I did my student teaching in a second grade classroom at an inner city school in the fall of 1971. I was 24, idealistic, and utterly unprepared for the dawning realization that a lot of the teachers there had just given up on these kids, including my supervisory teacher—a nice, very beleaguered suburban lady, nearing retirement.
I loved the kids, though I grew increasingly sad and even despairing as the time went on. I didn’t have the skills, the means, or the authority to do what I saw desperately needed to be done. But whenever I could I tried to find ways to help them, one at a time.
One morning, Dante, a boy I especially liked (despite—or maybe because—the teacher had warned me that he was a troublemaker) was kept in from recess to finish a math assignment he’d rudely refused to do—and I was assigned to stay and make sure he behaved.
It was a beautiful day. The sound of kids yelling and laughing wafted in through the open window. We could hear a basket being dribbled on the asphalt and the swish when it went through the net. I pulled a chair next to Dante, who sat sullenly, his head on his desk.
Trying and failing to engage him, I finally asked, “Why won’t you do your work, Dante?” He looked up, tears rolling down his cheeks and said, “I can’t.”
“Do you want to know something?” I asked. He nodded. “Math is really hard for me, too. In fact, I hate it. But it’s an important thing to learn. Will you try if I help you?”
He said, Yes.”
I still have the note he wrote me a few weeks after my student teaching term was over.“Dear Mrs. Shoup, I love you. Come to me. Dante. We r okay.”
I still wonder what happened to him. I still hope that that little moment in time helped him see that he was way smarter than he’d been taught to believe he was. That he mattered.
Nearly 45 years later, school remains an ineffectual, unhappy place for too many African-American kids. Often learning stops dead the first time they get behind on their reading or math, and there simply aren’t enough teachers and assistants to work with them, one-on-one, to catch up. And they’re lost.
It breaks my heart.
The kids I taught then are in their fifties now. They could be the grandparents of the kids I work with through “Building a Rainbow,” the Indiana Writers Center’s summer learning program at St. Florian’s Leadership Development Camp. I like to think they are.
I like the sense of things coming full circle, too: St. Florian’s camp, where African American children are taught to live in the world by people who cherish them, is held at a school just a few blocks away from the grim, unwelcoming school where I did my student teaching.
My favorite thing about “Building a Rainbow,” now in its sixth year, is sitting down with a kid–like Dante–who’s struggling, who doesn’t believe he can do what we’ve asked him to do. We talk, we brainstorm until a light goes on in his eyes, he picks up his pencil, and bends over the blank page. He’s found his voice. Suddenly, magically, writing seems possible. He shocks himself, writing a page, sometimes more as easily as talking.
Sometimes I just stand and watch. Thinking, hoping that this moment will make him believe other things seem possible, too.
The cool thing is that the room is full of instructors, college interns, and volunteers roaming around, looking for people who need help. The kids adore our interns and often sort of fall in love one or another of them, claiming them as their favorites.
“Mr. Michael, help me.” Miss Kelsey, I need you.” “Miss Rita, I want you to read what I wrote.”
Smiling, eager, their faces as open as books.
May the fact that we’re there help them believe what we know: