Saturday, October 4, 2008

Basic Skills - A Teacher's Story

In 1986 I moved to Columbia, SC from southern Indiana.  I admit there was a bit of a culture shock.  I had never really traveled south of Indiana before except a day trip to Kentucky and flying in to Florida for a spring break once while in college.  I flew down to Columbia, SC to interview, flew back home, then drove down with all our stuff to live here.  Since this is a teaching story, I feel compelled to say that it was NOT all goodness and light in Indiana.  I worked with a principal who had lost track of what was important.  My last year there I team-taught with a teacher who really seemed to hate teaching.  There were some rough spots in my first job in SC.  But, like all things related to teaching, it is the children who make teaching what it is.  Not the administrators, not the teachers down the hall...  the children.  This is a story I wrote last year in remembrance of my first year here.  

Part of being a non-fiction writer is like being a photographer.  If it works, it is often because of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment.  Being a teacher makes me blessed.  I am always at the right place to witness and share in the wonder and drama of living and learning  with a bunch of wonderful people.  

One of the amazing things about writing to me is that is helps one to recall.  When I started this story, I didn't know how much would come back.  It happened over 20 years ago, after all.  During the process of writing this piece, Antwan and Bridget and Mr. Litton and others all came swimming back to me.  I can recall Antwan's shining eyes like I saw them just yesterday.  Bridget's radiant, crooked-toothed smile and her pony tail bouncing as she jumped as I turned the rope at recess - it's like these 20 years have vanished and I am there with them.  They would be 33 or 34 years old now.  I don't know if I would recognize them if I saw them walking down the street or in line at the grocery store.  But those 11 year old faces?  I would recognize them in a heartbeat.

For my first year teaching in South Carolina I was a Basic Skills Instructor. I worked with small groups of kids in two different schools. These were children who tested in the bottom quartile on the Basic Skills exam. These were typically kids who didn’t get their homework done, didn’t finish class work, often spent their recess time “on the hill” trying to complete workbook pages and handouts. These were the kids who never caught up. Often they were discipline problems. They were the ones sent to the office for behavior referrals. School for these children was a constant mountain of unfinished papers, tests they couldn’t do well with, teachers they didn’t get along with, work that was too hard. They were the unmotivated, the outcasts, the disruptive, the students other teachers didn’t want to teach. It was my job to pull these kids out of the classroom and put them together in small groups for short periods each day. These were the Basic Skills kids and these were my students for the year.

I worked with groups of four to six kids for a half an hour at a time. Of course I had to get them to and from their classes so we only had about 25 minutes to work together each day.

At first the children came with workbook pages they hadn’t finished in class. The teachers wanted me to be sure the work was finished. They wanted me to be their enforcer.

I tried this for a week or so, nagging the kids to do the kind of work I disagreed with. The kids were pretty harsh with me in return. They saw me as an extension of their own classrooms where many were already failing. They saw me as another authority figure trying to make them do work which they saw as worthless, work they hated. They saw me as the enemy.

I resented the role as well. I was used to writing curriculum and lessons with kids. I wanted our time together to be interesting and worthwhile. I wanted the Basic Skills time to be important. I couldn’t take being the “workbook dragon” day after day, insisting that kids fill in blanks on workbook pages or drawing lines from questions to correct answers. The system wasn’t working for them. It seemed like a waste of time for the students and for me.

I went to John Litton, my new principal to see what could be done. When I entered his smoke filled office (this was in 1986 – before smoking was banned from public buildings). I told him about my problem. I didn’t think I was serving the students very well by making them do worksheets and workbook pages. I said that my time would be used more appropriately if the students were doing real reading and writing and math projects. He listened carefully to my lengthy complaint and philosophy of education. When I was finished with my monologue he smiled broadly, his white beard yellowed from years of cigarette smoking. He smushed out his cigarette in a butt-filled ashtray and said, “Sure. No problem. Whatever. Only YOU get to tell the teachers about your new role.”

I took the coward’s way out. When the kids came to me with workbooks I sent them back with the same unfinished work. I never told the teachers directly but soon they got the message that the Basic Skills kids were going to learn different kinds of basic skills. They didn’t know what yet, but the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade teachers at R. Earle Davis Elementary became accustomed to not sending worksheets. They would have to trust me for my little half hour, three times a week.

It took a while for the other teachers to get used to what we were doing. For one thing it wasn’t what you would called joyful school. It was dark in almost every sense of the word. The walls were dark. The carpets were filthy. It always smelled of cigarettes smoked by the office staff and the cigars smoked by the head custodian, Mr. Steverson. The windows were dirty, grudgingly allowing in dim and dusty daylight.

Many teachers hollered constantly… “How many times do I have to tell you?… I said SIT DOWN!... What on earth is WRONG WITH YOU?” I do not fault them. It was just their way. It was how they grew up as teachers, as though the only way to get through to kids was to bring the volume up, to speak sarcastically and to threaten the students into doing their work. It may never have occurred to them that perhaps the kids weren’t working very hard because they saw no real reason for it.

