She sat against the wall, three rows back from the teacher’s desk, with the windows at her back. Her short blonde hair formed a ragged frame around her thin face. Dressed in worn jeans and a faded tee, she could have blended innocuously into the mix of juniors lined up in tight rows in the dilapidated trailer masquerading as my classroom, except for her eyes. Her eyes held a determined gaze, keen and steady.
I passed around a seating chart. Her name was Sandra.* Later I checked the roster for her address. Trailer Park. The one nearby with the abandoned vehicles and muddy lanes.
In classroom discussions Sandra showed she had prepared for class. She read the books we discussed.She did well on multiple choice tests but dismally with short essays or personal journals. Sandra couldn’t complete a sentence. She wrote single words or phrases in patterns meaningful only to her.
In exercises, Sandra could identify which sentences were complete and correct, and which ones were not, but could not write a logical, complete sentence. She could argue fluently out loud but not on paper. Puzzling, I thought.
She agreed to work privately with me twice a week during a study period. We can fix this, I believed. We would do sentence exercises. Combine parts of sentences. Analyze sentences for parts of speech. Use sentence exercises with prepositional phrases, adverb and adjective clauses. Determine sentence types. She mastered the exercises.
But in her classroom journal her opinions, reflections, and narratives persisted as ragged words and phrases separated by periods and sometimes by blank spaces.
Tell me what you mean here, I’d ask. She couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me.
Our classroom had once been a trailer on a construction site.** It was thin and long, not a double wide. The school district at the time was underfunded while the population had quickly grown beyond the physical capacity of its facilities. As a temporary solution, the district had purchased used trailers and parked them behind schools. Students walked out into the elements to get to literature and language classes.
On rainy days the roof leaked so badly in our classroom that I kept a mop and bucket handy. When I complained about leaks, the janitor brought me big coffee cans to catch the leaks. The floor had soft spots, rotted flooring. Fiberglass insulation fluffed from holes in the back wall. Students sometimes picked at the insulation, pulling it out further or stuffing it back. In August and September a window air conditioner hummed noisily and often had to be reset. In December and January, the heater either roasted us or failed to warm us.
One grey winter day as the rain pummeled the metal roof and the wind rocked the trailer, Sandra spoke up, “You’d think that our government would provide us with classrooms better than what I live in!” Water was once again dripping into cans on the floor. I was mopping up puddles walked in by students entering from the broken sidewalk outside.
“That’s right!” echoed her classmates.
“What’s wrong with the leaders that they are sending us to learn in junky trailers like this?”
“What would you like to do about it?” I asked.
“Let’s write a letter. Can we? To the school board!”
“And the superintendent,” chimed others.
“Okay, what do you want to say?” I shelved the lesson and opened a brainstorming session until all their grievances about the trailer were listed on the blackboard.
Sandra took over. She couldn’t write the letter but she could direct its composition, which took three days of negotiations between the students and the selection of a best writer. The students signed the letter, made copies, and mailed them. Our principal was bemused by their audacity. I didn’t have tenure yet. I felt vulnerable. Within the month, maintenance repaired the roof and secured metal plates over rotted flooring. The assistant principal directed a janitor to cover the holes in the walls and delivered to me a desk with drawers that opened and a rolling chair.
Sandra’s weekly journal began to make more sense. The daffodils were blooming. Redbuds and pear trees flowered. It must have been late March when I opened her journal on a Sunday afternoon and read, “My stepfather abuses my sisters and me while my mother watches.” A complete sentence, not just one complete sentence but one after another detailing years of sexual and emotional abuse of three terrified girls. Anguish in complete sentences. And finally the last sentence: “…promise not to tell anyone. He might kill us.”
State law requires teachers to report such information to school authorities. I met with a school counselor and the principal. Protocols are in place to protect children victimized by parents or guardians. I didn’t need to determine if Sandra was lying or if I should protect her privacy. The safety of the girls was primary.
Sandra, on the Monday after I shared her journal with school authorities, had been called to the front office and then disappeared off my roster. “Transferred.”
The ensuing scenario was revealed in snippets. A police car. A thank you from the counselor. A wordless pat on the back by the principal. Headlines in the local newspaper: Parents arrested on multiple counts; Step-father pleads not guilty; Mother accepts plea bargain. Until one day, I saw that the step-father had been severely sentenced, the mother receiving a lesser sentence but one that would remove her from her daughter’s’ lives for years.
Sandra eventually graduated with honors from the local university. She was active in university life and worked in programs to assist students like herself. I would see her on campus during my summer work in Upward Bound. We never talked about her journal or that fateful day when social services swept in to protect the three girls.
The fragmented sentences? They were a symptom immune to book exercises and communication drills. The subtext had been fear of disclosure and discovery, the fragments a code for “Help us.”
- Not her real name. The name “Sandra” means warrior. In every story of my 2018 blog posts, I do not use real names of people and avoid specific references to school names and actual years.
** The state of Kentucky eventually revised and improved funding for school districts. The high school was renovated and expanded, the trailers hauled off.