Trust by the Book
Children used to weird me out. Not the prospect of having my own kids so much -- that's just entirely unthinkable right now -- no, I mean being around kids at all. It's not that I don't like kids or that I'm not childlike myself. All of us secretly have little kids running around inside of us, the kind that want ice cream for dinner and Spiderman for an uncle. But since my only sibling is my twin brother, I was never really around kids. It must've seemed strange to people who knew me when one semester while I was in college, I decided to join a volunteer tutoring program. My friend Sara had worked with the program before and spoke highly of it. She kept saying they always needed help, especially from guys, and convinced my buddy Joel and I to give it a try. He's the oldest of four siblings. I'd seen him with kids before and knew he'd be great. Me, well, it freaked me out to think about it. But, hey, I had some free time on Mondays that semester; why not give it a try?
So one Monday afternoon in January, Joel and I drove to the school for the first time. Part of me was excited. Part of me was nervous as hell. We parted ways, and I continued down the hall. I took a deep breath and tried to relax.
After all, how tough could first-graders be?
Joel and I were each assigned to a classroom, and the idea was to read with the students one at a time, or rather, have them read to us. It sounded simple enough, I kept trying to reason, but I couldn't shake the knot from my stomach. I paused in the hallway in front of the door to my assigned room. Before I turned the knob to enter, a tiny girl came out of the restroom behind me. She smiled and waved a dripping wet hand at me as she continued down the hall.
I stood there, wavering, all sweaty, and finally entered the room. All eyes immediately turned to this stranger at the door. There was no turning back. I swallowed hard as I looked at the 20 or so faces staring back at me. I found the teacher's desk in a corner. She looked friendly, and I hurried over to meet her. Blocking my path was a boy holding scissors and some construction paper. He looked up at me, and I stopped.
"I gotta poop," he said to me matter-of-factly. He pushed past my legs and to the door. Before I could even register what he had said to me, or even chuckle a little to myself, the teacher stepped up, extending her hand and a warm welcome.
The tutoring program was new that semester, so the students weren't used to strangers breaking their daily schedule. It was exciting to some, distressing to others. I felt lucky that my first student, Freddie, was one of the excited ones. His courage and ease surprised me. We sat on a small carpet square in the corner of the classroom. The teacher had suggested sitting on the floor to get on their level. I sat cross-legged, and Freddie did too, right next to me so our knees overlapped. We talked for a while before beginning; he rambled as if I were his older brother. He told me about walking to school, and the crossing guard who smokes, and his baby sister who cries too much. He even told me about his dead dog that was kicked by a horse.
When we started reading I realized that, well, he basically couldn't. His reading skills were seriously lacking, but his sense of humor about his mistakes was reassuring. Our assignment was to read with students in 15-minute intervals. I scrapped that idea pretty quickly reading with Freddie; he was barely through one 11-page picture book after our first 15 minutes.
It took me several weeks to get comfortable going into that classroom on Monday afternoons. I was awkward, gawky even, like the tall kid in junior high who reaches 6-foot before everyone else. I kept looking to the teacher for guidance, a scared student myself in many ways -- which was silly, really. The teacher was young, too, not long out of college herself -- perhaps a second- or third-year teacher, still getting her feet wet. She smiled pleasantly whenever I walked in, sometimes breathing an exasperated sigh, as if to say, "Good, please relieve me of these kids!"
We both knew that's not why the program was put in place, but it must have been nice, at times, having another adult in the room. I certainly understood that.
Two things became clear during my first weeks in the class. First, that students vary greatly in ability, with some reading whole sentences and others, like Freddie, who hardly recognized the alphabet. It seemed impossible to me that all these students could be expected to advance together as a class. Second, Freddie was a pleasant kid to work with, but he spoiled me. His reading was weak, but he was easy to work with because his disposition was so agreeable. Unfortunately, I quickly learned, the same wasn't to be expected from all the kids. Some simply didn't care to be reading, and others were plain rude.
One afternoon, Joel and I were running late. It was raining hard, and my mind was racing because my own schoolwork had been piling up. I really wasn't in the mood to deal with kids when we pulled into the parking lot, with only a spot far from the entrance available. We ran to the door, unable to escape getting drenched by the storm and laughed as we squeaked down the hallway. That moment passed quickly, as I reluctantly headed toward class.
As soon as I opened the door, my reluctance turned to dread.
The kids were out of control, having been stuck inside all day because of the rain. The teacher was sitting at her desk, close to tears it seemed, and the kids simply had the run of the room. She looked as if she had given up for the day. For a moment I wanted to run over and tell her I couldn't stay.
The afternoon was excruciating. I sat in the corner, intending to read with one student as usual, but others kept gathering around, stepping on both of us. I looked to the teacher for help, still uncomfortable with the whole discipline thing. She was usually good about keeping the kids in line, but she was totally spent. In the end, the kids climbed all over me. We really got nothing done that day. I was frustrated, counting the minutes until I could leave.
When the hour was finally up, I stood to leave, and Duane came running up to me. Duane was a cheeky, loud, rambunctious, but confident kid -- I realized this the first day I read with him --
way ahead of his peers in reading skill. He was often scolded for disturbing the relative peace the teacher tried to keep.
