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Friendships blossom around the Wishtree

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Oyster Bay High School senior Cheli DeCarolis ran her fingers across the books on the shelves in the James H. Vernon School Library, fondly remembering the days she’d spent there when she was younger. It was almost time for the seventh annual Oyster Bay-East Norwich Community Book Club meeting to begin. Like the other students who began to gather in the library on Nov. 21, as well as the teachers, parents and school administrators, Cheli couldn’t wait for the book club to begin.

The book to be discussed by the students, who were in the second through 12th grade, was “Wishtree,” by Katherine Applegate. The allegorical tale about friendship and making a difference in the world is narrated by a tree.

Superintendent Dr. Laura Seinfeld started the book club seven years ago when she became the superintendent. “I’m a former English teacher,” she explained, “so it’s a nice way for me to use the experience I have with literacy to work with a larger community. I always try to pick books that work around the themes we introduce in the district, books based on kindness, compassion, empathy, respect for differences and welcoming all.”

The book club meets twice each year in the fall and spring. Six weeks before each meeting, Seinfeld and staff members spread the word about the book that has been selected.

“I love to bring conversations together around the written word,” Seinfeld said. “So, it’s students, staff, parents and administrators. It’s all of us coming together.”

As the book discussion was about to begin, a combination of students and adults sat in clusters at the library tables. Erica Duke, a high school senior and the high school’s student council president, asked questions about friendship that related to the book. “Why do you think the tree and the crow in the book are friends?” she asked. “How does friendship happen? What qualities do you look for in a friend?” The questions inspired discussions at every table.

Then everyone switched tables and new questions were presented. “How did the tree in the book make a difference in the world?” Duke asked. “And how can we all make a difference?”

After switching tables a third time, participants were asked to talk more about the Wishtree in the book. This unusual tree was filled with pieces of cloth tied around its branches. A different wish made by someone in the community was written on each piece of fabric. Moments later, Erin Dubon, Vernon’s library teacher, announced that the Wishtree was about to come alive at the book club.

“The drama department gave us a gift of a tree,” Dubon explained, pointing to a 10-foot-tall 3D paper tree in the corner. The branches were bare when the tree was placed in the library, she said, when students were reading “Wishtree” in school.

“So, we [have] decided to turn the bare tree into a Wishtree,” Dubon said. “We can put wishes on the tree. And just like in the book, our wishes can be grand and goofy, shallow or sweet.”

Then Dubon distributed colored strips of paper attached to strings and asked everyone to write their own wishes and hang them on the tree. One person wished for a horse, another for all wars to end. A third wished for a welcoming and peaceful community in school.

“I started when I was in fifth grade and I liked being part of a discussion group with older kids,” said Cheli, who has attended every book club meeting since its inception. “I’ll never forget the year I met a high school kid who told me to follow my heart, even when life got tough.”

Then she added, “I like being with people who all like to read.”