Of the handful of students who need one-on-one help, José* might be the most behind in the class I volunteer with every week. Sometimes it is frustrating trying to work with him. Other times I learn to count the small victories. Today started out with a massive dose of frustration. I was supposed to help him with a class assignment. He is usually 5 steps behind the rest of the class. He had nothing written on his worksheet. The other student I was also helping, Enrique, had an empty page as well. He dutifully answered my prompts and transferred those words onto his sheet. José, however, simply said “no” as soon as Miss Pratt asked me to work with him. Every attempt for me to engage him with the assignment was met with an adamant “no.”
“Come on, José, you got this. I know you can do it.”
“No,” he chanted, shaking his head from side to side.
“Is something wrong? Are you having a bad day?”
My mom-speech voice couldn’t help itself from surfacing, “You’re only hurting yourself by not trying.”
“It is very important to at least try the work or you will get further behind.”
“No. No. No.”
I felt my face stiffen into expressionlessness and turned my efforts to Enrique who managed to finish his worksheet. José’s paper contained nothing, and I tried not to extend that into his future. They returned to their seats for a class lesson on reading comprehension. Miss Pratt called on different students to read sections of a passage out loud. The students I never work with wove through the lengthy paragraphs with ease. I was happy to hear those in my handful, like Enrique, slowly but surely sound out the shorter sections. Then Miss Pratt called on José for a passage which simply read:
“What are you guys doing?” Farah asked.
Despite being in 4th grade, his regular reading material are books that my first-grader read in kindergarten. When he stuttered out the first word, it sounded like it was traveling through molasses: “Wwwwuuuuttttttt.” Sensing their inevitable impatience, Miss Pratt asked the class not to say anything. I saw several students cover their mouths with both of their hands. Some looked to be smirking. They heeded their teacher and stayed quiet while José struggled with sounding out syllables Miss Pratt uncovered in pieces to aid him. I silently feared that the students’ smirks would escape into laughter that could crush his precious participation into a powder of shameful regret. Kids can be cruel.
I had heard such cruelty there on the playground during recess. Weeks ago, Amber ran up to Miss Pratt to report that a girl from another class had said to her, “Well, at least I’m not black!” Miss Pratt went to speak to the offender whose pale complexion stood out among the various shades of brown that dominate the school yard. I looked at Amber’s downcast eyes and saw my elementary school self after a peer’s ching-chonging. When she saw me looking, I held her lovely dark eyes with my own and said, “You know you are absolutely beautiful, don’t you?” I hoped that the smile spreading across her face would grow broad enough to penetrate into her heart. I remember thinking that if the only reason I drove across to the opposite side of town every week for an hour and half was to say those words of truth to her, then it was all totally worth it.
Finally, José made it across the 7-word marathon’s finish line. Others had sprinted or jogged or walked, but none had limped like he had. Their collective response was immediate. Twenty-five sets of hands clapped in supportive celebration. The applause surrounded José and lifted his now grinning face high into the clouds of possibility leaving the repeated “no’s” in the distant dust. It was such a sweet moment that I felt the threat of tears. The only thing these kids crushed today were my apprehensions. Their clapping had filled the room and crowded out my cynicism. As often is the case in volunteering time to help others, the tables turned so that I was the one being helped by a valuable lesson. Kids can be so awesome.
*All names have been changed.