The last thing I wanted that afternoon was to deal with Duane's smart mouth. He came up to me, stood on his tiptoes, and reached his small hand up to touch the top of my head. Then, he pulled his hand back, fast.
"Eeeeeoooowwwww!" he screamed, loud enough for everyone to hear.
"What?!" I clenched my teeth, trying not to seem as annoyed as I was.
"Your hair is like worms!"
The kids roared at Duane's remark. I stepped back a little, stunned. I tried hard to control my impulse to punch him, my face red with embarrassment. But all I could do was laugh with them. I laughed, hard; I could barely stop. After all, my hair was still wet and stringy, and it hung long and ratty from being drenched in the rain. To him, I guess it felt like worms.
I was put in my place by a smart-mouthed six-year-old. He didn't care that I had college to worry about. It wasn't his fault it rained so they couldn't go run off some after-lunch energy. All he knew is that I came into their class looking strange and horrible. He was right; I did.
"When do you come to visit?!" Jimmy demanded bitterly, when I walked into the classroom one day. We had read together twice in the past month and had gotten along well, I thought. In fact, he was my favorite student. Jimmy was a small kid and very shy. He managed to open up a bit after we read a while. That day, Jimmy was mad.
"Monday, right?" he yelled. He knew the answer, and I realized what he was getting at. The week before, Joel and I hadn't gone to the school because the kids were on a field trip. But Jimmy didn't care about that. What he knew, what he had come to expect, was a pattern I was a part of. The kids were never directly told that I would only come on Mondays, not by the teacher, not by me. They realized it themselves, or at least Jimmy did, and when he didn't see me that week he was hurt.
It took almost 30 minutes to get Jimmy calmed down and comfortable reading. I had a hard time even getting him to talk to me. For the first time, I began to realize just how much the kids had come to lean on us, their tutors, as new but important people in their lives. I should have seen it. Their teacher once told me that a lot of her students were from broken families, missing fathers or mothers, or even both. They were aching to connect with other people. In Jimmy's eyes, I had betrayed him.
It would take a while to gain back his trust.
The teacher was absent from class one Monday a few weeks later. Her substitute, a tall and commanding woman, looked frazzled. Joel's teacher was scolding my class when I walked in, because they had just been rude to a guest. I made my way back to the familiar carpet square to read with Alejandro. We sat down, and Alejandro immediately pulled a book from the reading box.
He breezed through it with no problem. Okay, I thought, that was too easy. Maybe he's underestimating himself.
"Um, let's try another one," I said.
Alejandro chose another book, significantly harder, and again read it easily -- even the two- and three-syllable words that usually stumped the kids. Whoa, I thought. I picked the next book, which was no harder than the book he had just read. But that time, he struggled on every page.
"Alejandro," I asked, "what's going on here?" He shrugged his shoulders, and a smirk came across his face.
"You haven't read this last book before, have you?" He shook his head, now with a full-blown smile. "But you've read those other two books before." He nodded, laughing. He sure had -- Alejandro read some of the books so often he had completely memorized them. I wasn't his only tutor, and that trick had obviously worked before. Pretty sneaky, that kid.
My friend Sara used to talk about how attached to her students she would get. She even had photos and thank-you notes from a few of them on her bedroom wall. Before Joel and I started tutoring that semester, I remember thinking that was weird. After a few months on that carpet square, it seemed less strange. Some days, as I walked to my own classes at UT and passed the church playgrounds near campus, I would see kids who reminded me of my reading kids.
Look, I'd say to myself, that chubby little boy with the ill-fitting pants looks like my Freddie. Or, that girl whines a lot like Shelly.
How could I keep students like Alejandro from outsmarting their teachers, I thought to myself, so that they don't slip through the cracks and move from grade to grade without really learning? Clearly, it happens. And Josh. What if Josh ends up just like the other men in his family, in jail like his brother, or broke and on the run like his dad? How could I help these kids achieve success in school, when so few of their parents read with them at home? This is evident, their teacher says, when kids come to kindergarten unable to recognize the alphabet. Or they can't count to 10.
And then there is Jimmy.
One day Jimmy told me about riding around with his stepfather in a delivery truck after school. Because he had nowhere else to go. I started thinking about those things, often, and I thought about those kids.
One afternoon, toward the end of the semester, I found the class outside for a late recess. The weather was warm and sticky, but the kids seemed to be enjoying the sun. There was a breeze in the shade of the trees. I had just clipped my hair short, and the wind felt good above my ears. As Joel and I walked to where the kids played, we heard hellos chirping at us from every direction. Carmen, a sweet girl whose reading aptitude had shown little improvement that term, was sitting on top of the jungle gym.
"Hi, you!" she shouted. Nor was Carmen strong with names, apparently. I waved back and we continued toward a picnic table where our teachers sat, chatting. As we passed a cluster of oak trees, I saw Jimmy's dark head peek out from behind one of the wide tree trunks. He smiled, sheepishly, and waved his tiny hand at me. Just then, another kid came running up, but I didn't see him until he was right beside me.
"Hey!" said Duane, reaching to put his hand firmly on my shoulder. I looked down at his chubby, gap-toothed, smiling face.
"I'm sure glad your hair ain't like worms no more!"