Being functionally illiterate takes much of the irreverence out of adolescence. It’s hard to be subversive when you can’t read.
The notes passed between two eighth-graders on a second-grade reading level are not worth confiscating. They usually contain sorry attempts at profanity (“fuc,” “shite”) and stick figures engaged in crude acts (often involving their feces). One student can’t write a love letter to his girlfriend because he can’t spell her name. (Her name is Jill.) The difference between long and short vowel sounds escapes such students, as do periods, commas, and all other trappings of written language. Vowels never before witnessed within romance languages are invented, while existing vowels are exchanged for others, blending together into spastic contortions of the mouth. Pronouns are selected at will, regardless of gender, number, or context.
I know all of this because I just finished spending the past school year in a private suburban middle school, teaching reading to students with reading disabilities—a role in which, it turns out, I was profoundly miscast.
Although my school was unconventional, it was not so unconventional that the students could refer to their teachers by first name. To be called “mister” is something dreaded by anyone who thinks he is still young, and yet, I discovered, it’s something you get used to very quickly. By the end of my first year as a mister, I actually developed some affinity for the formal address and the sense of authority (no matter how illusory) it endowed. Nevertheless, I now gladly relinquish the title. I do not make a very good mister.
I don’t remember learning how to read. Reading is something that just happened. The alphabet was introduced, I sang a song, and then I proceeded to read every Choose Your Own Adventure story I could get my hands on. Along the way to literacy, I was joined by an assortment of colorful creatures whose sole purpose in life was to help me learn to read. Everyone from the president of the United States to Oscar the Grouch desperately wanted me to learn my ABCs. The entire world was cheering me on as I made my way from The Cat in the Hat to “Call me Ishmael.”
Apparently, however, if your brain operates differently (too much of this, too little of that), the reading process can be quite complicated. There is technical jargon like “encoding” and “decoding” to explain this phenomenon, but I don’t understand it well enough to get into it. Suffice it to say that at the same time the rest of us are singing our alphabet songs and shouting out vowel sounds, there are others sitting quietly on the multicolored carpet having no idea why some letter combinations have sounds and others don’t. It is in this state of arrested development where such a student remains until fifth or sixth grade, when some public-school speech therapist realizes that Johnny’s not lazy, he just can’t read.
And that’s when they come to people like me.
Teacher: I want you to read this sentence.
Student: What sentence?
Teacher: This one: “The early bird catches
Student: I don’t want to read it. Can’t we
Teacher: No, it’s raining outside. And it’s 30 degrees. You’ll catch a cold and die. Besides, we have work to do.
Student: I’ll wear a jacket.
Student: And a hat.
Student: You can’t make me do this. I don’t have to do this.
Teacher: Yes, you do. We’re here to increase your reading skills so—
Student: OK, you read it first. Then I’ll go.
Teacher: No. You read it first. Then I’ll go.
Student: Why can’t you read it first? You’re supposed to be helping me.
Teacher: I can only help you if you let me
Student: What does that mean?
Teacher: I’m not sure. It sounded like a very teacherly thing to say.
Student: It sounds like you got it from some movie starring Edward James Olmos.
Teacher: Listen, this is about you, not me. Are you going to read this sentence or not?
Student: No. You can’t make me do it. The school handbook clearly says that every student has the right—
Teacher: Forget the student handbook.
Student: Are you saying that you are forcing me to read this sentence?
Teacher: No, I am not forcing you to do anything. I am simply saying that—
Student: Because the student handbook says that everyone in the school has “the right to learn and the right to feel safe.” And I do not feel safe right now.
Teacher: You don’t feel safe because we’re trying to work on your disability. Of course you don’t feel safe. You feel weak and vulnerable and threatened.
Student: I would rather go outside.
On the surface, it might seem that I was highly qualified to teach students with reading disabilities. After all, I read quite a bit. I read books (both fiction and nonfiction), magazines (three subscriptions), and the newspaper every day. Sometimes I even go online to read. I enjoy reading. I was an English major in college. Reading’s my thing.
