Slipping Through the Cracks

With all the buzz about my television debut (all two minutes of it) I thought I would take some time this week to talk about my experience teaching chanting -- and more generally with teaching adults.  I am pretty exhausted just now, having been to eight church services in the last three days as we enter Holy Week with a bang, but I wanted to share a sad and inspiring story about one of my first adult students.

Several years ago, I worked for a well-known tutoring center.  I couldn't work in the afternoons and evenings because I taught piano lessons (at that time I wasn't teaching in the classroom yet) which greatly limited the types of students I could tutor: most of our kids were in school, so they couldn't come in until the afternoon.  But one day our center director called me in to ask if I would mind taking on an adult student who wanted to come during her lunch break.  I said I would love to try, and I met her the next day.

Danielle was in her late forties, and she read at about a second-grade reading level.  Yet somehow, she had managed to graduate from high school, and she currently held two jobs: one working for a government agency (where she was promoted just after she started coming to us) and one working for a national banking chain.  Obviously, she had learned some great techniques for managing whatever deficits she had in book learning; she had also raised two children on her own.  In fact, it was her daughter, who was starting college the following year, who had inspired Danielle to seek help.

She was horribly embarrassed about her lack of ability; in particular, her "sight words" (words identifiable instantly; this is one of the easiest ways of measuring a reading level) were far fewer than most of the elementary students we saw.  Having been raised on an urban dialect, she had particular trouble with pairs like "they" and "their."  We went through the words slowly, reading about 20 a day; if she even hesitated for a second, I marked the word and we wrote a flashcard for it.  Then we studied the flashcards until she had correctly, instantly identified it at five different sittings.

It took many weeks for her to get "used to" me, as she put it.  She was painfully shy and awkward at first, never meeting my eyes, staring down at the hands twisting in her lap.  When she made a mistake, it seemed to physically wound her.  Gradually, though, she became comfortable.  I tried to act less like a teacher and more like a friend who just wanted to help.  I think it made it harder that she could have been my mother; I have great respect for students who are able to take instruction from someone so much younger than themselves!

This story doesn't have a happy ending.  Having become comfortable with me, Danielle became fearful of having to acclimate to another instructor.  If I told her I wouldn't be there the next day, she would call in sick too, even though she had already paid for the session.  When I took the classroom job, I told her I wouldn't be able to stay on at the center except for Saturdays, and her face just fell.  Shortly afterwards, she just stopped coming, and eventually the center director stopped trying to get her to return.

I'm not sure what I wanted to say about Danielle, other than that I had mixed feelings about the situation.  On one hand, I was very angry at the teachers she had had over the years, and the system that had let her slip through the cracks, signing her diploma without ever stopping to see if she could read it.  On the other, I marveled at the ability of the human spirit to transcend even these huge gaps in knowledge.  She had figured out a way to get by, and more, to flourish in a society that was largely unintelligible to her.  And most importantly, she had sought help, finally.

Danielle, wherever you are, I hope it worked out for you.  I hope you're reading this.