She was hefty and noisy. Definitely Imposing. That was my first impression. Exactly who was going to be in charge? Her or me?
Her followers established a tight perimeter in seats around her. Uh huh. Uh huh. Yes ma’am. But no ma’am. I ain’t gonna read no books, no ma’am. I ain’t never read a book in my life. Ain’t gonna start now! No ma’am.
To Queen Tasha, the aggressive guard of the girls’ basketball team, all space was like a basketball court. There were her teammates, her coach, and her opponents. Her job was to protect her teammates, advance the ball, and outflank her opponents. Believe me when I say she didn’t exactly think of me as her coach.
Her basketball coach, a firm supporter of academics, was a no-nonsense gal who also taught math. I walked alongside Coach J after lunch one day.
“If Tasha refuses to read books in my class, she will fail English III.”
”Oh, she’ll read the books, all right, or lose court time,” she promised. “I will speak with her.”
My next move was to find a book that she would like. In the library was a worn out paperback about a female professional basketball player who had come up through poverty, broken free of a family drug culture, and become a powerful figure on the court in high school and college, and built a professional career as a player and coach. The star’s miraculous story included the touching rescue of her little brothers, whom she raised.
I placed the book on shelves with other books available for independent reading. Would she find it?
On book selection day, I did my usual introduction and turned the students loose in the room to browse through books. I struggled to be casual, hanging around to answer questions and give encouragement, alert, however, to what Tasha was doing.
She had left her desk and was picking through books as if they were slimy slugs. Then she paused. In her hand was the worn out paperback I had planted among newer books. She was taking it to her desk. One of her friends was also interested in the book, but competitive Queen Tasha wasn’t about to part from it. “You can read it when I finish.” When I sent the sign up sheet around, she wrote the book’s title next to her name.
Signing up for a book isn’t exactly reading. We wouldn’t know until later if she was actually reading it.
Two days later, Tasha burst into the classroom waving the book. “This is the best book ever! Do you know what this girl did!?”
She didn’t want to do anything in class except read her book — a new issue. I left her alone, because not participating in independent reading would insure failure, whereas not participating in short classroom exercises would only lower her average, not fail her. Perhaps if she turned into a willing reader, she would take an interest in other activities.
In writing a personal narrative, she struggled to find the words to show how, when she was five years old, social services and the police had taken her and her three siblings from their mother one night. Like other non-readers, she could express herself freely aloud but not on paper.
“Let’s give your story time to develop,” I suggested. “You can add to it and revise it over time.”
Soon Queen Tasha was quieting the classroom. One look from her and the strutting mac-daddy’s would straighten up. She brooked no nonsense from her friends. “Show respect!” She’d say to them. My classroom discipline problems were being solved by the very student who had attempted a take over.
With every book she read, she discovered more language. She practiced sentences. She bragged about her new vocabulary. She learned to code switch from black English vernacular to standard English.
Tasha finished English III with an A. She joined a school leadership team, she applied to college, she excelled on the court.
Imagine her happy and warm, not angry; progressive, not defensive. To be hugged by her was to be completely enveloped, her enthusiasm like a down comforter.
In college, she continued her leadership roles. “I’m going to be a teacher,” she said. And so she did.