Alex’s* favorite phrase is, “I don’t know.” This three letter phrase is his response to everything I ask him to do in class. I have thought about banning the phrase in our classroom but as compelled as I am to implement the ban, the honest truth is that he doesn’t know. He means it when those three little self-defeating words spill out of his mouth. After all, Alex is clearly the farthest behind in our class.
Despite being a rising fourth grader, Alex is currently reading below third grade. His math average? Even worse. On an assessment the school distributed, he didn’t even manage to score a 40%. And when I asked the whole class to write a list of things they could measure the perimeter of today, Alex didn’t even give me a list. He drew me five pictures. And that’s after I explicitly told him to try and write whatever he could. If that doesn’t scream “ACHIEVEMENT GAP” then I don’t know what does. But what I clearly do know is that he is failing. But more heartbreakingly, we have failed Alex.
After all, if Alex is two grade levels behind when he starts school this fall, how can he understand what they are teaching him?
And yet, Alex keeps on trying even though his teachers at the school seem skeptical. I don’t know his life story but I most certainly don’t mistake his inability to understand to mean that he is completely disengaged from his learning. Last week, I saw this same little boy struggle to read a book aloud above his grade level and who, when I started to pull it away so we could read something easier, told me, ”No, please don’t. I want to finish it.” Those two sentences sent chills down my spine. How could I turn my back on him? How could I become someone else that’s given up on him? How could I not give him everything within my power? He wanted to finish reading the book. He wanted to keep on reading. He was not embarrassed that he did not know every other word — he kept on going. And today, when I received his parent survey back, it was his mother that wrote the most back to us. “I want you to help him read fluidly,” she writes, “that’s the biggest gift you could give him… After all, you have been preparing for this big moment! I confide in your work and your dedication!”
Wow. A woman who doesn’t even know me confides in me to teach her child.
And yet, we have failed this family who has trusted us with their little boy.
So no, it does not pain me to spend hours on lesson plans or wake up at five in the morning to only sleep at midnight. I’m working to fulfill a promise. Or at least, I am trying to with the few days I have with this little boy. I so desperately want to help renew faith, hope, and trust for little boys like Alex whose backgrounds have determined their life path for far too long.
* Name has been changed.