Gemma hopped off the school bus feeling thoroughly miserable. Today had been one of the worst days of her life. How could she show her face at school ever again? It was total humiliation. ‘TGI Friday’ is right! At least she had the weekend ahead of her. Maybe she would run away from home so she didn't have to face her classmates on Monday morning.
Gemma walked slowly up the tree-lined hill toward the park. She needed time alone to think and cry. Her mom wouldn’t be home from work for another hour or so and she needed fresh air and sunlight after being in school all day. She needed so much more than that; what she needed was a brain transplant! Reading out loud in class today had been terrifying, agonizing, embarrassing, torturous; she hated every moment of it. She was sweating, her voice shook, her face flushed red, and her heart pounded uncontrollably. Breathing normally was simply impossible in the midst of the irrational fear and panic she felt. Gemma wished the ground had opened up and swallowed her whole, which would’ve been preferable. Even a freak bolt of lightning crashing through the classroom windows would have been good; something, anything, to relieve her of the humiliation as she stood before the class feeling like a fool. She had heard the snickers, the whispered comments between her classmates, and had seen the look on her teacher's face as she went back to her seat.
Why was she so scared of reading out loud? And why was she so painfully shy? Her face wasn’t perfect but she didn't think she was ugly, and her voice was no weirder than anyone else’s. But as soon as she was in a situation where she had to speak in public she went to pieces. She’d been dealing with this her whole life and it wasn’t getting any better as she got older.
Gemma headed for the bench in the walled rose garden that she often visited, as far away from people as possible. She took off her heavy backpack and slumped down on the hard seat. The backpack was full of school books and she was glad to get it off her shoulders. She hated school and never wanted to go back there. Ever. She sighed deeply, buried her face in her hands, and began to sob in despair. She was sure other kids didn’t have this problem. Some of her classmates even looked like they were enjoying reading out loud and reveled in being the center of attention. Her English teacher couldn’t help her with her fear. No one could. Gemma didn’t know what she was going to do.
“Hello, are you alright, dear?”
Startled, Gemma abruptly pulled her hands away from her face and looked up in the direction of the voice, embarrassed that someone had seen her crying.
“Yes, I’m okay, thank you. I’m just… I’m fine,” she replied as she looked away, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. She sniffed and searched for a tissue in her backpack.
The lady watched her with kindness and concern. She appeared old to Gemma, who was nearly 14. The stranger was maybe in her 60s, but she could tell with a glance that this lady had been a beautiful woman in her younger years. Her thick hair was a sandy color, peppered with gray, wound up in a bun at the nape of her neck, and her eyes were deep brown like dove’s eyes. She had a silky looking scarf around her neck with beautiful colors that made her face look pretty.
“I’m a good listener. And you know what they say, “A problem shared is a problem halved.” Gemma had never heard anyone say that. But before she knew it, the good listener had parked herself on the bench next to Gemma’s school bag.
Gemma moved her bag and put it on the ground. She didn’t know what to say but this lady somehow made her feel safe, even calm, and she seemed to be genuinely interested. What did she have to lose? Gemma felt like she was stuck in a black hole. If her problem could be halved by sharing it, it seemed like a good deal to her right now.
“My name is Gwen,” the lady said, “I live near the park and love to walk here in the rose garden. It’s so peaceful.” Gwen paused, waiting for the young girl to share her name and her story.
“Hi, I’m Gemma. I live up by the old post office in the new houses.” Gemma looked down and saw that she was wringing her hands and decided to sit on them instead.
“I had the worst day of my life at school today,” she blurted out. Gwen folded her hands on her lap and nodded for Gemma to continue, her soft eyes filled with compassion. Gemma took a deep breath and told Gwen the story of how her English teacher had given them a writing assignment a few weeks ago to write a short story on the subject of ‘Imagination’. Each student had to read their short story in class that afternoon.
