How two struggling grade school kids gave me lessons I never expected
This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them… .(Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium)
I first met Maria five years ago. She was a small, quiet girl born to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Latin America. It was early November of her kindergarten year, I had just completed training in literacy tutoring, and she was to be my student.
At our first session, a quick run-through of my stack of flashcards told me that she knew only a handful of letters. Consecutive consonants left her stymied: the word “snake” came out as “nake.” “School” was “cool.”
We were going to have to spend time on the basics. On the stuff that comes before the basics.
Five years later, Maria is now in fifth grade and she can muddle through sentences like “Bill disrupted the class.” Or “Rick’s camping trip was splendid.” But she is, it seems to me, irretrievably behind. Every time we meet, my smartphone sits on the table, search engine at the ready, so that I can pull up images that convey meaning to the words she is reading — words that her classmates internalized years ago, but that are still entirely foreign to her.
Ezekiel is an African-American boy in the third grade, and he usually understands the words he encounters without any help from a smartphone. The cause for concern in his case is not so much that he’s academically behind (he is), rather it’s the foundation of quicksand that seems to undergird his day-to-day existence.
Ezekiel is now attending his third school in as many years. Last school year, he spent weekdays with his grandfather, and weekends with his mother. Except when he didn’t. During one stretch of first grade, as he was whisked about by exigencies beyond my field of vision, he was consistently late to school each morning (on those days that he showed up at all).
One of my own boys is the same age as Ezekiel, and they knew each other back in kindergarten and first grade, before Ezekiel began his grand tour of our county’s elementary schools. On a few occasions, as Ezekiel and I worked together in his school’s library, he asked me: “Do you do this [tutoring] with Thomas at home?”
I’m not sure what prompted him to ask. But I do wonder what goes through his mind when, as a bus rider, he sees classmates escorted into his classroom each morning by their moms or dads. Classmates who come to school wearing clean clothes and carrying packed lunches, their folders filled with completed homework and forms for the teacher that have been dutifully completed and signed by one of those moms or dads. And I can imagine him yearning for something that he will never quite be able to articulate because he doesn’t know what it looks like — a stable, tranquil, sheltered existence free of worry over what distress might be lurking around the next corner.
Although Ezekiel is on a better academic trajectory than Maria, I’m increasingly skeptical that it’s going to make a difference. When young kids are continually negotiating uncertainty and fighting off adversity — embarking on a day of school with no food in the stomach, missing out on field trips because of unsigned permission slips, starting off each new school year in an unfamiliar building full of unfamiliar faces — it has to take a toll.
While Maria usually looks and seems happy, Ezekiel usually looks and seems wary and beaten down. I worry that he is, unwittingly, sagging under the weight of a persistent sense of defeat, something that will eventually take up residence and become an unquestioned fact of life, a comfort zone into which he settles permanently.
Several years ago, I volunteered to help out in my older son’s kindergarten class, just a handful of hours each month. As everyone knows, the talk that issues forth from kids at that age is frequently free-flowing and almost always unfiltered. Entirely without prompt or inquiry, I heard all about their lives outside of school, and it was often disconcerting.
At some point, I learned from the teacher that over a third of the kids in that class came from homes that were broken in one form or another. The muck, messiness, instability, and ambiguity of their home life served as the backdrop against which they were acclimating to their first year of formal schooling.
It eventually struck me that for a number of these kids, just five or six years old, one could already see that the potential trajectories of their lives — absent a major intervention of some sort — were destined to bump up against a ceiling far lower than it needed to be. Many of them had little chance to properly develop — let alone thrive — academically or socially. That reality played a significant role in my decision to pursue literacy tutoring, to see if I could make some kind of a difference, even if only for a few kids.
Now, in my sixth year, I’ve come to understand just how deeply entrenched are the forces that shape those trajectories. I’m no less intent on ramping up the reading and writing skills of the students I work with, but my understanding as to what it means to make a difference has matured considerably.
As a Roman Catholic, that understanding begins — it can only begin — with a vision that has been formed to see and to recognize the full measure of human dignity inherent in every child who crosses my path. It entails a willingness to be a consistent presence in their lives, and to acknowledge that academic struggles sometimes have less to do with intelligence deficits or learning disabilities and more to do with circumstances beyond the child’s choosing.
Most importantly, it means recognizing that this isn’t about me. It’s not, in other words, about boosting my ego by bumping a kid up two or three levels at his next reading assessment. My job is simply to work with them and teach them as well as I know how, to pray for them, and to pray that the work we do together will help draw to the surface the gifts God has already given them. And it means that I keep going back, week after week, even during those long, arid stretches when it feels like I’m not moving the needle at all.
Maria and Ezekiel crossed my path for drastically different reasons. Their backgrounds, their stories, and their circumstances could not be more different. Fortunately, they have been blessed with caring, nurturing teachers over the years, and by comparison, my impact will be far less tangible and quantifiable, perhaps even indiscernible, and over time, forgotten. Except by me.
I believe that all of this will, in ways I cannot necessary see, change me for the better. For it’s not that I’ve fully surrendered myself to all those noble-sounding things I’ve written above. But I think that the time I’m spending with Maria and Ezekiel, and other kids like them, will eventually help me get there. And that means that when the time comes for them to move on, and my work with them comes to an end, I’ll likely walk away having learned and received more than I’ve given. That is not the “difference” I had anticipated, but it is one for which I can only respond with gratitude.