One Teacher, One Child

Years ago, in another life, I taught English and reading to high school students in the suburbs of Chicago. Most often during the summers, I taught an etymology class, where students studied Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes as a means of improving their vocabulary.

The class was open to all students, but most students were honors-level students, and the curriculum we covered in a few short weeks was quite substantial. More than anything, the class required large amounts of memorization. Because it was condensed into a summer school schedule of teaching a semester-length class in just under a month, we covered a week’s worth of material every day. Typically, students were a little overwhelmed the first few days of class, but by the midway point in the class, everyone was accustomed to the pace.

One summer, there was a boy I’ll call Joshua (not his real name) in my class who was tall, thin and exceedingly quiet. He spoke only when spoken to and even then, it was in soft, stilted words often difficult to understand.

Each day, I began with assessing the students on the previous day’s lessons. The first couple of tests were sometimes rocky for students, as they learned to keep up with the volume of words required. But with Joshua, his first test score was dismal.

This continued for several days, with his scores improving only slightly and never reaching even close to a passing grade. I soon learned that he struggled academically across the board, receiving assistance during the regular school year with most subjects.

Initially, I was unsure of how he ended up in a class that was clearly challenging to the point of frustration for him. I tried to speak with him about it, but all I got was some mumbling and what appeared to be discomfort with the conversation. At one point, he was even offered assistance through our special education services, but frankly, the curriculum seemed so far above his ability level that it didn’t appear to help much. And, to add even more weight to his load, because the class was so short in duration, there was little time to address his needs and potentially solve them.

It was heartbreaking to watch him take his tests, his eyes intent on the pages, his lips moving silently. Most often, he’d turn in his tests with more blank spaces than filled ones. It was clear that he was exerting great effort, but his best was still a chasm away from the lowest passing grade.

Since it wasn’t a requirement for graduation, I speculated that he’d perhaps drop the class, or even decide to retake it during the school year, when more time and more assistance might work in his favor. But he persisted.

There had been some school communication with his parents, but I decided to call them myself. I spoke with his mother, and was saddened by what she told me.

“I know the class is beyond Joshua’s abilities. I know he’s struggling. But he really, really wanted to take your class. He loves words and begged to take it. But now he cries every night because he just can’t memorize the material.”

Over the years, do you know how many students have sat through my classes who could have cared less about one single thing we studied?

And this boy cared.

He wanted to learn.

You know the dark, recurring scenes that haunt you in those sleepless three a.m. hours, the situations you play over and over in your head, searching for an answer, or closure, or even absolution? I have several of them that play themselves over in my mind, circling fiercely.

This is one of them.

I remember trying to do everything I could think of within reason to help him learn the words and ultimately pass the class, availing him of my help and all the professional assistance within the school at our disposal. I’ve talked myself through this dozens of times, now these years later straining to remember the specifics of what I did.

But here’s the thing. When Joshua was in my class, I was not yet a mother.

And now I am.

So now I think, all these year later, what if, what if I had been a mother when I taught that dear, sweet boy struggling to climb something that appeared insurmountable, struggling for knowledge that was my job, my responsibility, to help him obtain?

Would I have somehow found a way to do better?

Because now I am a mother, and I know how that changes things. I know how sometimes, against all odds you can take the mountain, lift it, and place it on the other side of the child, when it’s your child. Maybe, being a mother, being lit with the fire of what that means, knowing what all this cost not just him, but his mother as well, I would have been emboldened, and in the end, uncovered an idea, a strategy, an approach that would have been the key that finally, finally unlocked it all for him.

It’s unrealistic, I know. I taught in an excellent school, alongside teachers I’d be honored to have teach my children, and have no doubt that, long before he stepped in my classroom, many educators with far more intelligence and skill had spent countless hours searching for that key.

But, I still wonder.

And, just for the record, I’m absolutely not suggesting that being a parent makes for better teachers. Unquestionably, many of the best educators I know are childless. I’m simply saying that maybe, in my case, for this particular instance, it may possibly have had an impact. I just don’t know.

And that’s what haunts me.

Joshua ended up deciding to audit the class, opting to still give up a month of his summer to stay, knowing he wouldn’t receive a grade but still wanting to soak up what knowledge he could.

I wonder where he is today, now an adult, and how he now feels about his month of etymology. Was it worth it? Did he perhaps finally figure out the answers for himself, unlocking once and for all that which was closed to him for so long?

I don’t know.

I do know that, if we could circle back through time somehow, while still bringing the knowledge and experiences of today with us, there’s a summer I’d like to live through one more time.

I’d like to see if something as simple and complex as motherhood could have possibly made a difference, at least for one teacher and for one child.

2 Comment

  1. One thing that I have learned as a parent is that our children may not always excel at what they love, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to try. I give credit to both Joshua’s mother, for supporting his love of words in allowing him to take your class, and to you for trying to help him as best as you knew how to do at the time. Perhaps the greatest gift that you could have given him was the one that you freely offered: a belief that he could master etymology with the proper “key.” You believed in him. Given Joshua’s tenacity in auditing the class rather than dropping out, I would venture to bet that he is doing well for himself; maybe he remembers his month of etymology as the one with the teacher that didn’t give up on him.

    1. Thanks. Yes, I thought it was wonderful that his mother let him take the class. For his sake, I wish the pace hadn’t been as challenging, because I do think he could have eventually mastered the material, given enough extra time and assistance. And at that point, I was teaching at another school during the school year (I later moved to the school I taught summer school at and taught there year round), so I never found out what happened to him or if he tried to retake the class during the regular school year. I sure would love to find out, though.

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