer, Penny Schwartz, she was able to work with her student Anna for eight consecutive years.  

Penny has dedicated the past decade to one student, Anna, at the Healey School in Somerville that partners with Temple B'nai Brith of the same town. Penny was smitten right away with this social first grader. Anna was a joy, with an eagerness to learn and a desire to become a better reader.

When the end of the year came, the pair wanted to continue. Penny recalled, “Through the amazing cooperation of Anna's teachers—and the ok from Anna's family—we were able to continue our nearly weekly get-togethers through Anna's eighth grade graduation.” Throughout the eight years together, Anna’s teachers recognized the importance of the relationship. They could see how Anna continued to grow and learn with Penny’s support, and always made sure the two had time for one another.

Penny describes seeing Anna grow up through elementary and middle school. Penny recalled in 7th grade, when Anna beamed with pride when she received the school’s coveted Student of the Quarter award. And later that year, she was able to travel on the class trip to Washington, D.C. and exuberantly showed Penny photos of their visit to the National Museum of African American History and described in detail a painting she fell in love with.

The work continues as the relationship grows annually. Before Anna started high school, Penny encouraged two teens from Temple B’nai Brith (TBB) to meet with Anna and share “insider tips” for a freshman. Penny says, “But what really stands out for me is a mirror of what stands out for Anna: weekly, Anna has given up time to meet with me—a middle-aged white woman from another background— to share her thoughts and what she's up to in school, her ups and downs, to accept guidance—giving up rare chances to hang out with her friends. No question, I am still smitten.”

Penny feels she has been changed by the experience: “My life is made richer by getting to know Anna and her family—seeing her accomplishments, admiring her aspirations, and learning about the issues of the day in my own community—and a window into what it means to grow up today in an immigrant family. This extended relationship between GBJCL and TBB has been a constant reminder of the extraordinary devotion of school faculty and staff to support their students in and out of the classroom.”

As Penny prepares to say goodbye for the summer, however, it is a different form of goodbye, one that we are very accustomed to in Jewish tradition–a l’hitraot or “see you next time.” The pair plans to reconnect after the summer. And in the meantime, the relationship between Penny and Anna continues to grow and evolve. Penny hopes to be able to tutor Anna’s younger brother, staying connected to the family. And as Anna enters this next chapter of life, she knows she has many people who will be cheering her on as she pursues her goals.

I hope you will join us as we look to the next 75 years of JCRC, where we continue to mobilize over 200 volunteers annually to help elementary school children in underserved communities discover the joy of reading. To learn more about how you can get involved as a volunteer or support this work, visit the GBJCL website. It doesn’t require an eight year commitment. But we do need you to take the first step.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy