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Realization [Steven]

July 27, 2010

This entry is part two of a multi-part story.  You can find the first post here.

His paper is completely blank.

“Do you need a pencil sharpener?” I question.

Steven shakes his head no, without raising his eyes to meet mine.  It is as if they are glued to the paper, scared to miss whatever thrilling event may be on the verge of happening in the blankness.

“Well, how can I help you?  Do you understand the assignment?  What questions can I answer? I’m here to help. Whatever you need!”  (When in doubt, I typically resort to my teacherly, overquestioning ways. This instance was no exception.)

After receiving a response of total silence, I open Steven’s science textbook and direct him to the pages about mass extinction.  The assignment requires students to create their fictional short stories about how a mass extinction occurred, including the events leading up to and following the catastrophe.  Thinking I was giving my students an invaluable (and perhaps undeserved) gift, I had not designated any further guidelines.

Erika, an exceptionally friendly and helpful student, sits next to Steven and even offers some of her definitions to help him begin understanding the topic, but he doesn’t respond to her efforts, either.

After half an hour of unproductive blank-page-studying, I pull him to the back of the room with his paper, pencil, and textbook.  Hopefully, this move will allow him to ask me questions without being embarrassed or shy.  No such luck.

Finally, I am able to convince Steven to open his book and look at the pictures as I attempt to explain mass extinctions and how they affected life on Earth.  Then I ask him how he would like his mass extinction to happen, “Ice age, asteroid, massive illness, something different?  It can be whatever you want!”

Thanks to a fair amount of cajoling, he settles on a giant asteroid hitting earth as the source of his mass extinction.  He laboriously writes each letter of the word asteroid on the top line of his paper as I spell it aloud for him.  The d is backwards, which I notice, but chalk up to his anxiety–what with the teacher hovering over him and all.

“Great, Steven!  You’ve got your topic!” I cheer, “Now that you’ve settled on your cause, just start your story.  Maybe you could start with a description of the setting, talking about what it looks, sounds, feels, and smells like.  To help you get an idea, look at the passage on page 52 of your book.  Go ahead and read that to me.”

Steven shakes his head from side to side as if trying to shake water from his ears after a long swim.  He wrinkles and tears pages of the textbook as he slowly turns to page 52, but only after forcing a large amount of air through a tiny opening between his tongue and his teeth, producing an eerie hisssssssssing sound.  I silently point to the paragraph I want him to focus on and shoot him an expectant glance.

It’s then that I notice the tears welling up in his eyes as his fisted fingers rub the damp, sweaty palms of his hands.

Quickly, I recognize these signs as those of a student on the verge of a major outburst and take a step back, as my mind raced:  It’s still his first week in my classroom and we haven’t yet gotten his records in from his previous school.  What if he was in that alternative school for physically hurting somebody?  What if he has a history of emotional outbursts?  What will work to calm him down?  I don’t have any information about him other than what the counselor told me on Steven’s first day and I know if there is one reputation I do not want as a first-year teacher, it’s the reputation of being the one who got socked by the new kid.

Calmly, I step where he can clearly see me, and delicately urge him to read.  “Steven, it’s okay, it’s just me here in the back of the room.  Nobody but me can hear you.  Read the paragraph for me and then we’ll move on.”

He looks up at me with glistening, saddened eyes and speaks.

“I really don’t want to, Miz.”

Those tense fists, desperate eyes, welling tears, trembling legs, and quiet words brought me the revelation:

Steven can’t read.

Note: This is part of the Slice of Life Story challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers.  Head on over there to find other teachers writing to improve their craft, as well as great ideas about teaching writing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2010 10:47 am

    Asteroid, mass extinction, mmmm, you’ve just told a story of other ways our planet is in danger! Bravely told, thank you.

  2. Lynnelle permalink
    July 28, 2010 2:50 pm

    Oh, my heart just breaks for him.

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