Reading and helping to read

At the Jean Moulin primary school, in Nîmes, one "Reading Granny" among others, recovers her child’s heart and shares the joy of awakening the interest of young children.

Marie-Paule, can you tell me where your community is situated in the town of Nîmes? 

–  It is in the district called Chemin Bas d’Avignon, a district that in a priority zone. We live in social housing, two duplex apartments in the middle of a cluster of 24 dwellings of the same type. Our two doors are on the same steps and lead to a space where each apartment has a little garden and, like us, a courtyard. The children like to come and play in front of our place. These dwellings are protected from the street by two doors that are locked. 
–  There are six sisters in the community, ranging from 73 to 85 years. We have been here since 1992, following the closure of the house in the Rue Briçonnet. At present the Moroccan, Algerian, Franco-Vietnamese and French families have children. With them too I can read stories. 
How did you come to choose this activity? 
–  I arrived in Nîmes in September 2002. Very quickly I became involved in the Parish: liturgy, reception, seeing to funerals. I wanted to emerge from the Church and find something outside of that setting. When I was on holidays with my god-daughter who lives in Bastia and who has small boys – Sylvain, 4 and a half, and Alexis, 4 months – I was delighted to be able to look after children, having spent 33 years working in families. I missed children because I didn’t have the opportunity any more to be in contact with them. In October 2004, the Local Activities Centre had an open day to present the centre’s activities. I met Evelyne, a "reading granny" who was looking for readers who would go to the schools of our area, among them, Jean Moulin. After listening to her I said that I was going to think about it. 
Is this activity linked with an organisation? 
–  Yes, the organisation "Read and help to read" exists at national level. It calls on retired persons to volunteer to give their time to children, within school hours, to "stimulate a taste for and a pleasure in reading and to facilitate a contact between genera-tions that is enriching for all". Every years, at the AGM, there is a speaker and we also have training days. I contacted Evelyne very quickly and we went together to see the school head who welcomed me warmly. He suggested a class of 25 children in the elementary class 1, age 7–8 years. I then made the acquaintance of Amar, a young teacher who received me very politely and kindly. 
How do you go about things?
–  Tuesday at 2 p.m. the children welcome me: "Good Day, Reading Granny". I take them by small groups of 4 or 5 for three-quarters of an hour of reading. It is very important to know which group is coming with me, some children would like to jump the queue "O, it isn’t us!" At the beginning of the year the children write their name on the form corresponding to their group. I have some difficulty in remembering these names because few of them sound French. So, when I have collected my four or five youngsters we have to go up the stairs, without making noise, because there are classes at work. ’Shhh… don’t run!" We arrive in the room, which is not always very comfortable. "We don’t sit down until there is a chair for each of us! A bigger one for Reading Granny who has long legs." There has to be silence. Then, the name of the story, taken from a book that I choose at the Organisation or at the Nîmes Library. The children love stories with animals – the wolf is always a success! There are stories with witches – we have to be afraid! There are also the fairies for the little girls. Reading also makes it possible to discover the life of people from different countries. They like to hear over and over again the tales by Perrault, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella etc. 
Does it go off well? 
–  It is not always easy to hold the children’s attention. There are always one or two who can’t keep still. Sometimes they don’t seem to be listening and, in fact, I’m astonished to find that they have followed the story. Through this interlude of pleasure there is an educational element that can pass, like mutual respect, listening to the other. 
And you, how do you experience this activity? 
–  After spending an hour with them, I’m tired! because they also are a bit edgy, but it is a great pleasure for me to meet them each Tuesday. They are always waiting for me and the children sometimes have very touching expressions: "You are beautiful, Granny, you have lovely blue eyes… and white hair – white hair is beautiful! and there is competition to see who will take my hand or carry my bag when we are going up to the reading room. They would very much like to kiss me! but I pay great attention, while not being distant. The children need to show their affection when they feel they are loved. I have noticed that the children are very attached to their family roots. Some go to their parents’ country during the holidays: Morocco or Algeria. They are proud of being Muslims. I can say that the time spent with them is a very special time, a bit short because I feel that they would have a lot of things to share… but that is not the aim and there is not enough time. They would like to be listened to as well. 
After 7 years, has this commitment lived up to what you were expecting? 
–  During these 7 years I haven’t progressed because I’m still in elementary class 1, by choice. I see the children grow; those I knew in the beginning, when they meet me in the street come up to embrace me; they are head and shoulders over me! "Do you not remember me, Reading Granny?" After a few seconds there is the joy of meeting again. "Well, do you read?" I have always this great pleasure in coming in contact again with young children, having been a kindergarten teacher for 4 years and a home help for 33 years. 
This puts you in contact with a school setting, what have you discovered?
–  Yes, nearly every year there has been a change of teacher; they are young and the contact is always very good…. but I cannot forget Amar who, when I was starting off, inspired me with the taste for this time with the children. At the end of the first 2 years when he was there he got the children to do some drawings for me, and stuck them on a big sheet of paper. I had lots of little hearts: "Thank you, Reading Granny", I liked your stories", I love you, Reading Granny". It is very rewarding. I was also able to take part in the end of year celebrations when the mothers were present. Then there are occasions in the locality like the Carnaval or public presentation of songs or little plays, and the children are so happy to be applauded. Sometimes also my prayer is filled with "little hearts" that call me to "become like a little child again" and to say "Thank you for those hours spent with them." 
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