By Sue Granzella
I crouched next to the green rocking chair as Alejandro faced his twenty-seven third-grade classmates. They were cross-legged on the threadbare grey carpet, waiting for him to read his first completed story of the year. I tried to intercept the gaze of any who would glance my way, my silent plea to receive his story kindly. Things didn’t come easily for Alejandro.
When Alejandro walked, he rolled up onto the balls of his feet in a kind of energetic tip-toe locomotion, giving him a jaunty air, cheerful and optimistic. He was taller than most of my third-graders and appeared slightly off-balance, like he might tip over if tapped on the shoulder. He looked awkward performing simple tasks; cutting with scissors, throwing a ball, or zipping his coat seemed to require more effort for Alejandro than for other kids.
In second grade, Alejandro had qualified for speech therapy, due to problems both cerebral and physical. His brain had trouble with the process of expressing language, while his physical speech impediment made it difficult for him to form many sounds of English. Subtleties of lip movement and tongue placement were tremendously challenging for him, which sometimes made it tough for me to understand his already-accented English. His mom said that he also had trouble pronouncing words in his native Spanish.
Alejandro entered my third-grade class not knowing the sounds of the alphabet, so he couldn’t read at all. Still, it was clear to me that he was very bright. Most kids can rely on books and other printed materials around a classroom to help them gain access to the curriculum. But since he couldn’t read, Alejandro had to depend on listening skills, memory, and powers of observation. He recalled details in math word problems after I read them to him only once, and he quickly grasped the gist of social studies assignments I modified for him. The day I taught the class how to find words in the dictionary, Alejandro was the first one who located the word. As the class hunted for “colossal” on the dictionary page I’d projected onto the large white screen, Alejandro’s hand shot into the air. I didn’t believe he’d really spotted it, since I thought the hundreds of words on the page would have been merely indistinguishable blobs to him, like individuals in an ant colony. But he strode to the screen and, on tip-toe, placed his finger precisely on “colossal.” I was stunned.
When an intelligent child is as far behind as Alejandro, it’s a red flag to the teacher that there is probably some underlying explanation for the academic struggle. I was surprised that Alejandro wasn’t already designated as a special-education student needing more than speech therapy; I believed that he probably had learning disabilities. But in the public school system, it can take years for a learning-disabled child to wade through the process that leads to that classification. Besides, even if he were officially designated as learning-disabled and had the legal “Individualized Education Plan” mandating extra support, he would still be in a regular-education classroom. It’s likely that all he’d get would be small-group instruction with a specially trained teacher for an hour a day. That would help with his grasp of subject matter, but it couldn’t “fix” his learning problems.
Despite his intelligence, Alejandro didn’t retain the names of his classmates, even though we’d been together since August. It was now late October. He knew who everyone was, but names seemed to get tangled on the way from his brain to his mouth, which I attributed to the presumed learning disability. Alejandro rarely addressed even me by name, and when he did, it was only with obvious effort. He pressed his lips together as his brow furrowed. Then his forehead flushed in the center, making me a little nervous about what was going on inside his head. Even so, my name always came out “Zan-grella” instead of “Gran-zella.” Finally, Alejandro had issues with his vision. He was severely colorblind, and his eyes didn’t track in tandem. When one eye was facing directly forward, the other was angled a bit to the side.
And with all of these challenges, he remained undaunted.
During instruction, Alejandro listened intently and watched me closely, like a terrier locked in on a squirrel. He participated actively, shared willingly, laughed easily, and worked hard. He was astonishingly self-motivated. I never heard him say, “This is too hard,” even though almost all of it was.
“Oh, mah goo-nih!” Alejandro said with a shake of his head whenever he made a simple mistake. Every time I heard him utter this expression – in his accented, impediment-shaped English – I would smile. When he added a big grin and a gentle tap on his forehead with the fingertips of his soft hand, as if to say, “Oh, silly me!” I felt a little twisting inside. I was moved by this boy’s willingness to throw himself so enthusiastically into activities that might remind him, all day and every day, that there was so much he couldn’t do.
