One of the volunteer tutors in our literacy program recently told me about a student who has a special place in his heart and memory, and I realized that experience is probably common among the tutors. It certainly rang true for me.
I first met David* when substituting for a Kindergarten tutor. He was next in line for tutoring that day, and his teacher asked that I work with him on the numbers 1 through 20 in particular: recognizing them, writing them, putting them in order. We read together Chicka Chicka 1-2-3. Then we did some writing, and ended by working with numbered flashcards. I scrambled the cards and David put them in order on our little tutoring table. The teens were difficult for him, but he made progress as we worked. Because we were sitting at a quiet end of the hall, and because he was frustrated with the smallness of our work surface and could not sit still for the life of him, I suggested he put the number cards in order on the floor. I scrambled them again and again, and he put them in order again and again: 1 through 20, 1 through 20, 1 through 20 – all in a long line on the floor. After our half hour was up, I thanked him for his good work, told him he was making great progress, and returned him to his classroom.
If that had been the only time I spent with David, I might simply remember him as a delightfully engaging, sleepy-eyed, runny-nosed child who was in danger of falling behind his peers, but our paths crossed again in first grade. I was in his classroom, working with his teacher on the tutoring schedule, and he came up and wrapped his arms around my waist. He called me by name and asked if I was going to tutor him that day. I wasn’t. I did, however, work with him a few weeks later. During this half hour together, in between the books we read, we worked on his writing skills, writing out words we encountered that rhymed and words that were new to him. But this is what sticks in my mind the most about this particular session with David: I had started by asking him to write his name. After he wrote his first name (spelled correctly and legible but uneven and with a backward letter) I asked him to write his surname. He refused, and when I asked him why, he told me he was afraid I would laugh at him. David has fallen so far behind his peers, he fears ridicule and so he often does not risk trying.
Here is what I know about David now. He is absent almost as many days as he is present at school. His uniform shirt is more grey than white and often on inside out. When he arrives at school, no matter how late his bus arrives or the people in his life get him there, the first thing he does after shedding his coat and backpack, is to bounce over to his teacher, and he keeps bouncing until she has given him the pass that entitles him to eat breakfast. And his teacher always gives him the pass, no matter the time. She knows that David, like most children, will not learn anything if his stomach is empty.
David receives very little help on his schoolwork at home. At the end of his Kindergarten year he was reading Level C books thanks to the efforts of his excellent teacher, the specials teachers at the school, and the several volunteer tutors who worked with him throughout that school year. After a summer away from school, upon entering first grade, his reading skills had slipped to Level A. By the end of 1st grade, he should be reading at Levels G, H, and I. David is still struggling to get back to Level C.
When I see David in the school halls, a six year-old African-American boy, I worry about his future. In the news recently, we have heard that only 4 to 5% of the city school district students are prepared for the rigors of higher education when they leave high school. And we have been reminded of the plight that faces our urban young black men: prone to crime, violence, early death, and grinding poverty. I wonder at what point David’s great capacity for love might be subverted and twisted, and what we can do, from the outside looking in, to help him avoid that future. Will he live to be 20 years-old? How will he support himself? When he walks by the murals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the nearly life-sized cardboard cutout of Barack Obama in the school halls, what does he think? What does he dream of being? And what more can I do, what more can we do, to help widen his horizons?
Our program is a pull-out, one-on-one, literacy intervention program that pairs volunteer tutors with students during the school day. Our tutors are encouraged to pour their passion into teaching literacy for the sake of students just like David at the school. In doing so, we show deep love for these students, our fellow human beings, even when teaching sight words or letter formation or helping to order numbered flashcards on the floor. We are giving of our time, our resources, and our love to help these students rise above their circumstances, to encourage them to open doors for themselves by fueling their desire to learn, and to let them know by our presence that they are remembered, valued, and loved.
*Name has been changed for this account.