Unfortunately, despite my extensive reading experience, I remained dreadfully unqualified to do what I was doing. I did not get hired because of my reading experience. I was hired because I was a male—to become the only male teacher in the entire middle school. Let me rephrase that: I was hired because the school, one week before classes started, was desperate for someone to teach middle-school reading, and the fact that I would be the only male teacher made me look all the more tolerable. I was male, literate, and without a criminal record.
The demands of my contract were simple and straightforward: teach one year of middle-school reading while working toward fulfilling the teacher-accreditation requirements (which were to be met within two years of employment). In exchange, I would receive a 50 percent salary increase from my previous employment (temping). The contract ran from September to September; I would receive paychecks throughout the summer.
Although there were never any additional requirements placed on my employment, I felt the weight of implicit expectations. School administrators hoped that I might take advantage of their 100 percent reimbursement policy and take classes to acquire the skills necessary to a phonics professional. In addition to pursuing professional training, they imagined I might get involved with extracurriculars: coaching school sports, forming new clubs, attending committee meetings, and basically employing my youthful energy in countless productive endeavors. I was a 23-year-old male teacher who could be a valuable asset to the school for years to come.
This did not happen. And because this did not happen, my entire year of teaching was plagued by this horrible sense of paranoia that one day, while I was walking to the parking lot to leave earlier than I should, someone from the janitorial staff would bash my knee with an iron pipe and whisper into my ear: “We could really use a freshman-basketball coach.”
Teacher: What happens when the right to learn conflicts with the right to feel safe?
Student: What are you talking about?
Teacher: You’ll never feel safe so long as your learning disability is being addressed. It’s like going to the dentist and—
Student: The cavity analogy. I know.
Teacher: Right. So you understand what
Student: That’s why you’re getting paid to be a teacher. It’s your job to find creative ways to help me learn how to read without making me feel threatened.
Teacher: Or bored or disinterested or distracted.
Student: Yeah, that too.
Teacher: This really is more than I bargained for.
Student: That’s what they all say.
Teacher: “They all”? Who’s “they all”?
Student: All the first-year teachers who come in trying to save the world by teaching us how to read. Their intentions are noble, but they lack the basic pedagogic skills necessary to teach learning-disabled students.
Teacher: Who says I fall into that save-the-world category of teachers?
Student: Don’t you?
Teacher: Not really. I’m far too egotistical.
Student: Just in it for the money?
Teacher: Right—teacher’s salary.
Student: So then why did you take this job?
Teacher: Well, reading comprehension is more my thing. I like to talk about books and what they mean. I thought that’s what “reading teacher” meant.
Student: You got bamboozled.
Teacher: So are you going to read this
sentence or not?
Student: Can you help me with my
Teacher: We’re here to read this sentence, not to do homework. And if the bell rings before we read it, there will be…consequences.
If you had walked into my classroom, the first thing you would have noticed would have been my desk. Everything about this desk was wrong. First, it faced the wrong way: It was pushed up against the wall, so that when I sat down, my back faced the class. This was how I found it, and I never bothered to change it. As a result, I rarely sat at my desk, preferring a chair at the front of the room or joining the students at their long, narrow, uncomfortable tables. Because I never actually sat at my desk to do work, it became a depository where crap was thrown. This was my system: Scattered in piles I liked to think were coordinated lay papers, pencils, paper clips, books, folders, and highlighters of every imaginable color.
Appearances did not improve upon moving away from my desk. All throughout the room, things appeared careless and random. In the back, there was a bulletin board that I did not use. The upper left corner of a Garfield poster espousing the value of reading was falling off one wall. (It remained in this precarious position for what seemed like the entire year and never quite made it to the floor.) On another wall were scenes from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel—this having nothing directly to do with reading but simply being my attempt to endow the room with some aesthetic quality in the vain hope that any kind of sophistication would somehow increase the likelihood that the students would learn to read.
My room did not look the way a classroom should look. It was not cheery, colorful, or chock-full of reading-related artifacts. Like birds before a storm, the students could sense my disorganization a mile away, feeding off it to fuel their own chaotic tendencies. And so my class became one giant black hole of disorganization, to the point where it was not clear which of us—the teacher or the students—had the more severe disability. The more you work with kids with learning disabilities, the more your own weaknesses are revealed. We are all disabled in different ways. It’s just a question of degree.