Writing was Alejandro’s biggest challenge. Since he was just starting to learn the letters’ sounds – many of which he couldn’t replicate with his mouth – the string of consonants he put on a page usually bore no resemblance to the words he was trying to write. Back then in my seventeenth year of teaching, I considered myself an expert at interpreting “invented spelling.” But Alejandro’s writing was in a different category, an unintelligible jumble of letters, the same few over and over.
I couldn’t read Alejandro’s drafts at all. Neither could he. And since I had twenty-eight students, there was no way I could take dictation while he told me his stories. So when Alejandro was ready to start a new piece, I’d hand him my iPod, set it to “record,” and have him tell his story aloud. Working with one of Alejandro’s classmates at the back of the room, I’d watch Alejandro up front talking away, one hand gripping the device near his mouth while the other hand waved awkwardly, caught up in the tale he was spinning.
At night in bed, I’d sit with my laptop in the dark, listening to his voice and typing what I could understand. Usually, I’d replay his recording four or five times, some words remaining a stubborn mystery. As his writing worked its way from his voice to my computer screen, I realized that Alejandro had a solid grasp of story-telling, and a real sense of humor.
I want my students to be able to read each other’s stories during the year, so in September, each child designs a cover for an individual booklet called “My Published Third-Grade Writing.” Whenever a student finishes a piece, I add it to the respective child’s booklet. The first complete story I typed from Alejandro’s iPod recordings was about him and his dog, and the next day I noticed how eager Alejandro was to put it into his booklet. He gave it a title, and took a long time with his crayoned illustration of a boy, a dog, and a door. Finally I punched holes in the story and picture, stuck them inside his colorful cover, and bound the pages together with a plastic strip. Alejandro clutched his booklet proudly.
Once the new story is in the booklet, the writer presents it to the class. The author grasps the microphone of my fifty-dollar karaoke machine, reads the piece, and receives her or his classmates’ feedback. I’d taught my students to listen carefully so that they could give specific examples of something done well. Though I reviewed the guidelines each time, I wasn’t worried that this year’s group would forget to focus on the positive. From the first day of school, I’d noticed that these kids were particularly heart-centered. They loved learning about Harriet Tubman’s selfless acts of courage. They applauded when I read books about kindness, and comforted each other when they were sad. These children understood compassion.
But still, they were only eight, and eight-year-olds like things to be fair. Eight-year-olds also point out differences, saying things like, “She’s really smart.” On the day after I put Alejandro’s story into his booklet, I was a little nervous. I knew he’d need my help reading it aloud, more help than any of the others had received from me.
Alejandro made his tip-toed way to the shabby rocking chair and sat down. His back was as straight as a flagpole, and his feet a few inches off the floor as he slid the microphone switch to “on.” He pressed his lips together in the thin line I knew, his look of concentration. Alejandro was ready to begin. The only problem was that even though I’d typed out his words in correctly spelled English, I knew he couldn’t read any of them. He knew it, too.
Casting around a meaningful look as my final appeal, I started whispering at his side, feeding Alejandro his own words, three at a time. “The dog came… to my house… My mom said…” As I read and he echoed me, I shot glances all around, ready to extinguish any sparks of laughter that might ignite. But there was nothing. The kids all sat in rapt attention, eyes on Alejandro, silently listening.
As he plodded onward, I found my worry replaced by wonder. Not one of the children was whispering, “She’s reading it for him!” No one was smirking or even fiddling with her shoes. Every eye was locked on Alejandro. The only laughs were at appropriate moments, when Alejandro took them through the funny aspects of dog ownership. The children received him without a hint that anything was different in this public reading.
I’d stopped shooting my police-officer eyes around the group and was now trying to catch their eyes so I could thank them. They didn’t notice, though. They were still focused on the speaker, just as I’d taught them.
When Alejandro ended with “And I never… saw my dog… again” the class broke into the appreciative applause that followed each story presentation. Then their hands shot up in parallel diagonal salutes.
