The kids at Methodist Hospital’s Pediatric Clinic were bouncing off the walls when I sat down at the round wooden table. I plopped my bag at my feet and asked, “Anybody want a story?”

Two four-year-olds pounced on the little chairs to my left and right. Boys.

Uh, oh.

I’m a Reach Out and Read volunteer. My stated mission is to engage children in the magic of reading during their long wait for their doctors, so their moms are impressed enough to take up the practice at home.

In reality, I function as a cross between court jester and lion tamer.

Today, most of the kids were boys. So I was the latter.

Don’t get me wrong: I love little boys, even as I love little girls. But they’re not the same.

In the 60’s, that was a dangerous thing to say. Gender differences were all about oppression. Parents gave their boys toy cars because boys could be free to drive away. Girls were saddled with dolls to turn them into compliant housewives and mothers. It was all a socially-engineered plot.

Then I had kids. I gave our daughter cars. I gave the boys dolls.

The boys ran over the dolls with their sister’s neglected cars. They bent them at the waist and shot each other with them. Kym found a book about a little girl holding a tea party for her babydolls. She made me read it every night. It began: “This is my house, and I am the mommy/My children are Annabel, Betsy and Bonny.” The only car pictured is the one a little boy rides off in: “Billy is daddy, he works in the city/He has a new car—isn’t it pretty?” Varrooom; exit Billy.

Kym dressed up in pink tutus. The boys dressed up, too—as Jedi knights.

Now Kym has two boys.

They live for fire trucks and front-loaders. Dolls are something to repair with their tools.

Another fact about little boys: in herds, they’re noisier than little girls. Squirmier. More ADD. I don’t think they’re necessarily that way individually, but en masse, there’s this dynamic. Try to keep the attention of five little boys. It’s like corralling baby chicks on a plate. Snag Gabe with Yertle the Turtle; Joaquin sits down; Gabe jumps up to chase a Shiney Thing; Kareem hops on the table; Michael runs a toy truck over the book; Max becomes an airplane and mows down Joaquin—

When chaos threatens to spill from the window and engulf Park Slope, I take out my WMDs (Weapons of, Maybe, Distraction?): crayons and blank paper. Yes, my mission is to READ to them—but, at this point, I’m desperate. It’s crayons or complete anarchy.

Even small, squirmy little boys love crayons. They love to roll them, stab each other with them, eat them, put them up their noses. Sometimes they even draw with them. They don’t particularly love to share crayons, so I become a referee: I catch rolling crayons before they hit the floor, where little feet grind them into greasy spots. I kindly but firmly remind Kareem that Michael can use the black one now, since he had it first; see how many great colors are left? And yes, Gabe can have some,too. Yes, GABE CAN HAVE SOME, TOO, thank you. And let’s let Gabe’s little brother Max take the crayons out of the box and put them back—yet again—because that’s what two-year-olds do, and it’s not hurting anything. And no, Joaquin, that’s Burnt Umber. Not chocolate.

In the middle of Crayon Time today, a pink-ruffled little girl sidled up with a book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Tears leaked down her cheeks. She’d had a shot. “Read?” she entreated.

A little girl! Wants me to read! Omigod! I’m in heaven!

I lifted her onto my lap and opened the book.

Michael and Kareem sword-fought, blue against green. Joaquin nibbled; Gabe scribbled; little Max once again took every crayons out and put every crayon back in.

I read. And I felt my lap get very, very wet.

The pink-ruffled little girl sniffled up at me. “Read?”


The Very Hungry Caterpillar is normally not a long book. But today…