Reading & Literacy Opinion

Teaching the At-Risk: A Matter of Life and Death

By Marilyn Rhames — August 10, 2011 4 min read
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I am humbled by the overwhelming support for my first blog post. I want to thank each and every reader, those who left a comment and those who did not, those who shared the article and those who kept it to themselves, those who agreed with me and those who did not. I am honored to have your audience and challenged to continue to reflect deeply and write honestly.

I entered college as a pre-med major set on becoming a doctor. After writing for the college newspaper, my passion shifted to journalism. As a reporter, I volunteered to teach children at church, and my heart yearned to educate. In my first year of teaching, however, I had come full circle: I became a doctor. The very nature of my job was a matter of life and death.

I’ll never forget my first patient, a boy I’ll call Montana. He was a light-skinned, brown-eyed third grader with sandy brown cornrows that wagged down his back. He often came to school wearing the same dirty uniform shirt from the day before. His attendance was just as spotty. He was a natural-born leader who had a precocious swagger despite being the smallest kid in class. His classmates engaged him with caution; Montana was hot-tempered and quick to throw a punch.

But there was a side to Montana that shamed him and exposed his most innocent, vulnerable self: He couldn’t read. Though nine, he still had not mastered all the letter sounds nor memorized basic sight words like “the” and “when.” Why didn’t Montana have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) by now? Why hadn’t he ever been evaluated for a learning disability? My heart would break seeing him fight back tears while struggling to read a kindergarten text.

Looking at Montana’s angelic face, I saw the beauty and joy of life. But surrounding him were the cancers of his run-down community, ever ready to attack any wholesome cell within him. The gangs. The drugs. The sexual abuse. The culture of incarceration. The gun violence. The normality of death, marked by weather-torn memorials of teddy bears and balloons casually placed on sidewalks or tied to random chain-link fences.

I knew that teaching Montana how to read could very well save his life. His future, his quality of life depended on it ... on me doing my job. At the very least, learning to read would give him a fighting chance to graduate from high school, despite the fact that only 48 percent of black boys in America ever do.

I tried everything in my novice bag of tricks to help Montana learn to read, but nothing seemed to work. I enlisted my assistant principal for help and began the lengthy documentation process needed to prove that I had done as much as I could do to help Montana and that he needed a full psychological case study. By the time all the paper work was completed, the school year was nearly over. Montana was first in line to be evaluated the following school year.

But his grandmother who was raising him decided to transfer him to a different school. She felt I was not doing enough to help him learn. The principal explained to her that he was ready to be evaluated for a learning ability and that he would likely qualify for special education services. Transferring him now could set the process back a year, the principal pleaded. It didn’t matter to his grandmother—she wanted a second opinion.

That year I realized I was achieving my initial career goal of being doctor. Not a medical doctor, but a doctor of the mind. Not a psychologist, but a doctor of the intellect, responsible for diagnosing the pathogens that impede student learning and finding cures to cultivate intellectual and creative longevity. In my classroom, I could not just teach. I had to identify the symptoms of disconnected synapses, hunger, lack of sleep, neglect, and misunderstanding due to cultural blockages. My job was to find antidotes for a chronic condition that is almost epidemic—the lack of retention of skills and knowledge.

As I continue to practice education, I am constantly trying to perform brain surgery without a scalpel. Certain academic ailments force me to conduct in-class clinical trials, testing various methods of pedagogy like singing, dancing, acting, and all kinds of silly but intentional movements. I have to get better at collecting data, analyzing it, and drawing conclusions to perfect future treatment plans. And I must collaborate regularly with other practitioners and specialists in the building, like special education teachers, instructional leaders, social workers, counselors, and the school nurse.

There are so many types of cancers that relentlessly stalk our children. Sometimes the cancer is so aggressive that it overtakes our students, despite our efforts. Kids die mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically. But it cannot be for the lack of our efforts. We cannot have their blood on our hands. Medical doctors occasionally lose patients, but they must keep going in the hopes of saving somebody else.

I feel like I lost Montana. He transferred and I never saw him again. I don’t know if he ever got special education services or if he ever learned to read. All I know is that he should be starting high school this fall. And although my lifesaving efforts in the classroom continue every day, my heart still breaks for my first patient, Montana.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.