As the painful details of Gemma’s failed attempts to read unfolded, Gwen sat quietly and listened, nodding from time to time to encourage Gemma to continue. Finally, Gemma finished recounting her English class nightmare and sat back looking thoroughly defeated and sad. There was a long pause.
“What are you doing tomorrow at 10 am, Gemma?” Gwen asked brightly as if nothing she had just shared had registered with the listener.
“Um, I don’t know exactly. Why?” She was confused but curious.
“I think I know someone who could help you. Can you meet me on the first floor of the library tomorrow morning? I will be happy to introduce you. Ask your mom, of course. Here’s my number. She is welcome to call me if she likes. We probably know some of the same people. If you’ve lived here as long as I have, you know just about everybody in this town.” Gwen chuckled as she brought a card out of her purse and handed it to Gemma.
“Gemma, what you are facing may well seem like a mountain to you right now, but trust me, with a little help it will become a molehill in no time.” Gwen got up to leave and smoothed her coat. She put her hands in her pockets and said, “It was very nice to meet you. Thank you for trusting me with your story. You will get through this, you’ll see. The library, tomorrow at 10, okay?” she said with a smile.
“Okay. I’ll ask my mom and try to be there. Thank you for listening. I feel a bit better now. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’, right?” Gemma smiled for the first time that day.
On Saturday mornings, Gemma’s mom, Cyndi, always went for a coffee with a friend from work at the local coffee shop on Main Street. Gemma told her briefly about her horrible day at school and about this lady called Gwen she had met at the park, who wanted to meet her at the library to help her with her reading. It sounded okay and once she had spoken with Gwen on the phone Cyndi decided it was safe to let her daughter go. Gwen had immediately put her at ease and sounded really kind. She was genuinely interested in helping Gemma. Gwen explained to Cyndi that she’s a retired school teacher and has a passion for helping children who needed to grow in confidence in reading and writing. By the time the phone call ended they were like firm friends.
Gemma had no trouble writing. She spent hours in her room writing stories and plays and journaling her thoughts and feelings. Gemma was a deep thinker for her age and Cyndi was sure she got that from her father. Brad was a marine. He had died in the fighting in Afghanistan two years ago. Life had been rough for the two of them since his sudden death. After they moved from the city last year, Gemma had become withdrawn and Cyndi didn’t always know how to reach her. As a widow, she was still on her own journey with grief and loss. If this kind lady could help Gemma in any small way, it would be worth it. So she told Gemma to call her at the coffee shop if she needed her and after her coffee date she would come by the library to meet Gwen.
Gemma arrived at the library at 10 am. It was a big library for the size of their town. She loved the local library. For her, it was the heart of the community. Gemma liked the small-town feel here and how people seemed to have time to stop and talk to each other. It was so different from the city life she’d known and grown up in.
She had been here many times before but usually chose to avoid Saturday mornings because it was so busy. There were children of all ages looking at books and running up and down the aisles, some playing hide and seek with their siblings.
Gemma headed for the wide staircase leading to the upper reading area. She looked around the large open room and spotted Gwen talking with a younger woman. When Gwen saw her she immediately made her way over to greet her young friend.
“Ah, Gemma, it’s good to see you again. How are you today? I’m so glad you came! Gabriella and Lillie will be here any minute now and will be so happy to meet you.” Gemma didn’t know who Gabriella and Lillie were and started to feel a little uncomfortable. She was an introvert and meeting strangers wasn’t her favorite thing.
Gwen picked up on her body language immediately and reassured her, “You will love them, don’t worry. I’ll be here too. It’ll be fun, you’ll see.” Gwen led her across the room with a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. There were a few shallow steps leading to the quiet reading area. Hundreds of colorful children's books lined the walls, filling the many shelves and display tables. Gemma relaxed a little and began to browse the books. This was her safe place. She loved books! She could spend hours in a good adventure novel and not even care about the time.
