The Weight that Forms the Words

The August heat shimmered outside the freezing computer lab on the fourth floor of the comprehensive Bronx high school where I was working a couple of months ago. The building’s distinguished Deco stone work, wide halls and airy ceilings imparted a sense of noble purpose: to nourish the roots of democracy through universal education. Its high-minded pre-war architects could not have known when they designed it that it would meet a sad demise as one of New York City’s “phase out” schools. It was two years away from its funeral, now serving only a rump group of 11th and 12th graders.

My mission, though I am usually deployed as a consultant to teachers and school leaders, was to work directly with summer school students who had failed to pass their required New York State Regents Examinations in Global History and United States History. They would have a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) opportunity later in the summer. While supporting the students, I used the opportunity to develop methods I could later share with the Social Studies faculty: thematic rather than sequential approaches, self-guided packets, and small peer response groups.

The students who trooped in for help were widely varied in terms of their readiness and capacity to absorb the fire hose of facts and concepts that flowed through the courses they had failed. Most were of African American or Latin American origin, residents of the monolithic public housing building that loomed just beyond the windows of the computer lab. (Contrastingly visible beyond the dark and towering project were the bucolic acres of the Bronx Botanical Garden.) Some students, determined and courageous, attended every day. Others drifted in and out like shades in this bureaucratic purgatory, half-way between graduation and consignment to an ambiguous infernal educational zone labeled “failure”.

Through interviews and a practice tests I diagnosed the students’ challenges and set them on individual pathways of study. I organized response groups for them, where they could share their learnings and teach each other. I coached them on various skills in side-by-side tutoring sessions. I gave them feedback on essays. A ray of hope broke through the clouds for some, who were able to check off areas of content they had missed or organize essays that would get them over the scoring hump when they took their tests.

But for most, hope was a delusion. What was I to do with the girl who, looking at a map, couldn’t tell me which way was east, which way west? The many who couldn’t correlate the term “fossil fuels” with “global warming” because they had never heard of, or comprehended, these terms? Or the sweet girl who slipped clandestinely onto popular music sites whenever I turned my back. She was looking for a distraction from the pain of having been thrown out of her house by her alcoholic mother.

While externally I performed with the aplomb expected of a professional, internally I coped with an emotional battle royal: despair for the students, concern for the future of our culture, anger at the way the system had let them down year after year. I could follow the logic of the policy behind the high stakes tests looming like dragons in the near future, but hated how these exams laid waste to the childrens’ sense of accomplishment. I felt guilty that I couldn’t do enough to help them during this tiny window of time. It was, at bottom, an existential dilemma for us all. No matter what I did or how hard they struggled, most of these lost souls wouldn’t pass. Their lives would be permanently crippled.

Thousands of teachers endure what I was experiencing for just a few weeks that summer, only they go through it day after day, year after year, while policy makers grope for solutions. What could possibly save us from this pedagogical perdition?

Years ago I worked with Poet Carol Conroy, who passionately advocated learning poetry “by heart” (surely more soulful than merely “memorizing” verse). After sizing me up, Carol had also recommended to me that I read the poet William Stafford’s work. His poem “At This Point on the Page” came to me as I worked with a student in that summer program who struggled with her writing, which was a mare’s nest of syntactic and semantic confusions. The relevant lines from Stafford’s poem read:

I looked up at her face,

not wanting to read further, at least by prose:

the hand shook that wrote that far on the page,

and what weight formed each word, God knows.

I was able to quit focusing on the Gordian knot of grammatical flaws in her “thematic essay” and look her in the eye, appreciate the sincerity of her youthful face, celebrate the courage she demonstrated in being there, in trying, in opening herself to help, however useless in terms of passing an exam. This human contact, this knowing that someone was with her while she took a baby step in sentence composition was enough for that moment – for both of us, I believe. This would endure beyond any test result I felt sure.