Alejandro, looking out at the raised hands like a benevolent king surveying his subjects, pointed his chubby finger at Jackson first.
“Umm….uhh…I no remember your name. Whuh your name?” Alejandro said.
I braced for it, but no one laughed.
“Jackson,” the boy said. “I liked the part where your dog started running. That was funny.” There were murmurs of agreement.
“Thank you.” Pleased, Alejandro looked for another hand. Pointing at Alondra, he crinkled his forehead and said haltingly, “Umm… uhh… Whuh your name again?”
“Alondra,” she answered calmly. “I liked it when you said your dog was white with black spots. I think he was cute.” The expression behind her round glasses was matter of fact.
“Thank you,” Alejandro said. This time he saw my raised hand, and grinned.
“Ms… Ms… oh, mah goo-nih! Whuh your name again?” He pointed at me, then shook his hand and frowned.
A kid who couldn’t name his teacher this far into the school year? Surely now the kids would laugh. Quickly, I jumped in with a smile and my name.
“I liked your last line,” I said. “It really made it sound like the end.”
On we went, Alejandro jabbing his index finger at one classmate after another, as they shared an impressive number of compliments about his simple writing which was only twelve sentences long.
When it was done and we applauded once more, I felt myself getting choked up. Who were these people? How had they learned to hold people with such care, such respect? And how was it that they responded so tenderly as a group? In my twenty-seven years of teaching, I’ve learned that a class is more than just a conglomeration of individual personalities. There is also often a collective personality that characterizes a group, and the collective trait of Alejandro and his classmates was kindness.
I noticed it the first week of school when they included each other at recess, helped one another find lost pencils, alerted me when a classmate felt ill, and explained math problems to those who were confused. One morning, I’d watched a boy comfort a girl whose cousin had died. He reached across his desk to pat her forearm, and she nodded appreciatively. As tears still streamed down her face, the two stretched across their desks and hooked fingers, staying joined for a while. The tenderness of the action was more typical of a grandpa and his grandchild than of an eight-year-old boy and his classmate. I’d seen sweetness like that for two months, but this day with Alejandro felt different.
All day, I kept thinking about the group’s gentle treatment of him. By the next morning, I’d decided to tell them how much they’d impressed me. It would be tricky; it’s dangerous for a teacher to discuss an individual child with the group, and I didn’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention to Alejandro’s difficulties.
I waited until Alejandro was at speech therapy, and then I brought them to the rug. They shuffled toward me, a little curious. Maybe they could see in my expression that I had a plan. I looked out at their faces in many shades of brown and gold.
“Have you ever heard me talk about someone in our class when the person isn’t in the room?” I asked.
“No,” they chorused, with a few head shakes for emphasis.
“Well, I’m going to talk about Alejandro now, even though he’s not here. I need to say how proud I am of you.” A few kids’ eyebrows furrowed in confusion as I added, “Does anyone know why I’m so proud of you all?”
Some hands went up, and I immediately felt my eyes fill. I knew I wouldn’t be able to talk long without my voice locking up, so I pointed at Joshua. An exceptionally quiet boy with an underlying serenity, he usually answered questions correctly on his first try.
“You’re proud because none of us laughed when Alejandro was reading his story yesterday.” He smiled at me.
“Yup.” With just the one word, I felt the back of my throat quaver. The kids stared at me as I swallowed hard and blinked against my tears. I had to keep going; I hadn’t yet said what I wanted to say. I took a few deep breaths. But it was no use; I couldn’t speak.
At a loss, I just waved my right hand at Joshua and choked out: “Talk – more.”
He looked at me in confusion. They all stared at me, waiting.
I gestured toward a few talkative kids, and Mia complied.
“We listened to him read his story. And it was a good story.”
That’s it. I was gone, powerless against the tears. There was a rustle of nodding and squirming as we all tried to get a foothold on this strange ground.
Finally, I found some voice and plunged in. “Remember when we talked about how we all have different doors into our brains? Well, Alejandro has different doors than the ones I’m used to, and I still need to find the right doors to help him.” The kids nodded; they remembered and understood the metaphor.
