Fifth Grader. Male. The pain poured out of him in waves no one could see, but each one pounded my soul and I could feel it as a pain in my body. It sounds awfully melodramatic, but it was true: He needed someone to see him as he truly was. He needed someone to give him validation of his existence. He needed someone to treat him like a normal boy. I was to be that person.
In case you haven’t read it, this article link here will give the backstory as to how I came to know this boy. I had been hired by a school to come once a month for six months and work with each of their fifth grade classes teaching them to write.
This boy was in the third class in a rotation of five. There it was. Clearly he was at a breaking point in his life. It was do or die time. He didn’t want to die, but he didn’t know how to do.
The first hour I was with his class, it didn’t take long to see he was pretending to follow along. This boy was on high alert, physically and mentally. When the class laughed at something I said, he scanned the room, picked up the thread, and followed, always a beat behind.
The flash of his teeth, and his ha-ha booming loudly, could never erase the pain from the lack of understanding I saw in his eyes.
As is my habit, I walk through the class and look at what students write. This boy attempted to hide his paper. I gently said, “May I see your sentence?”
He hung his head. His shame was made all the worse because now this woman would know his secret, and his secret was too horrific.
His pencil shook furiously. The more he attempted to keep it under control, the wilder it went. I touched his hand briefly. He slid it to his lap slowly revealing his shame recorded on paper for me to see.
There was a jumble of letters, none of which made an entire word, much less a sentence. But I know what I had asked the class to write.
I said to him, “Ah. I see.” I pointed to what looked like a sort-of word. “I assume by this you have rewritten the sentence to fit your needs at this time, correct?”
He looked up at me, then blurted thankfully, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Carry on,” said I, and walked to the next student.
The next time I came to his class, he sat straight in his desk, his eyes on me. He did not look to the class for cues. He didn’t need to because I fed them to him. We didn’t discuss our communication method, but the class picked up on it very quickly. Some smiled as the boy engaged in the lesson that day in a meaningful fashion.
The third time I came to his class, we had barely started the lesson when I turned to the boy and asked him a question. It is here that a quick but decisive skirmish erupted and ended.
In a loud and bitterly condescending voice the teacher said, “I don’t know why you are spending so much time with that boy. He is stupid and not worth your time. He’s never going to amount to anything.”
The boy went rigid at his desk. The class froze. All eyes on me. To say that my eyes went cold would be an understatement. I pointed my pen at her and, coldly, firmly, said, “I cannot tell you how to run your classroom, but when I am here, you are never to tell me how to teach or whom to teach. Furthermore, you are not to insult my students. Do I make myself clear?”
The teacher was furious, but what could she say? She snatched some items from her desk and walked out.
In an instant, the class dismissed her from their minds and were back on track. It was me that had a difficult time hiding my furious anger from the class so we could continue.
The fourth lesson included opportunities for a student to write a sentence on the chalkboard (yes, this school still had chalkboards even though this was only a few years ago), and as a class we would edit each sentence.
I asked for four volunteers. Hands shot up. I picked. One, two, three, and four. One of these volunteers was the boy.
Shaking and scared as he was, when it came time, he took a piece of chalk in his hand, stood in front of that class, and wrote his sentence as best he could. Then, like the three before him, he stood on one side of the sentence and me on the other. He, eagerly waiting to discuss his sentence with his peers.
And that is what we did.
We discussed his sentence.
The class treated him as they had treated all the others. They challenged. He answered questions about the meaning of his sentence. The disagreed. He debated the merits of putting a comma here or there.
Okay, so if the comma is here, it means this.
And if the comma is there, it means that.
Which best fits your meaning, young man?
Why, I think it best means this, Mrs. Durden.
When we finished with his sentence, it was a thing of beauty. It made sense. Properly spelled. Correctly punctuated. Everybody was proud of that sentence. And he’s the one that did all the writing and erasing on the board.
The boy went to his desk and, concentrating harder than ever, he attempted to copy it to paper. A couple of students came over and, in a natural and friendly fashion, they pointed out corrections in his transcribing. He erased and rewrote, but when it was done, the boys cheered, and I admired the paper.
The boy’s crime was simple: He had dyslexia. He was definitely not stupid. He passed my course. But he couldn’t pass it with the same tools as the others, he needed different ones.
Dyslexia is nothing but the brain processing information through pathways that don’t quite work. It can involve letters, numbers, words, sentences, colors, shapes, and more.
I’ve often thought of that boy. His face is as clear to me now as if he was standing here. I hope he is doing well.