The reading disabilities never came alone but were always bundled with a flavorful assortment of deficits: dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, poor motor skills, phonological-processing problems, and so on. Students were never slow, weak, or (God forbid!) unintelligent. They simply had “deficits.” And deficits could include anything: Petty theft and assault were explained by virtue of students’ deficits. “That’s my disability” was a justification that rang through the hallways of the school—the students’ attempt to skirt harsh punishments or avoid challenging math problems.
Of course, every human being probably has some form of attention-deficit disorder, but my students had acute cases. ADD students enter into a dream zone I like to call “ADD Land.” I’m sure it’s quite pleasant to take a stroll through ADD Land; the only problem is getting out. When I would call on students who had clearly entered ADD Land, their eyes would abruptly snap back into focus, their backs would straighten in their chairs, and they would respond with an abrupt “Huh?” But mere moments after the spell was broken, the students would urgently return to that place deep inside themselves where everything is at peace and the teacher’s questions can’t be heard. Who could really blame them?
Student: What kind of consequences?
Teacher: What kind of consequences? Well, for starters, you’ll have study hall tomorrow.
Student: Fine. Tomorrow’s a half day—we don’t have study hall.
Teacher: OK, then you’ll have it the next day.
Student: This sucks.
Teacher: Watch the language. I don’t want to have to give you another pink slip.
Student: Fine. But realize that two days from now, neither of us will even remember why I am in study hall in the first place. Therefore, not only will there be no practical value to my being in study hall, but there will also be no moral value—no lesson being learned—which, I am assuming, is the whole point in the first place.
Teacher: And detention. You’ll get an after-school detention if we don’t finish this sentence.
Student: You can’t do that! Detention is supposed to punish behavior, not academic performance. It says so in the
Teacher: OK, so I’m punishing you for not following directions.
Student: No, that’s not fair. You’re punishing my disability.
Teacher: Your disability? You have a following-directions disability?
Student: Now you’re being sarcastic. Teachers aren’t supposed to be sarcastic.
Teacher: You’re right. I’m sorry—I’m just uncomfortable with your claim that my asking you to read a sentence is not fair.
Student: It’s unfair when you ask me to do something I don’t want to do. You can’t make me read this sentence.
Teacher: You’re right. I can’t. But I can give you detention for not doing it.
Student: That is de facto coercion. The handbook says coercion of students, in whatever form, is not allowed.
My class was located next to the science room. This was just not fair. Middle-school science is the pinnacle of academic enjoyment; everything afterward pales in comparison. For a brief moment in our lives, middle-school science presents to us a benevolent world filled with boundless wonder and infinite opportunity. And, though many of my students had difficulty reading, their disability was circumvented by all things visual and tangible: model volcanoes, National Geographic videos, replications of the five biospheres, and, of course, animals—lots and lots of animals. Science class more closely resembled a visit to a petting zoo than an academic exercise. There were mice, gerbils, hamsters, and one enormous snake whose feeding practices became a schoolwide spectacle. Every year, the science teacher (who is far and away the best teacher in the United States of America—the kind of teacher whose name you remember well into adulthood) would allow the students to choose one class pet. This past year, it was a python that they named Monty.
I might as well have just given up. How could I compete with a creature that unhinges its lower jaw when it eats?
Imagine the students entering science class, their faces bright and giddy in anticipation of new discoveries. Then imagine those poor souls who had reading class right after science: how the glow quickly faded from their oily, adolescent skin. The fluorescent lights in my room, though they were the same as in every other room, somehow seemed more harsh and impersonal. Upon entering my class, the students felt their gigantic backpacks assume dreadful weight as they prepared themselves for something more like physical labor than oral reading. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here and cannot decode words on a fifth-grade level,” I imagined the reading posters in my room to subliminally declare.
Reading was the last thing in the entire world my reading-disabled students wanted to be doing, resulting in epic frustration levels they did not even attempt to hide. Eyes rolled to the back of heads, and notebooks were slammed onto the desks with added force. This was reading, this was painful, and I was the devil. And as if there weren’t enough bad energy permeating the classroom as we discussed the correct pronunciation of the “ch” sound, there came from next door an explosion of shrieking and laughter. It was feeding time for Monty.
