Introduction: This chapter comes near the end of Lesson Plans: Tales of a Teacher, Ricki Miller's first book which deals with some of the interesting characters she's met along the way.
The Japanese have a saying that the nail that stands up gets hammered down. If Jonathan Prescott moved to Japan, he would be flush with the pavement like a Roadrunner cartoon. Its not like I wasnt forewarned. My friend Vicki, a substitute teacher who knew most of the children in school, gave me the lowdown on my class list when I first got it in August.
"As long as you dont have Jonathan Prescott, youre safe. Hes the most obnoxious, ill-tempered kid in the grade. And he can barely read a word. A real behavior problem and a terrible student! Hes a child I just cant enjoy," she told me. I anxiously combed through the names on my list, then double-checked. No Jon Prescott. Whew!
Everyday, throughout the world, morning, noon and night, power brokers are making deals. Some involve movie stars, major corporations, countries or munitions. Big shots with big money are concocting schemes and negotiating in terms that the average person can hardly fathom. Yet, every June and August, other people, mainly women, are making other kinds of deals using a level of competence and a cutthroat tenacity that would impress even the C.I.A., let alone Eisner and Disney. Big shots in the P.T.A. are sitting down with principals and bargaining on behalf of their own corporations: their children. Class placements are changed and promises are made. And so it was that Jon Prescott, a name off my class list in June, became a member of my class by September.
"What do you mean you moved him into my class because you had to?" I demanded of my principal, a nice man with the backbone of a snake when parents are involved. "Look carefully at my forehead. Do you see a sign on it that says All Difficult Children Welcome. Dont you think this class is a little stacked?" He turned red and didnt speak, a sure sign he was guilty. We negotiated, and he removed one troubled boy, but I was still left with Jonathan, the number one problem in the grade, plus more than my share of others. "Hes a very handsome boy," my principal called as an afterthought, as if handsome boys hadnt blinded me and gotten me into trouble before. "Good." I called back. "Youll enjoy looking at him whenever I send him to the office for misbehaving."
Like all fears, I blew this one way out of proportion. When my friend who was his teacher in kindergarten confirmed that he was a terror in her room, the place in my brain where horror stories are manufactured ran amuck. The night before my first day of school, I envisioned Jonathan, the two-headed monster, ruining my life.
He turned out to be tall, cute, older than the other kids (having started kindergarten a year late) and a self-proclaimed Catskills-style comedian despite the fact that he had strawberry blond hair, freckles and skin so pale and sheer that I felt like I could look straight through him. Which of course, I could.
He called out answers all morning and required behavior management constantly, but he was certainly no murderer. He was volatile, and could laugh, cry or beat someone up in a second. The thing that surprised me was how clearly vulnerable he was. The smart-guy, jumping out of his seat, constantly calling out, pain in the neck personality was a thinly veiled disguise for a very embarrassed nine-year-old who couldnt read or write a word. Was he really emotionally disturbed like several of his teachers thought? Or was he so frustrated by being learning disabled that he was always getting into trouble?
Sometime during the first few days of school, I called each child over and had them read aloud to me to get a feel for what level they were at. With Jonathan it was a dance of diplomacy since he couldnt read at all and it was clear that "saving face" was a major component to winning him over. I chose a simple book with few words on a page (the type that 5 and 6 year olds can master) and asked him to read some of it to me alone at the reading table. I had to admire his spunk. He looked at the pictures and concocted a very interesting story, but of course not one word he said was actually printed on the page.
"You seem to have some trouble reading the words, Jon. This must be frustrating for you," I offered.
"Once a dummy, always a dummy," he shrugged. "Im kinda used to it." I noticed his skin getting very pink and his eyes watery. "I have very bad allergies," he confessed while grabbing a tissue to wipe his eyes.
"Seems to me that a smart boy like you should be able to read and write. Its really the schools fault, you know, not yours at all."
"Huh?" he replied while looking up to meet my eyes.
"Well, every now and then, a really special kid comes along who doesnt learn the usual way. His brain is a little different. So the teachers have to find other ways to get through to a kid like this so that he can make the right connections. You know, like when the wires touch and the light bulb turns on? I would really like to help you."
"You think you can get me to read?" he whispered very low so that no one else could hear.
"Oh absolutely. Ill make you a promise. If you try your hardest and dont get discouraged, I will get you plenty of help and youll become a good reader by the end of the year."
"You really think so?" he asked. "I mean, to tell you the truth, I may not be as smart as you think. You know this hasnt worked for a few years already."
"Then I guess its about time. Like the baseball player who keeps striking out, maybe youre due for a home run."
"Well thanks Miss Miller. It was nice reading for you. Or whatever it is that I just did," he added. He returned to his seat and punched the girl sitting next to him.