For most of the children, writing was a series of exercises: drawing lines from questions to answers, filling in a blank with a word from a word bank or answering comprehension questions about a story they could barely read.

When they passed by our door the teachers would hear us laughing (sometimes hysterically), writing and acting out plays, reading and writing responses to pen pal letters, listening to chapter books, videotaping plays we had written, etc.

Ours was a motley crew. While these children were considered to be “low end” academically, they were actually quite bright. Most had never gotten along well in a pencil and paper system. Some were still struggling to read and do basic math but many demonstrated great ability in other areas. One student, Antwan, was a child with an amazing sense of humor and a sunny disposition.

He and his best friend Bridget usually came in giggling over some private joke. Eventually they warmed up to me. They got my jokes, shared my love of story and, although neither was a tremendous reader, they loved it when I read aloud. They were expressive and energetic kids. They invented unusual names for me including “O’Theif”, “O’Boy”, “O’Man” and “O’Teeth”.

Antwan was hard for me to get to know at first. He wouldn’t look me in the eye when he spoke to me. He was a nice kid but I felt like I didn’t know him well. Once on the playground I was turning the jump rope for Bridget and others. “What’s up with Antwan?” I asked her.

‘What you mean?” she answered.

“Why do you think he doesn’t like me?”

“It’s not that, O’Teeth.  He just doesn’t trust you is all.”


“You don’t know much about Antwan, do you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You don’t know what happened to his family?

“Why don’t you fill me in?” I said.

She motioned for me to follow her away from the others. “He stays with his grandparents, right?” I answered that I had heard that. It wasn’t uncommon for many of my students to live with family members other than their parents. “Do you know why he stays with them?” Her beautiful black eyes never left mine.

“No, why?”

“His daddy’s in jail. His mamma’s dead.  His daddy killed her.” I paused, not really knowing what to say. “It don’t mean nothin’ now. You just need to know is all.”

We went on with our routine and eventually Antwan began to open up to me as a friend and not just his teacher.

Pen pal letters were the favorite project of all of the groups. My wife is an instructor at USC. At the time she was teaching undergraduates, mostly young women, how to teach reading and writing to elementary children. It was the perfect match. Heidi’s undergraduates exchanged letters with my Basic Skills kids once each week. The kids learned the real purpose of writing. And they were getting to know some neat people through their letters. The USC students were coming to understand writing development for third through fifth grade students. They were also forming bonds with young people most of whom had never written a letter to anyone in their lives. It was what my wife called “Curricular Heaven”.

Because our time was so short, I had the letters on the tables as the kids came in. The computers were on for kids who wanted to compose their letters at the keyboard. This was our busiest and most fulfilling time together. The kids were unbelievably focused. They tore into their envelopes, helped each other to read, shared funny parts, laughed and wrote. These were the days when my job was easy and gratifying. All I had to do was to put out the letters and writing supplies and get out of the way.

By January we were in a comfortable routine. Wednesday was pen pal day and the Basic Skills kids were in their second set of USC friends for the year. We had only exchanged a couple of letters with the new group when Bridget’s group came in one cold day without Antwan. Bridget took me aside to let me know what was going on. There was no smile in those bright eyes. I had never seen them so solemn, so sad.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Antwan?”

“He’s at home. So’s his sister. Their grandpa died yesterday.”

“They were close, weren’t they?”

“He loved his grandpa so hard, Mr. O. His grandparents took care of him, you know?”

“I remember,” I said lamely.

“When his mama died, his grandparents took Antwan and his sister to live with them,” she reminded me. “They was the ones raisin’ them. They was really old. Now he’s only got his grandma left.”

“I’m so sorry, Bridget.” I knew Antwan and Bridget were best friends – not boyfriend and girlfriend – just best friends. They had been since they were little kids.  In some ways they were closer than boyfriend/girlfriend.  They were life friends.  I knew that she was hurting too. “What can we do?”

“How 'bout we just save the pen pal letters for him when he gets back?”

That’s just what we did. The day of the funeral the Basic Skills kids listened to me read a short story and we discussed it. Bridget was with her best friend in his time of sorrow and need.  The group was subdued. There was no kidding around, little teasing and laughter. It wasn’t the same without Antwan and Bridget. We had friends who were hurting and we were feeling some of their pain.

The next day Antwan and Bridget came in with the rest of the group. I remember it like it was yesterday. In some ways it was a day that changed me as a teacher.

Antwan had on his parka with the hood zipped up all the way. I couldn’t see his face. It was a cold day outside but rather warm in the room. I wanted to comfort Antwan, to tell him that I was sorry for his loss. He wouldn’t look at me as he plopped himself into the usual chair. His arms were crossed. His head was down.