Student: You realize that this whole conversation never happened, right?
Teacher: What do you mean? This conversation we’re having right now?
Student: Yeah, only it’s not a conversation, and it never was a conversation. This whole thing isn’t real.
Teacher: Now you’re just stalling.
Student: Don’t you realize that you are putting words into my mouth? I don’t even know what “de facto” means. You’re confabulating.
Teacher: So if I’m not talking to you right now, whom am I talking to?
Student: Me, you—what does it matter?
Teacher: All right, now we’ve wasted half the period. If you had just started the way I told you, we’d already be done.
Student: I’d prefer not to.
Teacher: You’d “prefer not to”? What the heck
Student: I’d prefer not to. It’s an allusion to “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
Teacher: Now you’re Bartleby. How could you possibly have read Melville? I can hardly read Melville.
Student: Books on Tape. They really
Teacher: Can we continue now—literary allusions aside?
Student: Huh? What are we reading again?
Teacher: This sentence: “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
Student: OK, you first.
Teacher: We already discussed this. You read and then I’ll read.
Student: Fine. The guh-guh-grrrr-aa…
Teacher: Short A.
Teacher: Short A.
Teacher: Wait, stop. What does a short A
Teacher: Right, a short A.
Teacher: No, “A” is a long-A sound. What is the short-A sound?
Teacher: Yes! “Ah.” Say it again.
Teacher: Notice how your mouth moves when you say the short-A sound: Your jaw drops open, your tongue settles on the bottom of your mouth—like when you go to the doctor and he tells you to open up and say—
Teacher: Right. Now feel the outside of your mouth as you pronounce the vowel sound: “Ahhhhhhhh.”
Student: Your mouth? You want me to put my hands on your mouth?
Teacher: No. You hold your mouth and I’ll hold mine, and we’ll both pronounce the short-A sound at the same time. Ready? One, two, three—
We all want to be the cool teacher. As much as I denied it—insisted that I didn’t care—I firmly believed that my being the cool teacher was inevitable and so there was no point in even worrying about it. I was young and hip; I watched MTV; I shopped at the Gap for baggy pants with lots of pockets. Heck, sometimes I even wore jeans to school. I wasn’t going to be one of those anal-retentive teachers who freaked out every time a student came to class late or forgot his homework. I would talk and relate to my students. “OK, you forgot your homework. Why? What happened? Talk to me.” Surely these kids would connect to me on more than an instructional level. They would find my innovative pedagogic techniques so refreshing that they would immediately discover the joys of reading.
This also did not happen. Our school, one of those progressive jobs with an academic dean from the ’60s, believed that individual teachers should develop academic policy as they saw fit. The school’s policy was that there was no policy. So I enacted very few rules, and the students engaged in very little learning. Any expectations I did have were of the elastic variety: “If you are late to class two—no, three times—in a week—or, wait—if you are late to class five times in a month, then you get detention.” Never one to follow the rules, I found it exceedingly difficult (and frustrating) to create them.
My homework policy was similarly arbitrary. At first, hoping to coerce the students into doing their homework, I promised that every homework assignment would be graded. After the first week, however, I realized the enormous amount of paperwork this objective would require and revised my policy: Assignments would be collected but not graded; failure to do homework would result in study hall. And, although I did collect their homework regularly, I discarded it in the trash as soon as they left the room. I know, this is horrible. But the homework I assigned was so mindless (“Write each vocabulary word five times,” “Arrange all vocabulary words into ABC order”) that there could be no point in actually reading it, let alone returning it.
Even so, I still have nightmares in which a student comes back into the classroom to retrieve a forgotten jacket or notebook and catches me throwing his homework into the garbage. I wake up in cold sweats.
As for class discipline, there was very little (mostly because I followed no clear disciplinary code). I avoided pink slips like the plague—no matter where you go in the world, it seems, bad behavior is always represented by the color pink—thinking that more could be achieved through frank and honest discussion than with the issuance of a carbon-copy piece of paper that used euphemisms to describe how Andy had said “Fuck you” to a teacher. Once again, I was horribly mistaken. I’m not saying that pink slips actually work (they work only insofar as getting in trouble at school translates into getting in trouble at home), but the whole frank-and-honest-discussion experiment proved a failure.