In the meantime, it was necessary for Jonathan to use the ventriloquist approach when reading out loud in class. He didnt want to miss a turn and I couldnt exclude him without making it apparent that Jon couldnt read, so I asked the boy who sat next to him to whisper the words, and then Jon would repeat them out loud. If Gerard, his buddy, was absent, I'd scoot into his seat and take over. Think of an amateur version of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and thats what it was like. Everyone accepted it as the way Jonathan read, so after a while, no one even thought it was unusual.
Spelling and writing were another story. "You did great," Gerard insisted when Jon furtively showed him his spelling test. Gerard was the smartest and nicest boy in the room and a great friend to Jonathan.
"Yeah, real great Gerard! I got every word wrong. You get everything right and I get everything wrong. Its beginning to get to me." Jonathan looked flushed and started wheezing. He was terribly asthmatic, out from school frequently, and it didnt take much to set him off.
"Sure you got every word wrong, but look at how much less wrong. You used to get every single letter wrong, and now youre only off by one or two at most. I see big improvement Jon. Youre doing better," he said, as he playfully patted him on the back.
"You got a point. Maybe my brain is clicking in," Jonathan admitted.
Later that day, I came into my room during lunchtime to find Mrs. Prescott kneeling on the floor cleaning out Jonathans desk. "Do you think I should take him home?" she asked, while organizing the debris.
"Why would you take him home?" I answered.
"Well Josettes mother is very sick and she sits next to him. If Jon gets sick, he could be out for weeks. With his asthma I can never be too careful."
"I dont think you should take him home, and I certainly dont think you should keep on coming in here to straighten out his desk."
"Oh I dont mind, really. Any other messy kids? Ill clean their desks out too." A few minutes later she found Jonathan and took him home. Mrs. Prescott was a concerned, loving mother who was overprotective and possessed few parenting skills. She let him manipulate her all the time. But this year she became so worried about his poor academic skills that she was ready to listen to me when I made suggestions.
"Let him sit and try to do the homework by himself. Read the directions for him but dont do it. Hes got to feel successful and independent," I instructed her. She was beginning to listen.
Still, he was taught certain values at home that I had a hard time swallowing. We cooked once or twice a month in my room and a small group of children would work with me or a class parent, and make something for a holiday or as part of a unit we were studying in school. The first time I cooked, I put on an apron as did five children and Jon went into his Henny Youngman routine.
"I like my women to serve me when I come home from school, particularly wearing high heels and a frilly white apron. A cocktail before dinner is always nice, followed by some appetizers. Those cheesy things on crackers are good." I started giving him dirty looks, but he just kept on getting louder and more carried away. "The way I really like it is for the women to do all the work, and the men to sit back and smoke cigars. Nothing like a cute girl to serve me! The prettier the better." He was now standing by his seat waving his hands and performing for the room.
"Jonathan, could I please see you out in the hall for a minute? I need to talk to you right now," I called out.
"Sure Miss Miller, anything you say. Maybe you could start wearing high heels to school. Youve got pretty nice legs."
I was fuming, but tried to keep my voice calm. "Why are you acting like such a jerk?" I asked. "Do you realize how insulting you are being to the girls in this class and to me? Im a grown up girl too, you know. Do you really think anyone does anything for you because youre a boy, or because we care if you like how we look? Maybe you think youre being funny, but youre not. Youre being rude. Where do you get off talking like that?"
Jon turned red and started looking at the floor. "My father says things like that all the time, and my mother likes it. She says it makes her feel needed. Its her job to do everything for us."
Now I had to be very careful. "Youre mom and dad grew up a long time ago when more people thought like that. But that kind of thinking doesnt work nowadays for most people, especially kids. You realize that all of us here try to help each other because were friends, not because were girls or boys. From now on, think before you talk," I warned.
"Im sorry. I didnt realize you would get so mad." He turned bright pink. "Youre not like my mom. I dont ever listen to her, and she doesnt care. I dont want you to be mad at me. Youre the nicest teacher I ever had." And then he started blubbering. That was the last time he turned into Hugh Hefner
There was a strong correlation between the improvement in Jonathans reading and his behavior. He became so well behaved that people started asking me if he was on medication.
"He started liking himself and feeling like he could succeed," I explained to the lunch aides who were used to sending him to the office daily for fighting.
"Thats really it?" they asked. "Hes a different boy."
I was always finding really easy books to read with Jon., since he and I had to read alone. He was in a reading group of one. I tried to find humorous books that werent babyish for a nine-year-old. One day in December, I brought in a book about an Anteater named Aunt Eater. Aunt Eater, the anteater, was getting ready for Christmas it began. I thought it was funny. It was the kind of book a first grader who was learning to read could plod through. I was sitting with him at the reading table keeping an eye out for the rest of the class, when I realized that Jonathan was saying the words on the page.
