I always wanted to be Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew.  When I was a kid, my best friend Cheri and I spent hours reading detective stories.  Our favorites were Trixie Belden by Julie Campbell and Katheryn Kenny and Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene. We scoured our suburban backyards and the nearby woods for mysteries.  

Mysteries just appeared to Trixie and her brothers, Mart and Brian, and their friends Honey, Di and Jim at Crabapple Farm and the Manor House near the Hudson River town of Sleepyside.  Nancy Drew and friends, George and Bess and boyfriend, Ned, found mysteries abundant in their New York town of River Heights and pursued them in Nancy’s roadster.  

Trixie and Nancy tackled their mysteries with moxie, keen minds, and, as Nancy Drew’s narrator describes, “warm sympathy for those in trouble.”

Unlike Trixie and Nancy, no matter how hard we tried, Cheri and I never did find a real-life mystery to solve.  No impostors, missing millionaires, messages in hollow oaks, mysterious buried rings, or runaway robbers appeared in our suburban early 1960’s backyards.  We found no clues to decipher, no secrets to unlock, no messages to decode, no treasures to uncover.  

Our young minds were eager to be keen, our souls yearned for moxie and our hearts stood ready with warm sympathy.  Though we hoped against hope that we were wrong, we secretly knew the odds were stacked against us.  We considered the facts: we didn’t live in a mysterious river valley in New York; our western suburbs were too brand new to contain buried old mysteries.  No one we knew had ever uncovered a real mystery and, oh, yes, the clincher - this was real life and Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew were fiction.  Alas!

The good news is, years later, I’ve found real-life mysteries.  Cheri would be proud.  I’ve discovered that there really are important mysteries waiting to be solved.  Mysteries that require using a keen mind and a warm, sympathetic heart, and sometimes even moxie, to solve.

Unraveling the mysteries of my students’ gifts, their talents, their strengths, their reasons for being here takes every bit as much sleuthing as any of Trixie’s or Nancy’s whodunits.  The reading teacher’s detective work requires keen observation, a knack for spotting clues, determination and perseverance in following up on them.   This work demands the detective’s ever-present “warm sympathy for those in trouble.”


Sarena was thirty-five picture books behind her goal.  She rarely knew what book she was reading.  She wandered around the reading room in a daze, looking disconnected and unaware of her surroundings.  She talked with such a blank look on her face the school staff was convinced she struggled because of a severe IQ problem.  

Sarena came to the reading room at the start of third grade reading beginning second grade picture books.  When staff members talked with her one-on-one, it seemed she understood little of what was going on around her.  She was referred for special education testing because of the concerns about her low IQ.

There was, however, one piece of the puzzle that didn’t fit.  Looking back on the records of her quiz scores, she had had an unusually high number of 100%’s early in the year.  Even though she had accomplished very little during the year, failed several tests, and been unable to pass second and third grade chapter book assessments, there was something about the scores she had received on the picture books she read when she first came.  It was unusual for early third graders with IQ problems to consistently score 100’s.  
It was a small clue.  There was no other evidence to support the theory. The other members of the Student Assist Team smiled indulgently and went ahead with their special education recommendation, convinced of Sarena’s low IQ.  

What would Trixie or Nancy have done?  Follow up on even the smallest of clues!  Nancy and Trixie lived on their intuition.  They built their careers and often saved their lives by believing in the tiniest trifle of a clue.  Despite the scoffing of those around them, they forged ahead, followed up on their suspicions, used their intuition and solved the case.

In the Case of Sarena, the detective’s hunch suggested she was bright and needed attention and help for ADD-like symptoms.  

The clues added up.  Her mother was in jail for drug use and had been for most of Sarena’s life.  There was no one at home to care for her.  In addition, she had been sexually molested several years previously.  Her father insisted it was “just an incident” that was “behind her,” though she had not received counseling. The school nurse described seeing Sarena as a toddler wandering in the street unattended, wearing only her diaper.  

That picture haunted me.  I couldn’t get out of my mind the image of a small toddler, wearing only a diaper, wandering in the street wondering where her caretakers were, wondering who would take care of her and why no one did, wondering what this world was about.  It seemed the blank look on Sarena’s face as she wandered around the reading room, disconnected and unable to function, was the same look a small toddler would wear if habitually abandoned in the street, unfed, unclothed, unprotected, uncared for.  

The detective’s hunch was that Sarena was bright, but unable to function due to loss, abandonment, and trauma.  Her inability to focus, attend, or even understand what was going on around her, particularly auditorily, seemed to be due, at least in part, to the intellectual and emotional confusion chronic abandonment had caused.  It was as if Sarena was still wandering, looking desperately for someone to care for her personally, the way a mother cares for her toddler - one-on-one, in her lap, wrapped in her arms.  It was as if she wandered the room looking for someone who would care for her the way a father cares for his child perched proudly on his shoulders, scooped up in his arms, bounced on his knee.

It is as if this personal attention and protection is a necessary ingredient in each child’s journey to third grade.  Children sit protected in a lap, nestle in a warm embrace, then move on when the time comes.  By third grade, children can be given a direction and be expected to independently carry it out.  Sarena was still waiting for the lap and the protective arms to appear.

We plotted and prepared a solution.

First, an extra half hour of one-on-two time with the reading room’s full-time Americorps assistant for support to catch up on her reading.  The Americorps reading assistant gave her stamps and stickers for reading, snuck her fishy crackers while she listened to her read, cared about what happened to her, paid attention to what page she was on and how many books she had read.  

In addition, we found her a supportive peer reading buddy she trusted - a fellow third grade student who had struggled with reading herself and was now very successful.  This student read with Sarena in class as well as getting together with her at home.  

The reading buddy’s mom volunteered to take Sarena under her wing after school, helping to ensure both girls had their homework done each afternoon, had healthy after-school snacks, play time, and time to enjoy reading.

As a result of this three-part remedy, Sarena caught up completely - reading all thirty-five books she was behind, as well as keeping up with her ongoing reading goal of reading five new picture books a week.  Soon, she was reading third grade chapter books and passing them with flying colors.  It was obvious she understood completely the grade-level stories she was reading.  It was clear she did not have an intellectual impairment.  

In the reading room, filled with its eager, waiting students, there is a wealth of hidden secrets to unlock, tricky clues to decipher, and tremendously valuable treasures to uncover.   

Just call me Girl Sleuth. 

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