Much to my dismay, my students turned out to be not little adults but big children. To compensate for their learning disabilities, they had been institutionalized with color codes and “Individualized Point Sheets” for years. They were accustomed to rules, consistency, and elaborate incentive systems. They needed repetition. They were accustomed to rules, consistency, and elaborate incentive systems. My
lesson-plan-free method of teaching (in which I entered the classroom having no idea what we would do for the day, relying instead on improvisation and whimsy) was not well received by the students. By trying to treat them like adults capable of rational decision-making, I actually mistreated them: I didn’t provide the structure and discipline middle-school students—especially those with learning disabilities—require.
One 13-year-old student (I’ll call him Billy) and I had several frank-and-honest discussions concerning his persistent use of the word “fag.” These were, as they say, teachable moments, and the day was rife with them. Whenever Billy used the word “fag,” I reminded him of our previous 3,000 discussions, and he replied, “I’m sorry.” But he wasn’t, and I knew he wasn’t, so we would have yet another frank-and-honest discussion about the use of pejorative language. We would leave the classroom and talk out in the hall.
“Do you understand what that word means?” I would ask.
“What word? Oh yeah—’fag.’ I know what it means,” Billy would reply, looking everywhere but in my eyes.
“Right, that word—which I don’t want you repeating—what does it mean?” It was my hope that by examining the etymology of offensive words, a student might come to better realize why such language is inappropriate.
“Yeah, it means, like, stupid, or a dumb person. Like a person who does stupid things or says dumb things.” At this point, I might consider the possibility that I really was old, out of the loop. Was it possible that “fag” didn’t mean “fag” anymore?
“OK, that may be one meaning,” I would say, trying not to fold my arms and look stern, but not knowing where else to put them. “But there’s another meaning of the word.”
“I don’t know.” Billy would then play dumb—being a fag.
“Listen,” I would say, preparing for the frank-and-honest portion of the discussion. “I know that you use this word all the time when you’re hanging out with your friends, and I don’t really care. But when you’re in this school, and when you’re in my class, that kind of language is ab-so-lute-ly un-ac-cept-able. Now, you and I both know that the word is an offensive way to describe gay people.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
It’s discomforting how often I sounded like my parents in the course of a single day at school. Billy would fidget so much he seemed about to take off. Maybe he hadn’t taken his medication that morning, or maybe his sock was loose on his left foot, or he could hear the clock ticking on my watch, or he was thinking about the bologna sandwich sitting in his locker and wondering if he should have put it in the refrigerator.
“What if you used that word and someone heard you who was gay?” I would ask.
“I don’t know. I don’t have any gay friends.”
“I understand you may not know anyone who is gay, but what if someone who is gay happened to overhear you? How do you think they’d feel?”
“Probably pretty bad,” he would answer, rubbing the skin straight off his fingers.
“Here, Billy—look at my eyes.” He would look at my eyes, then the floor, the wall, and finally settle on his shoes.
“Fine, OK. I won’t use the word in front of gay people. Happy?”
And that’s when I would realize my faulty logic. It happened every time.
“That’s not really the point,” I would backpeddle. “Using that kind of language is offensive to everyone, not just gay people.” Here I might consider quoting from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail.”
“Why do you care? Why does it offend you?” Billy would ask, with an edge to his voice.
“Like I just said, that kind of language is offensive to everyone, not just gay people, and for that reason you shouldn’t use it.” There.
“I know, I know. But why do you get so offended? None of my other teachers say anything.” This also happened every time: Billy thought (incorrectly) that the reason I got so offended by the word “fag” was because I was gay.
“I am offended by your use of that word the same way I would be offended if you used any curse word.” Nice. Let’s see him get out of that one.
“Why? Why do you get so offended?”