Bridget looked at me expectantly. I told everyone that we saved the pen pal letters for today so Antwan and Bridget could be here. We all were a little jumpy and tense but gradually busy noise filled the room. The usual kids chose to work at computers while the others plucked pens or pencils from the can in the center of the table. Antwan and Bridget sat side by side at the computer work stations. Bridget kept looking over at Antwan. He hadn’t budged. Just over a week ago Antwan tore into his letter with delight. He had received a photo of his pen pal, Monique, and she was a beauty. He had delighted in the ribbing he received from the others. Now his letter lay unopened on the table next to him.

I approached cautiously. The Antwan I knew as a happy little cut up, who laughed easily and who teased me mercilessly was not there. The joking, smiling, laughing Antwan I knew was somewhere deep inside that parka. As I scooted my chair up to him tears fell from his hood. I slowly put my arm around his shoulders, something I had never done before. “I’m so sorry about your grandpa, Antwan.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. His life had just changed in the saddest way imaginable. I couldn’t begin to understand his pain.

“Yeah,” he muttered, still not letting me see his face. “He was a good guy.” More tears fell.

There was an awkward silence as I thought of what to say, what to do for my sad little friend. “Do you want to write to Monique about it?  I think she’d like to know what’s going on with you and your family.”

He didn’t answer but instead picked up Monique’s letter, tore it open and began to read. I moved on to the other kids. I didn’t want to make Antwan any more self-conscious by hovering over him.

I looked over from time to time. He was slowly composing his note, one letter at a time with his right index finger, his left hand in his lap except to capitalize. While I couldn’t see his face (his parka hood was still up) tears leaked out and dripped into the keys of the computer.

The children worked steadily for about 15 minutes. Antwan had barely shown his face all morning. He was hidden deep within his coat, deep within himself. When the period was over the kids handed me their letters on their way back to their classroom. Antwan printed his letter out on the old dot matrix printer and handed it to me without a word. Before he walked back to his classroom I reached out and touched him on the shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss, Antwan.” He pulled his hood off and our eyes met. His were red and puffy; his cheeks wet with tears. “My grandmamma said that it was just his time, that he lived a good long life. He's with God now."  He paused, and then, "He was a real good man, O’Keefe. Real good. Nothin's gonna be the same without him.”

That moment is etched in my mind. The others were out the door. Antwan and I stood there, both of us so sad. He because he would never look into the loving eyes of his grandpa; his protector, his guardian, his provider and friend. I was sad because Antwan was being forced to grow up too fast. He already had a life filled with too much violence, too much sadness. Now, at 11 years old, he would be the man of his little family.

I asked him if I could copy his letter for his file. He said OK and turned away without another word.

I had the next period free for planning. Antwan’s letter was left on the computer monitor. As I read his simple and sincere note; my tears joined his as they fell into the keyboard.

Dear Monique,
It was nice to get your letter. Did you have a nice time in Atlanta? I hope you feel better. I will dream about you. In my family my grandpa died. He took care of me. He was my best friend. Now I will not have no one to hug. No one to kiss. No one to TELL THINGS TO. No one to love and give things to. I will still go to see him but I will not dig him up because I am not that kind of guy.


Your friend,


He had never met Monique before. They had only exchanged letters a few times. They had barely established their friendship before this tragedy hit Antwan’s family. Antwan bravely poured out his emotions to Monique although they were really only acquaintances. He used writing to explain feelings that spoken words could not. I had never truly realized the power and potential of writing. I knew that the pen pal correspondence was an important part of our time together. I knew it was a real reason to write. At the same time, it was not much more than a great project or activity. I knew that it was important to write to communicate to someone but I didn’t understand the true significance; the true potential.

Antwan told Monique something he had never told me. That single, most powerful word was love. Writing allowed him to cross the barrier, to express himself in important clear ways, to be open and honest. It freed him from the boundaries of face to face communication. Through writing, Antwan was able to explain his complicated emotions; to let out some of the saddest feelings he had ever had. He connected to Monique in his letter. I am still awed by his frankness, inspired by his honesty.

Later that semester, after exchanging at least 15 letters the USC pen pals came to Davis Elementary to meet the Basic Skills kids. Like most of the others, Antwan was shy when he met Monique. His words were few and quiet. But his letters were always friendly, newsy and personal.  He and Bridget and most of the other Basic Skills kids were dressed in their Sunday clothes.  Antwan had on an ill fitting suit and Bridget wore uncomfortable shoes and a pretty, if worn pink dress.  Bridget's hair, always in a loose pony tail, was braided into tight cornrows.  She told me they hurt.  But those two shined bright that day.  All the kids did.  

I have long since lost track of Antwan but his face stays with me along with his humor and feisty spirit. His shining black eyes look back at me through all of these years. In my mind he will always be eleven. In my mind he will always be that fragile little boy - my friend and one of my greatest teachers.


George said...

Wow. What a moving story. I cried while reading it.

Mr. Brown said...

A powerful story - thanks for sharing that.