"What did you just say?" I asked him. He started again and this time it was clear that he was reading the words on the page. I flipped a few pages ahead and said, "Try this page." Jon continued to read. He was actually reading! I grabbed him by the shoulders and screamed: "Youre reading. Do you realize that youre reading?" I felt like Annie Sullivan in the Miracle Worker. "Oh my! Everybody, Jonathan can read! I mean on his own, not with anyone telling him the words." They all broke out in applause. The whole class had suffered through the bad times when he was fresh and ill-tempered and got into fights with them. So it was only right that they took some pride in his accomplishments now that he was so much nicer. Jonathan stood up and took a bow.
"It was nothing really," he teased. I called for teachers who knew Jon from other classes to come and hear. The reading teacher came in and we hugged each other. "Whats the big deal?" Jon said, smiling ear to ear. "You said I was going to read and I had a little faith."
We were ecstatic, but far from out of the water. He could now read like a beginning first grader and we somehow had to catch him up to third grade work if he was going to be able to handle the third grade curriculum and pass the statewide reading test. Scores are published in the newspaper and my district had become crazy about the tests, making us give old tests monthly and mark them. We taught reading strategies all the time and it cut into all other subject areas and made us feel awful that we were putting so much pressure on the kids.
At about the time Jonathan was beginning to learn how to read I was giving the class their first practice test. I thought it was cruel to make an emerging reader take a test that consisted of eight stories and 56 multiple choice comprehension questions that ranged from second to sixth grade reading ability, but I was told to include him, so I did. Jon got a score of 20 thanks to his excellent eyesight and ability to read the answers of the kids who sat near him. Monthly his scores stayed the same, because he actually started reading the test and copying less. This was discouraging to him, since we went over the tests together.
"Youre not going to agree with me, but I would like to say something, even though I already know the answer." Jon approached me one day in the spring, waving the latest marked test booklet in his hand. His face looked red.
"Why dont you try me, and ask the question first. Maybe Ill surprise you," I answered.
"Well, you may think this is a very good mark, but I dont. How come I cant pass this test? Everybody else can. Why not me? Im trying very hard." He looked crestfallen.
"Im very upset too, you know."
"You are? I figured youd say this was fine, blah, blah, blah."
"Its not fine. Im very upset that you cant seem to pass the test, but Im not upset with you. Its just a question of getting a smart boy like you to pass the test. You do read very well, Jon. Now you need to learn how to take a test," I added.
Jonathan was a tough guy, and a big shot whom most of the kids really liked. He now walked around the playground telling other kids: "I love school," "I love my teacher," and "Reading is my favorite thing," instead of bopping them on the head. He had become a poster boy for "Bad boy makes good."
When the date for the statewide reading test rolled around in May, we all held our breath. Jon took the reading test alone with the reading teacher in her room, where he was allowed to walk around and take forever to complete it. This was all according to his learning disabled classification. He received a 40 out of a possible 56, a 28 being a passing score. The reading teacher and I jumped up and down, and hugged each other.
"So tell me how you did it?" my friend, Caryn, asked me one day while we were exercising. She was a special education teacher in another school district and had been listening to reports about Jonathan throughout the year.
I mopped the sweat off my forehead. "I did nothing, I swear. I think he was just ready and able to accept everybodys help." I answered.
"I dont believe it." Caryn continued. "Think hard. What did you do? There had to be something."
I was quiet for a while as I kept on race walking. I was thinking to the rhythm of my feet. "O.K. Here it is. There was never any doubt in my mind that he wasnt going to succeed. I had total faith in him. I dont know why, but I did. There, that was it. Thats what I did. I guess I gave him hope."
"Wow," Caryn said. "Wow."
My most successful student almost didnt make it into my class. By what was fair and square, I shouldnt have taught him that year. He proved to be a miracle to me. He renewed my faith in what I do and showed me that sometimes, I could really make a difference. The summer after he was in my class, he sent me a postcard while on vacation. It was written so neatly and spelled so perfectly, that I had to stare at it for a long time before I realized that he, not his mother, actually wrote it. The last line read "I miss you. Love, Your friend, Jonathan."
Power brokers can earn a lot of money and control a great deal. But heres a secret I doubt they know. The most powerful thing you will ever do in your whole life will happen for most of us between the ages of five and seven. You will learn how to read. It wont open windows. It wont open doors. It will break open your world and blast you through the universe. It will make almost anything possible. And you can use it anywhere, even late at night, under the covers, by flashlight, when youre young and want to find out what will happen next. And when youre old and cant get around much, it will help you remember places and things and remind you that youre not alone at all. It will not only change what you can do, but it will change how you feel about the world and yourself. Just ask Jonathan Prescott.
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