“Reading and writing are very hard for Alejandro. But that doesn’t mean he’s not smart! He’s very smart! It just means we need to help him more.”
The voices came like popcorn, up from all sides.
“Alejandro is really nice,” said Melissa seriously, her dark eyes huge.
“He’s good at math,” offered cheerful Julio, himself a struggling reader who was strong in math.
“He helped me pick up my crayons yesterday,” added DeVon.
“Alejandro is funny. And he never makes fun of other kids,” said Angel.
I wiped my hand across my wet cheeks, and my lips trembled as I tried to smile at these young boys and girls.
“Alejandro will have a happy life, because he knows how to treat people well. And so will you all, because you know how to treat people. You are very good human beings, and I am proud to be your teacher,” I said.
Their faces reflected a spectrum of reactions: curiosity, confusion, and pride. Several kids were smiling calmly, not nervous about my crying. It was a little unsettling to recognize the wisdom and depth I saw in those expressions. They were only eight. I wasn’t used to thinking of an eight-year-old as a source of such strength. I felt like I’d stumbled upon the Wizard of Oz and had peeked behind his curtain. But this wizard was different. He was serene. He was happy to let me see how things really worked.
After I sniffled a few more times, I motioned them back to their desks, where they got to work with more focus than usual.
Later that morning, when I heard one child asking another, “Do you need help?” I smiled at her, a silent thank you. I don’t think the class really needed the extra encouragement, though. In all my years of teaching, I think of that group as one of the kindest ones – as a whole – that I’ve ever taught.
Why? What made them different? Aren’t groups – people – basically the same?
When I ask myself what else those kids had in common besides the tendency toward kindness, I realize that many had experienced significant pain. Jackson’s friend had been murdered. Angel’s dad was in prison. Ana’s sister had spent two months in a hospital, with reports that she might never walk again. DeVon’s brother had been hit by a car, and he’d thought his brother was dead. Melissa’s aunt had just lost her three-month-old baby. Each of those kids wrote about these things, and all five cried – a lot – while writing. Their concerned classmates watched with big eyes, sometimes jumping up to go sit quietly beside their distraught friends.
And there were many other kids in the class with significant issues. There were stress-triggered stomach disorders, parents absent from lives, other learning disabilities. Certainly there were other things I didn’t know about.
I find myself thinking about that class a lot, about the roots of their exceptional kindness. Was it somehow a by-product of the suffering that so many individuals among them had lived? When a child has to persevere through pain, can she become more intuitive and responsive when others are hurting, rather than pass on that hurt? I think about the maxim of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I remember another year when many in my class had troubled lives; as a whole, that group tended to be explosive and nervous. But I wonder if it can go the other way. When wounded individuals come together as a group, can the suffering prepare them to be stronger as a whole? As if the pain prepares the soil they stand on, allowing compassion to take root in their midst?
I can’t know for sure about the source of that one group’s magic. But I do know that after they went on to middle school, they’d sometimes return to pick up younger siblings and would greet me with a wave and a smile. And I felt like we shared a secret. Though they’ve since graduated from high school, I still miss them when I think back to that long-ago year. I try to hold on to the warmth that my memory of them brings me.
Because it brings me hope. Sometimes I float away and let myself feel Julio’s easy smile, Melissa’s laughing eyes, Angel’s fierce loyalty, Jackson’s strong spirit, Alejandro’s courage, and his will. I may have taught those children about fractions and punctuation, but they showed me what it looks like to embrace differences whole-heartedly. They modeled for me unconditional acceptance. I saw compassion alive and well in their midst.
I rely on that class as a touchstone now. When I sometimes feel weighed down by heaviness in the daily news and in my own little world, I notice that I hold on to thoughts of my young students from that year. I hear stories of people broken by impossible grief, and all I can do is hope that somehow those people will be surrounded with the kind of tenderness I’ve witnessed from kids who are only eight. I’ve seen there can be remarkable strength in surprisingly small places.
Copyright 2018 Granzella