“Ah, here they are!” Gwen announced. Gemma turned around and was surprised to see a young woman with a curly mop of auburn hair walking across the room with a golden retriever. The dog looked confident beside her, its tail wagging joyfully. It was a picture of pure happiness. Behind her was another lady around the same age, in her thirties, with a spaniel of some kind, and behind her another lady with a poodle. As two more owners were arriving with their dogs, the golden retriever lady and Gwen hugged each other, and the dog greeted Gwen like a long-lost friend.
“Calm down, Lillie, you just saw her this morning on your walk, silly girl!” Gabriella’s laugh was like music as she patted her dog with great affection. She looked over at Gemma with her big brown eyes and it was very easy to see that she and Gwen were mother and daughter.
“Gemma, come and meet my daughter, Gabriella, and her dog, Lillie. We jokingly call her ‘Lillie the Listener.’” Gemma thought Gabriella was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. She was full of life, with the most stunning, genuine smile that lit up the room.
They greeted each other and Lillie pushed her wet nose into Gemma’s hand with a happy wag of her tail, making another new friend instantly. Gemma hadn’t been around dogs much but she loved all animals and was pleased to make a new friend. The room soon filled as other children arrived and were paired up with a therapy dog and its owner.
Gwen explained to Gemma that her daughter and her friends had trained their dogs to sit with children of all ages and allow the kids to read books to them. The dogs were there to listen, bring comfort, and be non-judgmental, as each child practiced reading out loud. The dogs helped them to grow in confidence in their reading skills.
Gemma had never heard of reading to a dog before and wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it. It seemed a bit silly, but she was here and she was desperate to be free from her fear of reading, so if reading to Lillie might help her, she was willing to giving it a try. She chose a book with a bright orange cover from the back wall and sat down on the steps with Gabriella and Lillie.
“Mom told me about you and what you are going through. When I was about your age I had a terrible fear of reading in public too. Mom was a teacher at the time and had heard about how dogs can help kids who struggle with reading aloud. She rescued a dog from the local pound and trained it herself to help me. I will never forget that dog. Her name was April and we became best buddies. My dad had died unexpectedly when I was 10 and I think I just needed the comfort and unconditional love that only a dog can bring. I know this is a stretch for you but I want you to know that I have seen many young people just like yourself being helped by Lillie here. Isn’t that right, Lil?”
The dog looked up adoringly as Gabriella stroked her head. Her tail thumped loudly on the carpet. Then, Lillie looked at Gemma as if to say, Come on then, I’m ready!
So for the next hour, Gemma and Lillie sat close together, Gemma’s arm draped around the dog’s soft neck as she read out loud to her new friend. She forgot that there were people all around. She found that she was able to focus on the words and that the terrible panic she usually felt was not there. Lillie's presence brought her comfort and she felt accepted. Gabriella sat quietly with them, she didn’t interrupt or correct her if she stumbled over a word. She just let her figure it out.
After reading for quite a while, Gemma looked up and saw that her mom had slipped in quietly and was sitting with Gwen a few feet away on a lower step listening. Her eyes were glistening with tears. Cyndi got up and crouched down in front of Gemma and Lillie. Lillie’s tail thumped the carpet, proud of herself for Gemma’s success.
“Gemma, I’m so proud of you. That was wonderful, you were reading so well!” Gwen and Gabriella agreed. “Mom! Lillie is a therapy dog, she helps kids like me to read! Isn’t she wonderful?” Gemma felt happier inside than she had felt for a long time.
The three women sat together on the steps, talking like old friends. Gemma kept reading the orange book to Lillie until it was time to go. She said goodbye to her new friends with the promise of more reading sessions in the weeks ahead.
As she walked home with her mom that morning Gemma felt like she was walking a little taller and there was a spring in her steps. She had hope in her heart for the first time that felt bigger than the pain of the last two years.
Maybe, just maybe, she could overcome her fears with the help of her new friend, Lillie the Listener.