February Exercise - Write for one hou...

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February Exercise - Write for one hou...
Sat, 02-09-2002 - 5:21pm

February Exercise - Write for one hour. Don't think about what will happen...

...to this writing. Just write. I think this exercise is liberating. I want to tell about him.

The first time I saw him, he was standing outside the door of my classroom with the counselor and his aunt. The counselor was speaking to both of them in Spanish, explaining where his classes would be, how the lockers worked, and who to go to for help. I took one look at him and pegged him as a kid with a very thick file.

White T-shirt, untucked. Khaki pants, falling down loose. Jelly spine, extra slouch added by boy for effect. And the hair. The hair put him in a class by himself. It was crew cut, except for two locks in the very front that he let grow. I surveyed the boy's hair with amazement. Here was a child who had come up with an entirely new way to make himself unique, and as any self- respecting adolescent knows, being different only counts if that difference makes one's appearance repulsive to the adult population.

As I came to know him, I realized that the two long strands of hair in the front of his head served many purposes. He used them to hide his face when feelings would surface, and spread them out like horns to appear more sinister when he felt threatened. I often thought he could have used them to masquerade as a Hasidic Jew, but I don't think he would have known what one was, so I kept the joke to myself.

That first morning, he slunk into my classroom like an outlaw about to shoot up a saloon. I showed him to a seat in the front row, and handed him a set of class rules to read and sign. When I handed the page to him, he accepted it with a thumb and forefinger as if it were smelly fish. He laid the rules on his desk and looked around the room. Probably looking at the haircuts, searching out a kindred spirit.

The call for the Pledge of Allegiance came over the loudspeaker, and he made a nervous smiling gesture at the students seated near him as the pledge began. They returned his look with blank stares and put their hands on their hearts to begin the pledge. He stood still for the first thirty seconds, listening to the words, looking around, and I could tell he was amazed that the other children were actually saying the words. Right before the pledge ended, he nonchalantly slipped his hand up to his heart, assuming the pose the rest of the class had adopted. I was relieved. A child who can put his hand on his heart just because everyone else is doing it can't be all bad.

We were reading Christmas novels in literature circles, and I put him in a group and explained what the group was doing. I told him that I would be moving around the room and that if he had any questions all he had to do was ask, I'd be there. I also pointed out that the group was there to help him. Then I moved away. I wanted to observe how he would behave without me breathing down his neck.

The students were taking turns reading portions of the novels they had chosen. The novel this group had chosen was at least two grades below level and everyone in the group was able to read it with ease. When his turn to read came up, my suspicions were confirmed. The other children had to help him pronounce almost every word. He couldn't read.

I moved closer to his group to listen to what was happening. He was obviously frustrated, but the other children were patient and accepting. He finished the paragraph and looked up at me. His teeth were clenched and his jaw muscles were flexing. He had a look of utter disappointment on his face. His eyes said, "See, Lady, I'm nothing. I don't do school, and now you know why." I smiled back at him, acting as if nothing were wrong. He looked back to his novel, and the group continued to work for the rest of the period.

As the bell rang, I asked him to stay back for a moment. When the rest of the students were gone, I said, "Reading is hard for you, isn't it?"

He mumbled, "Yeah."

"Would you like to read better than you do right now?"

"I guess." He looked at me doubtfully. I knew he had been in many classrooms, with many teachers. Maybe other teachers had even asked him the same question.

"If you want to be a better reader, we can start by giving you a test to see how well you read right now. We can decide what to do from there. You don't have to take the test if you don't want to."

He thought for a moment. "I'll take it," he said.

"Good. I'll pull you out of P.E. in a day or two, and we'll get started."

"Okay," he said as he left the room. He gave me one last cagey glance before he left. He didn't know what to make of me.

During my conference period, I went to the office and looked at his records. The file was indeed very thick. He was in every special program that was offered by his previous school district, including a vocational program. When a school district puts a sixth grader in a vocational program, this is an announcement that the district credits the child with low potential and limited intellectual ability.

So I wasn't surprised when the reading test I promised him showed he was reading on kindergarten level.

I called him to my desk after the test was completed, and I shared the results with him. I told him that the first order of business was for him to start practicing on his own every day. I told him that he needed to go to the library and pick a book to read, something he liked, something that he wouldn't find too hard. As I began to write the library pass, he said, "Go to the library?"


"Right now?"

"Yes, I'll show you where it is in an minute."

" And pick anything I want?"

"Yes, but make sure it is not too hard. Let the librarian help you pick a level one or two book."


