Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Students I Remember: David O.

A few months ago, I decided to change careers, for various reasons that I'll go into another time. This is my last year as a teacher. During my trip to Seattle, I had a chance to think hard about my decision and discuss it with one of my oldest, closest friends, and I'm satisfied I'm making the right decision.

In a little over 16 years teaching in various capacities and settings, I've had a lot of experiences, both good and bad, and had a lot of interesting kids as students. I've decided to tell about them over time in a series.

I started as a substitute teacher in the Chicago Public School system in Janurary of 1991. I'd been working before as a law clerk, waiter, and more recently, a construction worker. Since there was a recession around that time, the waiter and construction work dried up. I had found out that you could work as a sub if you had a bachelor's degree in anything. I qualified.

I'd started classes toward my teaching certification the summer of 1989, but had run out of money. I figured that not only would I be able to make a living working as a sub, but I'd get to know some principals who might want to hire me when I got my certification (which I did in 1998).

The first school I got sent to, my first day subbing, was Ravenswood Elementary, the school pictured at the top of the post. I remember walking into a nuthouse-- children running through the halls, lots of noise and a generally chaotic atmosphere. The school was clearly out of control. Later, I found out that the principal eventually had a nervous breakdown.

I frequently got sent to schools in Cabrini-Green, the notorious housing projects. Those were not fun days. On top of it, I was still in my party days, so there was often a hangover complicating matters.

One day I got sent to Andersen Elementary, in the West Town neighborhood (near Wicker Park). When they found out that I spoke passable Spanish, they were thrilled-- their student body was largely latino. They began calling sub center to request me, which was great-- every day I went there was a day I didn't get sent to Cabrini.

One day, they approached me and asked me if I'd be interested in a long-term assignment-- covering a maternity leave for the last 5 or 6 weeks of the school year. I was. For about a week, I worked with two teachers who were team-teaching a "reading recovery" program. One of them was young, latina and very pregnant. The other teacher, whom I was going to be working with when the other teacher left was a grizzled, old white veteran of the system. I was going to handle the day to day running of the classroom while she worked individually with kids in another room.

The first odd thing, to me, was that she was adamant that the kids were not allowed to go into the very nicely stocked classroom library. I found that odd-- that a bunch of kids who were struggling with reading were not allowed access to books.

The other thing that was odd was the presence of David O. David stood out from the other kids for a couple of reasons. First, with the exception of one Ukranian girl, David was the only non-latino kid in the class. He was black.

The other reason David stood out was that, unlike the other kids, he could read. In fact, he read very well.

David was probably one of the best-reading first-graders I'd seen in my time as a sub. He was polite, likable and well-behaved, but clearly bored with the assignments we had, which were ridiculously easy for him. I made the command decision to ignore the other teacher's instructions and let David spend most of his day reading in the off-limits classroom library. I put a chair where he could sit and read serrepticiously-- the other teacher couldn't see him as she popped in and out of the room all day.

One day, David showed up to school with a handful of rocks he'd picked up as he walked to school that morning with his older brother. I spent a couple of minutes talking to him about the rocks, pointing out one that I was pretty certain was volcanic-- formed by a volcano, as I explained to David. I told him that the study of rocks was called "Geology" and that I was pretty certain that there was a book on Geology back in the library.

The day started up, and we went through our routines. David walked up to me, clutching the Geology book I'd told him about. He said "Mr. Yen, I think that is an igneeus rock. It says here that rocks made in a volcano are igneeus rocks." (he was accenting the middle syllable of the word "igneous"). In astonishment, I told him that he was correct, and I told him the correct pronunciation of the word (first syllable emphasized). He went back to the library to continue reading about Geology.

Let me remind you that this was a supposedly non-reading first grader.

I was left to ponder again why in the hell was he in that classroom?

I got my answer a few weeks later.

It was nearly the end of the schoolyear. The rosters for next year's classes came out. A first-grade teacher whose classroom was across the hall from the one I worked in was looking at her roster as I stood nearby. "Good," she blurted out. "David O. ain't in my class next year." I questioned her-- "I've got David this year. He's wonderful. Why wouldn't you want him in your class."

"That damned kid don't do nothing but read. Every time you turn around, he's reading!"

I was stunned speechless. What an awful, stupid thing to say. And to make matters worse, she was black, like David.

