We Just Have to Keep Trying

September. The boy walks into my classroom and anxiously looks around. Bright colors surround him. Books are displayed on every flat surface. Friends wave him over. Everything should look so inviting, but it’s not enough. His frown says everything. He’s been in English classrooms before. He knows what’s coming: the reading, the writing, and the analysis. He’s going to have play it cool for now.

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October. He’s gotten to know me, his teacher, a bit now. I’m loud but don’t yell, and I smile a lot. He likes me, but doesn’t trust me yet. Anyone can be nice, he whispers to his partner. He watches as the more vocal partner calls me over to get some help. When I ask both of them a question about their books, only the partner answers. He just stares. When I direct my next question to him, the partner speaks when he won’t. The bell rings, but I ask him to stay to chat a bit longer. He turns away, gets up, and leaves. He doesn’t want me to know him.

Outside of class, I ask his former teachers about him. I learn that reading has always been a struggle for him. He avoids anything that’s difficult. That’s okay, I think. I’ve met students like him before.

November. Quickwrites are a favorite of many, but not the boy. I give him space at times, but when I do stop over to assist, he says he’s done. When I give him questions to think about, he says I have nothing to add. He writes a line or two, if anything at all. Book clubs begin, and I start to see him smile more. His group members are the ones asking the questions and sharing their thoughts. From across the room, I hear him share a few of his own ideas. I like Filthy McNasty. He loves sports as much as I do. When he sees me watching, his mouth snaps shut and refuses to open again.

Outside of class, I try calling home again and again. No response. I try email. No response. I meet with my school’s Student Support Team. I can’t let him fall down the cracks.

NOTE: I’m unexpectedly out of the classroom for all of December and January. 

February. Not much has changed in two months, but anger has surfaced. When I finally do get him to speak with me privately, he yells, Why are you back? It was so much easier when you were gone. When I ask why, he states, We listened to the book as a class and did questions together. I was doing well, and now I won’t. I share that I believe he can do well, but he states matter-of-factly,  Nope. You’ll make me try on my own. That’s when I take out my notebook. He watches me as I share my struggles, mistakes, and frustrations. Writing on our own can be difficult, I say, but that’s how we learn and grow.

Outside of class, I try contacting home again. Nothing. I ask the boy to stay after with me to work one-on-one. On the day he shows up, another classmate is quietly working in the back of the room. Before I can say anything, he walks out the door.

March. Our research unit begins. Some skills are reviewed, and others are introduced, including how to use new databases. As the boy looks through the myriad research articles, his frustration becomes palpable. The librarian tries to assist, even finding him an article, but a few minutes after attempting to read it, he crinkles it up and tosses it. Have you heard of podcasts? I ask him. When he shakes his head no, I show him how to find some. I show him some note-taking techniques, as well as transcripts for the audio. Progress begins.

Outside of class, he stays after with me a few times. He loves his topic about the importance of sports in schools. He shares with me that he is starting track soon.

April. We finish research and move into a whole-class novel unit using Romeo & Juliet. Immediately, all the growth disintegrates. The boy brings nothing to class. Each IR book is “lost” after the first day. He refuses to write quickwrites, even when they aren’t connected to the play. He won’t pay attention when we read the play aloud or act it out.

Outside of class, my own nightly reflections revolve around him, but no new ideas work. My frustrations are palpable. I go to a track meet. He doesn’t hear me cheer when he comes in first twice, but I congratulate him the next day. He looks at me in shock, then smiles and thanks me.

May. In preparation for exams, a timed essay test is given about Romeo & Juliet. Students have known the questions for weeks, and have been planning. When the boy comes in on test day, he has nothing with him. When everyone receives the test questions and requirements are gone over, he immediately blurts out, Test?! What test? While the rest of the class begins, he is still talking. He gets louder and louder, trying to get himself kicked out. He becomes such a distraction that it eventually works. I quietly ask him to leave.

Outside of class, I hopefully wait for him after school but he doesn’t show that first day, or the next day. On the third day I’m about to leave when he peaks into my room. Can I stay hear to work on biology? he asks. When I agree, he sits down, but takes nothing out. Then he looks at me. I’m sorry Mrs. K. That test was just so hard. I didn’t know what to do. I went over to him, took out my notebook, and showed him my planning for the essay. We discussed the importance of planning together, and then he got started on his own. I stayed right there though, just in case.

June. It’s the last month of the school year. We begin to reflect and prepare for final exams. As the exam date approaches, the boy’s nerves get the best of him. He misses a few classes, and then on the first day of the exam he tries to get himself kicked out again. I was ready this time though. I found a comfy corner for him to sit in, and I was right there beside him. He asked questions, when needed, and I answered. I was there.

Outside of class, I begin to read the final “advice” students have for next year’s 9th graders. (Below is the boy’s.) I also reflect on my teaching, wondering where I’ve failed and where I’ve grown. When it comes to the boy, I do feel like I’ve failed him. It breaks my heart that he didn’t pass my class. Next year is a new year though. Even though I won’t have him as a student, I can still be there for him and offer support. I will keep trying.

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