In Houston, Texas, the summer after I graduated from Colgate, I learned how to “teach.” I endured five-weeks of Teach for America boot camp and, for the lack of sleep, dining hall food, foot-long roaches, puke yellow-colored, urine smelling Moody Towers dorm carpet, 98% humidity, housing dramas, pedagogical guidebook sessions and Attucks summer school-related chaos, it was an enriching experience. Somehow I left Houston, Texas, with my nerves still moderately functional and the realization that my body works when other people need it to. It held up that summer. My autoimmune disease put up with stress, repeated nights of far too little sleep, and stifling heat and led me to the conclusion that Teaching for America was the right decision. (Even though I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.)
After a week’s insufficient preparation, three other idealistic college graduates and I were turned loose in a classroom of Houston Public School middle schoolers. I taught eighth grade social studies with another prospective teacher for America named John, and two other aspiring teachers taught Language Arts. Our students had failed their eighth grade year, and their promotion to high school was contingent upon passing summer school, and the TAAS. (Texas’ standardized test that gauged whether or not these students were ready for the next grade.)
From 12:00 to 1:00 the four of us taught small group literacy enrichment blocks. This was my favorite part of the day – I didn’t have to worry about engaging a classroom of 20 students with varying needs and interests, I just focused on reading and writing skills with a small group of four students. Two of the students in my group were the biggest trouble-makers in the class – Roderick and Carl the III. Carl, shorter, and rounder than Roderick, enjoyed completely socially unacceptable behaviors – he called people “gay” and shoved desks at girls. He gave my collaborative group a reason to drink profusely every Friday night. Behavior set aside, though, his warm, brown eyes matched his skin, flashed about inattentively, and yearned – silently - for a good night’s sleep. The white part of his eyes wasn’t completely white rather glossy and speckled with broken blood vessels; his pupils were never still. Carl III was prone to fits of rage at inane catalysts, was fourteen years old and stuck in Attucks Middle School, and knew, on a very personal level, of sadness. Roderick was different. He was wiry and tall, with equally soft eyes. He constantly reminded me that physical presence doesn’t constitute attendance. He knew the intricacies of the classroom ceiling better than the alphabet. Occasionally he started dancing in his seat, leave class on his own volition or stare for minutes on end at objects that didn’t move. In my opinion, Roderick and Carl III were the most endearing students in the class.
During our first literacy session, I gave the two of them a newspaper and let them choose an article to read. Carl refused on account of his “sore eyes.” Roderick just couldn’t read. He stumbled over words like “angry”, and couldn’t make sense of a whole sentence after he finally decoded the words. He never gave up, though. The size of our group mitigated his shame; he persisted and read on and never fully understood the content of the paragraphs he struggled through. I still have no idea how Roderick made it to the eighth grade, but I could tell that he genuinely wanted to learn. Over the next four weeks, Roderick’s literacy became my mission, and Carl III became my friend.
I gave up with the newspaper, bought The House on Mango Street, and worked on basic literacy strategies – strategies that I either invented on my own or learned about in afternoon classes. I worked to ingrain two things into Roderick’s amazingly receptive brain – 1. Slow down and re-read anything you don’t remember, and 2. Believe in yourself – these were the only two things I knew at that point. Two weeks later, after ten hours of reading and re-reading, and writing and re-writing, Roderick chose a story out of our book to read out loud. He asked me what I thought it was about, and I told him, briefly, my thoughts. With dead honesty, he looked at me and said,
“No, Miss Hooks, you didn’t get it.”
Roderick decided, for my sake, to re-read the story, and to stop along the way to point out my misinterpretation. He was entirely right – I had missed the point, solely because I was so distracted by his reading ability to actually listen. Roderick didn’t stumble over one syllable. When I commented on his sudden emergence into literary prowess, even Carl III agreed:
“When’d you learn to read, man?”
Roderick just shrugged, mentioned that he wanted to become a famous author, and – two weeks later – passed the standardized test (and my social studies class) for the first time in his middle school career.
Carl the III was different. Carl III, and his identical twin, Carl IV, were the only two students I organized a parent-principal conference with. My three co-“teachers” and I crowded into the summer school director’s cramped office, determined to communicate the severity of Carl III’s impulsive anger, and Carl IV’s tendency to swear at girls, to their tired mother. I knew though – that while I reluctantly concurred with each testament to their inappropriate behaviors – I wanted the identical twins around. Maybe I was intrigued by the fact that they were both on a first name basis with the Attuck’s school police officer, maybe I liked them because they were two hardened 14 year olds with piercingly soft, brown eyes. The boys were simultaneously too resilient to turn their anger inward, and too young to channel it constructively into something else. Regardless, as I listened to my collaborative members lament their occasionally atrocious behaviors, I felt the space around my heart tighten.
Carl III was not kicked out of summer school. He also – despite the fact that he read a lot more fluently than Roderick – did not pass the standardized test at the end of the summer. In his failure, though, he proved that a multiple-choice test does not accurately gauge someone’s brilliance. Carl III described diamonds as “reflecting sunshine like a new car’s bumper” and my own eyes as “deeper than the ocean.” We were reading one afternoon, and he asked me if there was a cure for multiple sclerosis. I told him there wasn’t. He glared at me, simultaneously angry and confused:
“You mean the doctors don’t know how to fix it?”
I was amused at his irritation and responded, “Nope. Not yet.” I smiled convincingly, as if to say, it’s fine, Carl, I don’t mind grabbing onto desks to preclude myself from falling over.
Carl was quiet for a second. Roderick’s eyes just darted back and forth between the two of us. Suddenly, Carl smacked the desk resoundingly. His voice elevated to a level that caused other literacy groups to stop their readings and stare:
“Don’t say that Miss Hooks. Don’t say there’s no cure…”
Still moderately entertained, I put my right hand on top of his chubby fingers, “Carl, there isn’t a cure, though. MS is just something I’ll deal with for a while – just like you’re dealing with summer school and people you don’t like that you’re stuck in class with.”
Carl jerked his hand out from beneath mine. His voice got even louder: “There IS a cure for MS, Miss Hooks! There IS! It’s the Lord Jesus, Miss Hooks. The Lord Jesus will cure you, but you gotta believe. You’ve really gotta believe. I know it!”
My first inclination was to laugh. I looked at his face, focused on the slight tremble in his voice, and suddenly took him very seriously:
“Carl, I pray you’re right. I really do.”
Carl III, whom my co-“teachers” dubbed an “angry little asshole”, was one of the brightest, most faith-filled, and most compassionate people I’d ever met. When he was upset in the lunchroom a few days later, I sat down with him and listened while he spun soggy spaghetti noodles around his spork.
“No one relates to me, Miss Hooks.”
Was I surprised that a 14 year-old eighth grader who passionately asserted that his teacher could be cured by Jesus didn’t have close friends at his lunch table? Not really. Did his insatiable loneliness make it harder for me to breathe? Absolutely.
I swallowed another breath of thin, school lunch-scented air, “It’s tough to find, Carl. It’s really tough to find someone to relate to. It’s especially hard when you’re young.”
He pushed his plastic tray across the table and left his spork intertwined with another pile of tasteless noodles.
“I relate to you, though.”
And that mattered more than anything I’d heard in a long, long time.