It dawned on me that he must have been in her first-grade classroom at the beginning of the year; she'd dumped him into the reading recovery classroom to get rid of him. She was being reassigned to second grade and was glad she wasn't getting him again.

If I'd had my wits about me, I'd have come up with the perfect riposte: "Yeah, it'd be much better if he's doing something productive, like gangbanging."

At that moment, though, I thought, "Yeah, thank god David's not in your class next year."

That was about 15 years ago. I have worked in the Chicago Public School system at times in my teaching career and have seen incompetent teachers like her continue to teach. And at times I've seen hard-working, excellent teachers worn down by idiot administrators.

David is now a young man somewhere, and I think of him once in a while, and wonder how he has fared in life. I certainly hope that the teacher who disparaged him has retired, and isn't around any more to discourage intelligent kids. And there's a hope inside of me that David is in college, perhaps studying to be a scientist. Who knows-- maybe even a Geologist.


bubbles said...

Oh JY, what a heart wrenching story!

Last year Thing 3 was in 2nd grade. The poor guy had gone through all the stuff I've written about... then he got the absolute worst excuse for a second grade teacher... she was completely self absorbed. Which was annoying, but then when I started hearing the way she spoke to the kids I honestly felt that she was verbally abusive.

In my opinion, a person in a leadership position like teaching should regard themselves as someone leaving a permanent mark on someone - much like a parent, and behave accordingly. Kids spend so many hours with their teachers...

My son was so frustrated and bored. He drifted off task, and she made it worse by keeping him in from recess, speaking inappropriately to him... Thank heaven he is Thing Three (and not One)... I had enough experience to identify that he is an exceptional student, and I insisted having him evaluated, in spite of her objection, and objection, and objections. He tested off the charts...

Sorry, this is better for a post than comment! Suffice to say, it is heart wrenching to hear about teachers like that. I'll bet you made a memorable difference in his life!! Kids know who is rescuing them, and it sticks. I know that my son really, really loves his teachers this year, and regards them as 'rescuers'. He mentions it at least once a week.

Cheer34 said...

What a great story about David, not so much about the other teacher. We have had our experiences with 2 really horrible teachers, several adequate, and maybe 4 great teachers. Administrators are another story. The great teachers are remembered with fondness and the knowledge of the positive impact on us, the bad are remebered with laughter regarding the dim witted antics they performed. The adequate just faded away.

I think David will remember you as a great teacher.

SkylersDad said...

Great story, as are all of your stories Johnny. David was quite fortunate to have had you in his life.

Keeping students from the reading materials sounds just like the movie I recently saw, Freedom Writers.

Don't know if you saw it, or what your opinion of it is, but I thought it was quite good!

Unknown said...


I hope things did worked out for David. If he continued reading like that, maybe they did (optimistically).

Nice post.

Moderator said...

Teachers don't get paid enough. Hopefully, David is doing something worthwhile like blogging.

Valerie said...

I would've Googled David O. by now...

(nice story)

Anonymous said...

Trust me, if he kept reading he didn't get lost in the pack. If it's one thing that any child should embrace it is read widely, deeply, and as often as possible.

Enjoy yur last year teaching. You will miss the kids but chances are you won't regret leaving.

Johnny Yen said...

Anon. Blogger-
I think my son had the same teacher for 4th grade! That's for a whole other blog post. This lady lost papers, humiliated kids, arbitrarily gave grades based on her personal feelings about them, etc. My ex and I started investigating and documented five years of this behavior. We got her pulled out of the gifted program, and the scrutiny that our entreaties to the upper echelon of the Chicago School system to investigate ended up with the principal who'd been protecting her getting caught stealing. Like I said, another blog post.

I don't know for sure about that, but I will certainly always remember him as a great student.

Skyler's Dad-
Funny, I've always thought I was fortunate to have him in my life.

Freedom Writers was actually the inflight movie on the way to Seattle! I was resistant to it at first-- another heartwarming story in which the wonderful white teacher saves the minority students. I did end up getting caught up in it and enjoying it.

Thanks! I have a feeling David did fine. He had a very smart older brother who kept an eye on him.

We don't.

I'm sure he is doing something worthwhile.

Wait, I blog for free. Can I get paid for it?

Thanks. I would, but I can't remember how his last name was spelled. It's been 15 years. I did, however, Google the name of a co-worker from the past-- that'll be today's post.

I've had that discussion with many teachers-- if we can get them reading, the rest becomes a lot easier.

And yes, I think you're right on both counts.