By Carol Tannenhauser
How did the author of a wildly popular children’s book series called Fancy Nancy, inspiration for the Disney television series of the same name, and a young girl from Washington Heights find each other and forge a friendship that has uplifted them both?
It was January, 2017. “Quite truthfully, after Trump was elected, I wanted to find volunteer work that would be meaningful,” said Jane O’Connor, 72, the aforementioned author, in a telephone interview with WSR. “I didn’t know what was going to happen with education and Betsy DeVos. I signed up with the Star Learning Center on West 84th Street, Goddard Riverside’s tutoring program for schoolchildren from underserved communities. I felt I could make a small contribution and I really like working with kids. I’ve been a children’s book editor for nearly 50 years and I’m a born and bred Upper West Sider. I’ve known about Goddard since I volunteered at their summer camp as a kid. Just by happenstance, they paired me with Crismary.”
At the time, Crismary Lopez was a seven-year-old second grader in Washington Heights, about 50 blocks north of the Upper West Side. She was a whiz at math, but, coming from a mostly Spanish-speaking family, lagged a little in reading. “My aunt registered me in Star Learning,” Crismary said. “When I got down there I had to take a test in math and vocabulary to tell them what I needed help on. I was really happy when I got Jane as my tutor. I didn’t know she was a famous writer. She was very fun to be around and very kind. She dedicated a Fancy Nancy book to me in third grade. I was so happy inside.”
“She’s a wonderful child,” said O’Connor. She and Crismary have been working together for four years now. Crismary is 11, a sixth grader at KIPP Washington Heights Middle School on 168th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. “One day a week, for two hours, we would do her homework. She’d read aloud to me and then we’d stop and talk about what she was reading so I’d know she understood it. The beginning of fourth grade was when everything fell into place and she really became a reader; it wasn’t a struggle anymore. She was like a house on fire. She has such amazing curiosity.”
“Jane used to take me to museums in the summer,” Crismary said. “Even though it was optional, I still liked to hang out with Jane. We’d go to the Museum of Natural History or the Met and explore together. I remember when we saw the mummies.”
Earlier this year, a wonderful thing happened: Crismary was accepted in Prep for Prep, a highly selective program — 125 children were admitted out of around 4,000 applicants — which provides intensive tutoring for two summers and during the school year to children of color, preparing them to attend esteemed private and boarding schools on scholarships. It was a grueling application process and it will be a grueling coming year. But Crismary is not parting ways with Jane, even though their tutoring sessions are now on Zoom and her schedule is crammed with homework and Prep for Prep after-school sessions. They will continue to see each other…“forever,” Crismary finished, laughing.
“I hope so,” Jane echoed. “When I heard in July that she’d been accepted to Prep for Prep I cried. I couldn’t see her because of COVID, but I told everybody I knew. She’s a very special child in my life. Especially with my own children grown, it’s terrific to have a friendship with someone like Crismary.”
“I remember when her grandchild was born,” Crismary said. “She showed me and my mom a picture of her and her daughter. It made me feel very special.”
If you want to learn more about any of the programs or organizations mentioned above, click on the links within the article.