I walked to the door of the classroom and pointed him in the direction of the library. I expected him to come back to the classroom with Berenstain Bears books, maybe Magic School Bus or Amelia Bedelia. And he did have one extremely easy book with him, but the librarian had let him roam around and he had also picked Onion Tears, a much more difficult book.

He went to his desk and sat the two books in front of him. He watched the children on either side of him. They were both reading longer, harder books. He thought for a long time. He looked at me, took a deep breath, and picked up Onion Tears. He opened it and began to scan the words. He wasn't really reading, just letting his eyes fall across the page, looking at words. I acted like I didn't notice.

Every couple of days, I would call him to my desk. I would tell him what a good job he was doing, say I could tell he was already a better reader, and that he was starting to catch on to the process we used for reading short testing passages. I would tell him to keep on trying. I told him that in order to be a successful adult, he needed to read. One time I said, "Have you ever thought about what you would like to do in the future?" He just looked at me, full of fear.

Then he said, "No."

That night his face, his mouth forming the word "No," was the last image I had in my mind before sleep.

I spent a bit of extra time at his desk over the next few weeks, and I began to see some progress. One day, I assigned a short practice test passage to the students and told them to read the next 10 pages of our new novel on their own before the end of the period. I stated that if they were unable to finish the assigned reading they should come and borrow a novel during advisory. I was pleased when he appeared at my doorway and asked to borrow the novel.

The next day, we formed new Literature Circles. The students were allowed to pick their own groups, and when I looked at the way they had separated themselves, I cringed. He was grouped with two others who were lagging behind their peers. Rather than cause them embarrassment by making them move, I decided to join their group. I sat down with them and said, "Tell me what you read yesterday."

They were silent. The enlarged pupils of the other two boys told me that they either didn't finish the reading or didn't understand it. His eyes shone with unspoken thoughts. I smiled at him and said, "What did you read about yesterday?"

He glanced over each shoulder to make sure no one else was listening. Then he said, "First, the family lived in this place with a lot of other people. Then they had to go to the camp. "

"And then what?"

"Then they had to get crowded on a bus with a lot of other people, but it was okay because most of them were family."

"That's right," I said. "Can you tell me anything else?"

"Yeah," he said. His voice was just above a whisper, and as he told me the rest of the story, there was the barest glint of light in his eyes. I kept my tone of voice and body language very neutral. For a few delicate seconds, I got to share in this child's quiet pride. In this job, such seconds can be few and far between, and I wanted to enjoy it while it lasted.

The next day, he came to me in the hallway. He said, "I'm moving out of your class, Miss."

"What for?"

"I don't know, they just gave me this."

He handed me a slip of paper. He had been moved into the remedial reading class. Even though I knew it was a more appropriate placement for him, I was disappointed. I said, "Do you want to go to another class?"

He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, "When did anyone ever ask what I want?"

I said, "Why don't you try it for a couple of weeks. It might be good for you, but if it's too easy, come and talk to me and I'll see what I can do."

Then he turned and disappeared.

I saw him in the hall about a week ago. He got a haircut, and the two long strands of hair are missing. His face is out there for anyone to see.

I don't know what I taught him. Very little, I'm sure. He was only my student for four weeks. I never tutored him individually, or called his parents, or held a conference with the powers that be to defend his native intelligence and right to an education. In a year, he probably won't even remember me.

But I will always remember him. He taught me.

Today, somebody burned popcorn in the teacher's lounge, which is next door to my room. We opened the windows to let the bad smell out. It was a beautiful, breezy day and somehow the windows stayed open for the rest of the afternoon. The students were all reading quietly at their desks, when we began to hear the sound of small children singing.

The kindergarten classes were walking back from the library, singing a silly song about frogs. One of my students said, "What's that?" Then they all started talking about what the sound was, where it was coming from, the mysteries of the universe that have brought us this sound, etc.

I said, "Be quiet, so we can listen."

They obliged, and we did listen, until the last child had walked under our window and we could no longer hear their voices. Then we all went back to what we were doing.

That is what I've learned from him. You never know when your four weeks is up, so savor every ounce of mirth while you can.

One day I patted him on the back as he was leaving, and I said "It's never too late." He looked at me with such doubt and such distrust. But then, just a couple of weeks later, he was contributing to the class, trying to read, and cutting his devil locks.

I'm in a hard profession. The responsibility is tremendous, the pressure unrelenting, and the pay mediocre. There are times when I try and fail to get my point across, teach the lesson to the sound of tiny brains grinding to a standstill. There are times when I feel buried beneath a mound of poorly written essays, crunched beneath a thousand smelly child sneakers. From now on, when I'm feeling overwhelmed, I will try to remember my own words.

Never too late.