I pull "Billy" away from his beloved butterfly drawings to practice reading. Away from the round table and hard-backed, upright chairs, onto the black imitation leather sofa. He doesn’t like this sofa; his small body gets swallowed in the sponginess.
Our book today has bright, oversimplified pictures that cover each page with images of space ships, space suits and astronauts. I wonder what this boy from West Oakland knows about astronauts. Can he relate to the book or the title: I Want to be an Astronaut? He has mastered The Cat in the Hat, our other option, which is hardly more socially relevant. I recall from my two-hour training that kids need some challenge.
I hold the book and point to words, as Billy settles into reading slowly aloud. I have to remember not to touch him, though the mother in me wants to put one arm around his shoulder.I recall our second meeting when he ran to greet me with a big smile on the crowded playground, taking my hand. I had quickly abandoned my promise not to touch a child. "Anyone can see this is not sexual harassment," I rationalized, taking his hand in return. But now, in the teachers’ lounge the only quiet, and at the moment unused, place in this bustling school) I am more conscious of my signed promise and more restrained from touching.
Billy has some ability to sound out words, but little confidence. With encouragement, he can figure out viss and it; making the leap to "visit" is another matter. (As in "visit outer space.") English is a frustrating and difficult language to learn. So many words don’t sound the way we spell them. How do any of us really learn to read?
We stumble through "gravity", and I stop to explain the concept, not sure if he gets it.His sweet face does not change expression or light up with understanding. Is it lack of comprehension or a mask? How much is he really learning in this school? His teacher has been out for months, the class shuffled between a variety of subs. Some days they are split into two groups and sent to join other, crowded classrooms whose dedicated teachers are feeling the strain.
We do make it through the whole book. It occurs to me that he could gain more confidence from a second reading, so I suggest he read it again. A quiet boy by nature, his defiance never overt, Billy is not buying my suggestion. He slumps his little shoulders and hangs his head way down. When I persist in the notion, he begins to sniffle softly. I say encouraging words, but don’t give up on a second go round. More sniffles; more collapse. As gently and objectively as possible, I ask, "Billy, is this what you do when things are difficult? You pull inside yourself and try to make everything go away?" He begins to cry.
Am I wise to push and torture this boy? I am flying by the seat of my pants, trying a new approach. I fish in my tutoring bag for a Kleenex and offer it. He wipes his nose and dabs at his dark, soft eyes–bright spots in his dark face. I tell him that if he can learn to read better, his whole life will be easier. He tells me that his neck hurts. Since I can’t touch him, I advise him to rub it a little where it hurts. He takes the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and plucks one-quarter inch on the front of his neck like a guitar string. It would be funny if not so poignant!
I tell him we are going to read the book again, that I know it is hard for him, that I will help him, and we will do it. I sense that this level of caring combined with expectation is new for him. We are both in uncharted territory.
His left hand covering one eye, he begins slowly to read, through the sniffles. I am adrift between relief and guilt, but we continue. "I know how hard this is for you, and I am very proud of you," I say during a page turning. He reads, sniffles, and reads a little more. I tell him that if he will finish the book, I have something very special to give him.
Billy has finally accepted this second reading. He picks up a little speed and confidence with the last few pages. When he finishes, he immediately stands. With great energy and purpose, he goes to the table and begins a new picture with the felt pens. Unlike his earlier drawings, carefully, beautifully copied from the butterfly scarf on the table, this is his own creation.
As I watch him, I reflect on my own surprise decision to give him the scarf. When I purchased it in Pacific Grove I had intended it as a gift for a friend with a butterfly garden. (Its heavy cotton, bandana-shaped fabric portrays elaborately colored and labeled authentic butterflies, each one different.) But after buying it, I thought about Billy’s love for bugs, especially butterflies. I began bringing it to each weekly tutoring session. He would make drawings from the pictures on the scarf. I would write something on his drawings like, "Mourning Glory, drawn by Billy Jefferson, May 4, 2001," and he would proudly read my labels.
Today, watching him struggle so valiantly against his own resistance, I felt he had earned it. Right now he is drawing with no thought of a gift.
His page comes to life with bugs–a large spider and web on the right side, an upright ladybug holding a huge stick with many branches, a grasshopper. A huge, colorfully decorated caterpillar is suspended like a circus safety net. At the top, above the very substantial caterpillar, he is drawing a man. Now the man gets butterfly wings. The wings consume the available space. He fills them in with glorious, bright, symmetrical stripes.
We scarcely notice the school bell, an irritating electric buzz signaling the time for Billy to go home and me to go back to my "real" job. We linger a little as he adds antennae and other details.
When I tell him I want to give him the scarf he seems quietly pleased. "I want you to have this picture," he says, with more obvious pleasure, holding it out to me. "I am very happy to have it, " I respond, smiling and putting it carefully into my binder. I fold the scarf so it fits back into the small, flat brown paper bag from the museum in Pacific Grove.
I hand it to him with a few additional words. "Sometimes when you make yourself do very hard things, good things happen afterwards."
About Judy Phillips
Judy Phillips works as a Senior Management Analyst for the Oakland Housing Authority. She spends some lunch hours tutoring third graders in a school near a newly-renovated public housing authority development. Judy is the proud mother of three wonderful adults and has two delightful grandchildren. She loves children, the out-of-doors, and life in general.
(The child’s name has been changed in this story to protect his privacy.)