Pat writes a humor blog these days and lives in New York City. She started out as a an elementary school teacher in a rural area and shares one of her best memories from those days. It’s not just a story about the great difference a single teacher can make in a child’s life, it’s also a good reminder of how important it is to treat vision problems early. -Ann Z
Sometimes you actually do something good, something that changes things. My first year as a teacher (I only lasted two years, but that’s another story), I had a kid in my fourth grade class named Jimmy. One of the first things that Jimmy told me was that he was “dumb.” That startled me a bit, and when I questioned him, he elaborated: everyone knew he was dumb, he had always been dumb, and he had even been left back in the third grade.
Something about this kid got under my skin. First of all, I knew — just knew — that he wasn’t unintelligent at all. (I discouraged the use of “dumb” in any event.) I didn’t care what the IQ test indicated, or what anybody else said, or how many grades he had repeated. For one thing, he had asked me a question —actually, the question — the question that has no answer. Which is: If God made everything, who made God? I told him that I couldn’t answer this and that he should talk to someone at his church, but come on, a kid who’s “dumb” doesn’t ask something like that in the first place. There were other signs, too, but I had 36 other kids in the class (really!) and didn’t have time to figure out what was wrong.
But one day, something happened that set off a chain of events that would explain it all.
The science books didn’t arrive when they were supposed to, and so I had to read the material to the class from the teacher’s manual and discuss it with them. Afterwards, I gave a simple True or False test. T or F. And guess what, Jimmy answered every single question correctly. 100%. Same story the next time. And the time after that. He was amazed; the other kids were amazed. One teacher even suggested that he had a 50/50 shot each time, and he was just lucky! But when I questioned him about the material, he had understood it very well. I was now determined to find out what the story was.
The story, it turned out, was simply this: Jimmy wore glasses, very strong glasses —but he hadn’t always had them. In fact, when he started school, he could hardly see the words on a page, much less learn to read them. It was only because he was so bright (which a follow-up test showed) that he learned to read at all — after he got his glasses — but by then he was hopelessly behind, and was thought to be slow. When he was in my class, he was reading about a year or so below grade level, and so he couldn’t have handled the science book, although he had no trouble at all with the concepts. But he had bought into the idea that he wasn’t smart, that he couldn’t learn, that he would always be behind the rest of the class, and this had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Looking back, it’s surprising that no one had figured this out. But no one had. Anyway, once I knew what was going on, I contacted his parents, who arranged for tutoring to get him up to speed. By the end of the term, he was reading at grade level, and the next year, he did very well.
One of my most prized possessions is a letter from his father telling me that I changed the course of his son’s life. Well, a little bit of luck didn’t hurt either, but still. When I get down on myself for all the mistakes I make (and I make more mistakes per square inch than most), I think about this episode in my life, and figure that hey, I’m not as dumb as I look . . .
You can read more of Pat’s writings at her blog, I can’t believe I’m not bitter.