One of my favorite kids is a 5th grader on my basketball team. He’s not in my class, obviously, but I adore him. He’s funny and sweet (when he thinks no one is looking) and tries so hard at basketball. At school, however, he doesn’t try at all. In fact, he refuses to try at anything.
There’s a very clear and obvious reason he refuses to try: deep down, this kid is convinced he is worthless. Despite all the wonderful things I know to be true about him, every mistake he makes and every person who understands when he does not is another reminder that he isn’t good enough. It doesn’t help that he has some learning disabilities on top of this, or that he is one of the most stubborn kids I have ever met (if he refuses to do something, he will not do it. Period. And the resultant argument will be very unpleasant for everyone involved). He refuses to read in small groups, or even in the same room as other kids, which means he hardly ever works on reading and falls further behind. His solution is to not try anything, and to put himself down whenever he makes a mistake. After all, if he doesn’t try, he can’t fail. And if he says he’s stupid first, then you don’t get any points for saying it second.
But he will read with his basketball coaches.
The other coach is my legendary mentor, who has been at the school forever and coached forever and everyone knows her and she’s fabulous. So I’m not surprised he will read with her. But I am immensely flattered that he will read with me.
The first time I heard him read, he started off by whispering, “I can’t read.” Sometimes he’ll say self-deprecating things just so I’ll tell him they aren’t true (ask me about the hours we’ve spent arguing about whether he’s a good basketball player). But this time he muttered it, not for effect, but because he wanted to warn me. It broke my heart. He read 2 paragraphs, slowly, painstakingly, with lots of rewriting words on another page and chunking them together. By the end, he was in tears, but he finished the 2 paragraphs.
Today we read again. We went to a separate room from the rest of the kids, and he tried so hard. I told him we were going to read the whole passage today (it’s about 4 paragraphs) and he squawked in disbelief.
“I can’t read all that! I can’t do it!”
“Yes, you can.”
And he did. It took him 30 minutes, but he did it. At one point one of the middle schoolers came in to tell me something, and he froze and whispered, “I can’t read anymore because she’s in here,” but when she left he picked right back up. He finished the whole darn thing, and I was so incredibly proud of him. When I told him so, he gave this tiny little smirk before he fled, but here are the 2 things that almost made me cry:
- This boy honestly believes that he just can’t read, and we had to painstakingly sound out words like “saw” and “fully”.
- He chose to let me see that he was scared and vulnerable, and he chose to work with me in spite of it.