A new kind of low

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WHEN I WAS 21 I started my first teaching job. The seniors in my class were wary, and it wasn’t just because I was practically their age.

The course was called “remedial reading,” but it should have been called “crash-course-to-pass-the-ISAT-so-you-can-graduate.” The class was comprised of seniors who did not have learning disorders or disabilities but who hadn’t passed the reading portion of the Idaho Standards Achievement Tests, and you can’t graduate in Idaho if you haven’t passed all three portions of the state test.

But the ISAT is a test designed for sophomores, and here they were seniors, banished to a squat, cinder-block basement classroom with other low-achieving kids, across the hall from the cafeteria that shrouded our meetings with the odors of whatever so-called breakfast had been.

On the right-hand side of the room sat Shiloh. She came to class with no pretense, no attitude. She sat in her desk and did her best on the work. Never mind that we found out she was a kinesthetic learner like almost everyone else in the class—a learning style most teachers don’t bother to accommodate because canned textbook questions and Xeroxed worksheets aren’t geared that way. Never mind that she was embarrassed to be a senior who might not graduate because she couldn’t do “reading.” She came to class, and I think she was tired of it all—not bitter, just tired. Tired of the stereotypes, tired of the trajectory of a life she might not be able to change. In the short term she was ready to do whatever it took to get out of this class, and this school, the right way.

Shiloh was her own biggest cheerleader—she had to be. She lived in the shadiest part of town in an apartment complex with peeling paint and crooked railing and few exterior lights. Everybody whispered about what kind of “activity” went on there. She walked home from school to an empty apartment she shared with her mother, who wasn’t there after school or … ever, really. I searched her address on the state Web site and saw that a dozen sexual offenders lived within two blocks of her apartment—some in the same building. And these 12 were just the registered creeps. I wondered what she’d do if a stranger were standing in the stairwell or lurking in her doorway someday, waiting for her.

We got out of our desks and threw beanbags and had contests to see who could find the right answers first, and we worked on test-taking skills and confidence and self-esteem. And I loved those kids. My heart swelled for them so much that it ached. Now that I have more life experience, I know what that feeling is. It’s the feeling of being a real parent.

That semester I sat at parent-teacher conferences for two hours on two different days. Only one mother visited my desk.

Shiloh passed the reading ISAT; so did almost everyone else. And even though teachers aren’t supposed to touch their kids, I took my chances and put an arm around their shoulders and told them how proud I was and tried not to cry. When I called to tell Shiloh’s mom she had passed the ISAT, I was never able to reach her.

A few weeks later Shiloh left my classroom, but I often wonder what quality of life she has today. And the sad thing is I wonder the same thing about Josh and Jake and Shelby and all the other kids from my class.

Fast forward to my son’s first year of school. His teacher confided to me in hushed tones that her class was “low-low” that year. And I nodded and offered a cordial smile because I know the truth about low kids: They’re not low-ability; they’re low-investment. A lot of the time no one—not parents or teachers or grandmas or aunts or neighbors or friends’ parents or anyone else—cares.

So I’ll spend my life reminding myself that my kids are my responsibility to love and push and support and be with. And even when my kids share a class with others that mess up the “middle” to which teachers teach, I’ll be glad my kids are mine and that I’ve got love to give them and their friends. Because without love, it’s easy to get low.

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