There is a crucial moment in all frank-and-honest discussions when the desire for equality must be balanced with the need for authority. This was such a moment. Billy and I could have gone on forever arguing how and why some people get offended at certain things, perhaps even touching on the constitutionality of free-speech laws, but there was always an entire classroom of unsupervised students behind us doing God-knows-what to each other and my personal effects. Any progression of the discussion beyond this point would have inevitably led to a power struggle—me trying to prove him wrong, and vice versa—and in such cases, the student always wins. (If you can even get a teacher arguing about something as absurd as inappropriate language, you deserve to win.) To end such exchanges, I usually made reference to some nonteaching member of the faculty who was universally feared among the student body.
“Billy, if you would like to continue this discussion in more detail, perhaps we should sit down with Mr. Williams during lunchtime.”
“OK, OK. I understand.”
We would return to the classroom, where Billy would commence to giggle with his peers and another student would inform me of some transgression that had occurred while I was outside. The period had been wasted, nothing accomplished. No matter. Billy and I would be out in the hallway again the next week, trying to be frank and honest.
Teacher: OK, so what’s the word?
Teacher: Close: “Grass,” not “grahs.”
Student: But you said the short-A sound sounds like when you go to the doctor’s office: “Ahhhhhhh.”
Teacher: Right. I mean, sometimes it does, and sometimes it sounds more like the A sound in the word “bad.”
Student: So how do you know which sound to use?
Teacher: Well, a lot of it is just repetition and memorization.
Student: There must be rules. There’s always rules, with exceptions. Perhaps a game to help me learn the vowel-sound rules?
Teacher: I really don’t think there are any rules. They’re just sounds, and you have to learn them.
Student: Come on—all teachers have games and mnemonic devices to help us learn
Teacher: Really? I mean, maybe there are rules for vowel sounds. I don’t know.
Student: There must be rules. What is a language if there aren’t any rules? That wouldn’t be a language at all.
Teacher: I suppose I just never learned those rules. I just kind of internalized all of it.
Student: You were brainwashed with phonics. Never even thought to question the system of vowel sounds you use every day.
Teacher: “Brainwashed”? Isn’t that a bit much?
Student: In a sense, those with reading disabilities are like linguistic philosophers, uncovering the inner dynamics of language.
Teacher: Perhaps, but you have no choice. I mean, you are somehow predisposed, biologically or otherwise, to interact with sounds the way you do.
Student: Are you belittling my disability?
Teacher: No, not at all. It just seems you may be attributing a philosophical significance to your disability that isn’t really there.
Student: When is the period over? Can we go outside?
My teaching disability was concealed from the administration because I happened to be teaching to the students’ biggest deficit. As a result, whenever the students (or I) got frustrated, or when things simply were not going well in my class, it was explained away on account of reading’s being their biggest weakness, rather than teaching’s being mine. Their misfortune was my fortune. This past spring, I was even offered a job for next year (social studies, not reading), but I respectfully declined, saying that my true interests (whatever they may be) lay elsewhere. I don’t think this came as a shock to anyone.
One might say that my employment was a waste of tax dollars. This is pretty much the case. Although the place where I taught is not a public school, many of the students are publicly funded. (Lawyers have proved that their disability prevents them from receiving an adequate education in the public system, so the state pays for their education elsewhere.) It is ridiculous that I was hired and left to my own devices to educate reading-disabled children. I am sometimes bitter about this lack of guidance, but I also realize that sometimes the best way for a novice to learn a new skill is through absolute independence.
Regardless, I know I am largely to blame. I demonstrated no initiative to learn about my students’ disabilities. I enrolled in no evening classes to learn how to teach phonics. In many ways, my year of teaching was a complete failure: Presented with a challenge, I chose to run the other way. I elected to do the bare minimum, to fulfill only the basic requirements of the job so I would not get fired. Perhaps four years of a liberal-arts education had instilled in me a kind of intellectual arrogance and unwillingness to perform those tasks I deemed beneath me.
Nevertheless, I made it through the year without hitting any of the children, and for that I am proud. None of the students regressed in their reading abilities (obviously, anyway), and some even made strides. Perhaps there is nobility in seeing things through, in going all the way, in fighting to the end.
I am not, and could never be, a teacher. That’s my disability.
Student: The bell’s about to ring.
Teacher: No, it’s not. We still have time.
Student: No. Class is over. It’s going to ring.
Teacher: Listen, the bell is not going to ring.
We still have a couple more minutes
to finish this—