The cracks are wide and deep.
They all wanted to help him. They wanted to. But none of them helped. Not really.
Freshman Year of College
“What can I do to bring up my grade?” he asked. He knew the drill. He didn’t actually need to study or even try. He needed only appear earnest, in desire of success, and the path would be smoothed.
Over his reading glasses, the professor’s blue eyes considered the young man before he replied, “You must do the homework, the readings, the assignments. You must study for the exams. If you do these things, your grade might come up. If you don’t, it won’t.”
Senior Year of High School
“But this is the last class I need to graduate. I’ve already been accepted to State. They gave me a scholarship. I can’t miss this chance.” He doesn’t mention his scholarship is for playing football, not for academics. It isn’t necessary to say the obvious. He knows his teachers are on his side.
“Of course,” she answers. She is pretty and young. Only a year from tenure and swamped with teaching and planning her wedding. Grading takes up so much time at night and on weekends. She hasn’t slept more than five hours a night in months. There is no way to give this boy all the time he really needs. She knows, and he knows she knows–he can barely read. How can anyone expect him to pass senior-level courses? “Why don’t you come to study hall before track practice next week, maybe on Tuesday?” she suggests. She hopes she sounds welcoming, but she’s too tired to care, and the pile of papers teetering by her shoulder is screaming for her attention.
“Can’t. We have a meet. Away. Bus leaves early.” His phone buzzes and he checks his message. Snorts and types something rapidly with his thumbs.
“Wednesday, then…?” she asks, as though his schedule is somehow more full than her own.
“Can’t. We’re lifting on Wednesdays. Coach says it’s mandatory.” He doesn’t even glance up from his phone while he talks.
Damn coach. But without the coach, and sports, the child wouldn’t have the scholarship. And without sports, he’d not even be considered for college at all. She checks her calendar and crosses off the wedding gown fitting she’d plan to squeeze in that Monday. She looks at him and smiles. “I’m sure we can get you all caught up. How about Monday during lunch?”
“Can’t. I gotta eat.”
She holds her ground. “Get your lunch and bring it to my room. I’ll write you a pass.” He shrugs and rolls his eyes. Even as she signs the pass, planning ahead to cancel her dress fitting and thinking about begging for a Saturday slot and then resheduling her portrait sitting, and all of that, she knows he will ‘lose’ her pass or ‘forget’ to come. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. She’ll give him his D and he knows it. She won’t be the one to hold him back.
Freshman Year of High School
“But, sir, the boy can’t read.” The man had been teaching high school English for almost thirty years. He saw the steady decline in ability coming out of the middle school. Still there was pressure to appear to succeed. To make it appear the students could do what they actually could not, or would not, do.
The principal scowls. “Of course he can. Billy, read this.” He hands the boy the newspaper from his desk. The kid opens to the sports pages and reads the box scores. He recites them just like a sports announcer would. The principal smiles. He does not check to see what was read. He’s pleased with the kid’s ability to bluff.
“Ma’am, your son should repeat the seventh grade. His scores are low. He has not mastered English or mathematics. He will benefit from relearning the material.”
“That’s what they said in third grade. Kindergarten, too. But, no. My boy pushed on. He worked hard to get here. You can’t be holding him back from his potential. And look at how big he is. That boy can’t be graduating high school when he’s twenty years old. He’s too big.”
The teacher looks to the principal for support, but he averts his eyes. The guidance counselor, too, just shuffles some papers. She is alone.
“He can’t add or divide,” she insists. “High school math will be impossible without these basic skills.”
“Neither can I, and I graduated. You saying I shouldn’t have my high school diploma? I graduated from this same school system, and I’m doing fine. Don’t need no mathematics in my job.”
The teacher reaches out her hand in a weak plea, and she apologizes, “No, ma’am, I’m sorry, no–I’m not saying anything against you, and I’m sure you work hard at your job. It’s just, well, wouldn’t you like a better life for your son?”
The mother wrings her hands and shakes her head sadly, “‘Course I would. My boy’s going to go to college,” she asserts.
“Then he’ll need to know some math and grammar. His skills are too weak. Another year of work will help him–”
“You teachers had him in your classrooms for the entire year,” the mother interrupts, “and still you haven’t taught him enough to pass the seventh grade? What is wrong with you? What is wrong with this school?” This last question is addressed to the principal.
He meets her eye and feels the accusation. His teachers are to blame, more than he is. He hadn’t had the time to make all of his classroom visits this year. Too many committees and meetings with parents to get around to each teacher. He hadn’t sat in this boy’s English or Math classes, so the boy’s failure would trace back to him, although the teacher would take the brunt of the failure. He’d have to let her go.
“I’m sure we can work this out. You just give us some time to look over your son’s work, and we’ll get this all sorted out.” He stands and shakes hands with the woman before escorting her out.
“He won’t sit still. He speaks out of turn. He just doesn’t like being at school; that much is clear.” The behavior issues of this little boy keeps her other students from learning. It would be better if he spent as much time as possible in time out and study hall. The guidance counselors, special education teachers, and administration all agree. The other parents called in to complain on a regular rotating basis. For the other children, this boy must be removed from the classroom.
This year I get to go to school. Mama told me when I get big, I’ll get to go on the bus, eat lunch at school, and play in the big playground. I’ll get a nice teacher and homework, too. My big sister likes school. She’s in second grade. She says kindergarten was her favorite. She learned all her colors, and songs, and letters, and numbers. I asked her to show me, but Mama said let him wait and learn it there. That’s what we’re paying them for. Sister learned most of it all before school, in her preschool and with Daddy, but they didn’t have time to teach all that to me before I went, and the free preschool ran out of spots before Mama had time to register me. I got to play on the iPad and watch movies instead of preschool. I know my name starts with B and Mama starts with M. I know I’m five, almost six. I know the days of the week. But that’s all, I think. I’m ready to learn the rest. I guess we’ll let that teacher do what we’re paying her to do. Teach me.
But when I got to school, on the first day, after riding on the big bus with my lunch bag in my new backpack, the other kids already knew their colors and numbers and letters. Most of them. Me and two other kids, who got called shy, didn’t know any of it. I found out later, on the playground, that I wasn’t the only one. We thought we should keep it quiet that we don’t know, so we don’t get in trouble. I heard the principal is mean.