As a first year teacher, I received a gargantuan assignment. Teach reading to 9th graders who are multiple grade-levels behind. Most were like 6 years below grade level (3rd grade readers). Because they were so behind, we had them in our classes for nearly half the school day. We taught them explicit reading strategies with high-interest text, and saw some fantastic growth.
Some of the students, though, were too beaten down by their own previous failures to try very hard. Several had such well developed avoidance tactics, that they rarely had to struggle with text. Some were just plain hard to deal with. A few, in my honest and deflated moments, I thought were virtually doomed. Without literacy skills or grit, I feared the world would eventually just swallow them up.
V topped that list. V did some crazy things in my classroom to avoid work. One day, I asked him to leave the classroom, but he refused. As I walked towards him, he would run. He even hopped a few rows to stay away and incite a game of chase. His classmates were thrilled, elated by his courage to buck structure and authority. For a moment, he was a star. He just laughed when I called security to come get him.
V appeared completely apathetic when it came to school work. And I wanted to get to the bottom of the “why.”
Being an ambitious, driven, concerned young teacher, I drove to his home for an official home visit. Perhaps I would discover new ways to reach this struggling student of mine. What I discovered, though, was less help and more empathy. Here’s why: His grandmother lay in the one bedroom apartment, on a hospital bed, adjacent the living room window. She we hurting, even moaning, and clearly in her last days. V’s father was angry with his son but lacked the English skills to communicate real concerns or explanation for his sons behavior. In a Cambodian dialect I couldn’t make sense of, he screamed at Voungtha, shaming him in my presence. Voungtha’s smirk from class was a world away.
“Where would he do his homework even if he wanted to?” I thought.
“Please encourage V to try hard in my class,” I said.
“What will become of this kid?” I wondered.
“His future is dim.” I projected.
It’s official now: the world did not swallow V up.
In fact, when my DSL installation technician arrived at my doorstep, he looked strikingly familiar. Within moments, I placed him. And for the next half hour, I questioned and praised him.
He made it.
V lives down the block for me and supports a family, including two young kids. He works hard during the day and counts it a privilege to have a job. Many of his friends don’t. He finished school on time (somehow) after being kicked out of our high school in two separate years.
He beat the odds.
That visit was good for my soul.
It reminded me that a) Growth and maturation is a process, often over years and years. b) I am no savior. I couldn’t even keep him in class. c) Moments of grace like these, are a gift. I am savoring it even now.