A recent addition to my class from a small mountain town, Marianne was just a wisp of a child, small and thin, with blue-green eyes and light brown hair that was often stringy and oily. She wore what seemed like the same pair of jeans every day, and she alternated with three or four grubby tee shirts. When she turned up on School Picture Day with her usual outfit, I decided that I had to do something.
Because my own daughter was just one year younger, I thought I could find Marianne some nicer clothes in her closet at home. That evening we carefully chose a few outfits to give away, and my daughter was actually quite happy at the thought of helping someone in need. I put everything in a simple white trash bag for the next day.
When I gave the clothes to Marianne after class, she seemed pleased. I told her that my own daughter had outgrown them (she had not) and that I hoped she could use them.
I was anxious to see her cheerfully prancing around in one of the outfits, but that is NOT what awaited me. She appeared at my classroom door the next morning with the white trash bag, and she quietly told me that her mother would not permit her to keep the clothes. I watched for signs of tears or sadness, but there were none—just stone-cold ice.
When I think about how happy she seemed about the clothes the day before, I decided that I had probably set her up for a great disappointment. Family pride, my guess. A culture of not accepting help, maybe. I didn’t want to think it might be anything worse. We had no counselor. No social worker. No home phone was available. No parental contact with school. My heart still breaks when I think of this of this episode in my first year as a reading specialist.
But I did learn a valuable lesson about my very poor students and the various cultures that they experience when not in school. I taught children from all races and many ethnic groups, with 80% being below the poverty level. I decided then and there that I would work my hardest to teach these struggling readers to learn to read in school, and, hopefully, to also enjoy reading. It is my heartfelt belief that being able to read will enable them to change their lives if they so choose, no matter what their stage of life. It is the best gift I could ever give them.
My own teachers inspired me years ago with the patriotic idea of the American melting pot. It feels ingrained in my DNA. I spent countless hours and dollars at Borders book store on Friday nights searching for enjoyable books to enlarge horizons about other cultures—books that my students could borrow and read by themselves. We had books and reward parties with Irish, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, African, and, of course, American, music. When other teachers would moan about the lives in poverty that these poor children had to endure, it only strengthened my resolve to educate them about people and places foreign to them.
This experience, and others, taught me that my students’ “cultures” are complicated, and they do have profound effects. Certain longtime practices, stereotypes, emotional and social contexts, reactions to poverty and to change are also complex. My small touch cannot really alter their home cultures, but, hopefully, being able to read will open doors for them when they do knock.
To read about my worldwide travels, see my previous post:
For many effective tips and enjoyable practice materials for struggling readers, check out my website:
© Reading Spotlight 2021
Here are some interesting posts about education by and for my friends at TBOTEMC: