One afternoon I received a phone call from the office. “Mrs. Simmons, a former student, Addy…wishes to see you. May I send her back?”
Addy? Oh my! I thought. Really? Addy from my junior and senior English classes. That Addy!
I rose from my desk to open my locked door. There was Addy with a chubby blonde toddler in her arms.
“Mrs. Simmons, this is my boy Johnny.”
“Johnny, this is the lady who taught me to read so I could read books to you.”
“Please come in. We have lots to talk about.”
Indeed! Three years had passed since I had first met Addy, one of my most remarkable students, not for what she knew but for what she gained.
Here is the story I have to tell about Addy.
Addy slipped quietly into a desk in an outside row near my desk. Wearing jeans and a tan crew neck tee, she was short and sturdy with dirty blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. In a crowd she could have been easily missed, overlooked or dismissed.
Each year on the first day of class students entered, one after the other, usually selecting a desk near a friend. I studied their entrances: who was friend to whom, who was shy, who was boisterous, who seemed confident, who didn’t have an obvious friend? Addy spoke to no one.
Prior to opening day, I had checked the school data base for pictures of my students, studied their state test scores, and read through their disciplinary records. Addy’s record was blank except for her recent enrollment date.
Records for new students are obtained from their prior schools. When Addy’s record finally arrived, it indicated poor school attendance and spotty state test scores. She was missing high school credits because of failing grades.
She was certainly earnest, recording all assignments in her weekly calendar and turning in each assignment on time. Each assignment was perfectly presented as required: Name, date, and identified from the appropriate page of a book or worksheet — except the content she wrote didn’t follow directions. Words were spelled accurately but were unrelated to the objective. I tried verbal teaching, asking and listening aloud. The results were the same: name, date, assignment identity, unrelated words or blank stares.
I created increasingly simple exercises and goals for her. What was her baseline? Could she spell simple words if she heard them. Yes. Could she write a sentence, a paragraph? No. What could she read? I noticed that when I gave her the same assignments her neighbors received, her responses were better than on independent assignments. That’s when I caught onto her surreptitious copying.
Independent reading was an essential program in all my classes. Students selected a book to read each quarter, kept a reading journal, took quizzes, and did independent projects based on an idea or theme promoted by the book. Obviously Addy would not be able to read a book.
What exactly was her reading disability? Maybe she had learned reading skills in broken, interrupted pieces, like when we sleep through parts of a movie. We would know how the movie began but wouldn’t know how to connect the middle to the ending.
“Tell me, Addy, about your first school,” I asked one day during a tutoring session.
“It was in Wheelwright. First grade. Daddy got laid off and we moved. He left to go for work in West Virginia and Momma and me and my brothers moved in with Granny.”
“And where did you go to school next.”
“I missed a lot of second grade. My granny got sick and my momma had to work so I stayed home with Granny.”
“So you were kind of in and out of school for awhile?”
“Yeah. A lot. We moved around. Momma would need me at home. And I was sickly. I missed school. I kept askin’ to go, but Momma said I had to stay home.”
“This happens sometimes,” I said.
When parents move, there can be major gaps before their child is reenrolled in school. Sometimes, the child is needed at home to care for an ailing relative. Sometimes, a parent wants to keep the child at home for chores or comfort. Or the parent is keeping one step of eviction orders. All of these disruptions in education had happened to Addy.
I didn’t ask Addy if she could read. I said, “Reading is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. If some of the pieces are missing, the puzzle cannot be solved. Let’s find the missing pieces for your puzzle.”
She could have said, “I can already read. I don’t need help.” But she didn’t. Her face brightened. “Can we do that!?”
We plunged ahead, beginning with books published for readers of a second language, as if she were beginning a new language. Her progress was remarkable, probably because she was definitely filling in missing pieces of a verbal puzzle. She would polish off one level, and begin another, and then another.
At the end of the year, she presented a project to her classmates about non-readers and told her story. The class responded with genuine applause. My eyes watered.
When school started the next year, she happily announced her pregnancy. In her family teen pregnancy was common, even celebrated. She had plans. She and the boyfriend would marry, get an apartment, take turns working and finishing school. Her mamma would live with them. Indeed, she remained in school and graduated as the first of her family to receive a high school diploma.
* * *
That a high school student might advance two grades forward without requisite reading skills may seem inconceivable. It is rare but it does happen.
Teachers learn to recognize the clues: misbehavior meant to distract a class from its work and throw the teacher off track; boycotting the work in order to gain parental support for withdrawing from school; copying work by other students; using listening skills to gain information; bribing others to do his/her work.
In Addy’s case, she was polite, considerate, and diligent. Even if she could only write her name and the date, she always turned “her work” in on time. I suspected Addy had copied enough work to slip through the system.
I bet you are still thinking, But how!? This is so wrong!
A student may have been recommended for exceptional education services but the parents to avoid the label of a “special education” objected. The child would then develop the aforementioned coping skills (misbehavior, cheating, etc).
The curriculum may not have been sufficiently rigorous. A teacher may have felt helpless.
The student might have been so like-able to have won a free pass over and over in hopes that maybe over time, she would fill in the gaps herself like Abe Lincoln did.
I’m not going to defend the teachers that failed to do due diligence for the Addys of our schools. However, anytime a child pops in and out of school, the educators’ ability to assess and strengthen a child’s skills weakens proportionately.
In overcrowded classrooms with minimal resources, as is the case in many schools in distressed economic zones, or in states notorious for underfunding education, teachers struggle with extraordinary, incredible situations. Children locked out of their homes at night. AWOL mothers. Alcoholic and abusive parents. Hungry kids. Angry kids. Sad, frightened kids. Kids begging to go to school. Kids begging for help. Kids without coats. Maybe the child can’t read, but at least the school staff sees that she is fed and clothed, and safe. It happens.
And all the while, the child is growing, until one day, she is five foot two, fertile, and two years from entering the full time job market, even though she can’t read an instruction manual for work or a book to her child. And there she is hoping she can by osmosis learn until finally her reading problem is so noticeable that a teacher steps in to help her. I’m only one of thousands of teachers who filled that need, but note, I worked in a fully resourced and well funded school district. Giving extra attention to Addy was not a stretch for me.
Addy saved herself by expecting to learn, by asking to go to school, by being willing and grateful. She was fortunate to have finally landed in a place that could help her fulfill her hopes.
All names of people and places are changed in the story, except for my own.