As some of you know, I have been tutoring at a Title I elementary school since September. My Augustine Literacy Project training prepared me to teach literacy skills in a proven, prescribed method. But no matter how much training you receive in any subject, you will always encounter situations that you are not prepared for. This is where life steps in. You hope that you have lived enough and felt enough to fill in the gaps seamlessly.
All of my tutoring sessions have been pretty similar. I take out my lesson plan, my student and I follow the steps, my student starts asking about why the sky is blue, gets up and down from his seat, I refocus my student back to reading, and we finish with a book. But woven in every single session, is love and friendship. While working on reading skills, I have also been a friend and a mom. I have been silly, I have been strict, I have been loving, a shoe-tyer, advice giver, and listener. Without all of these components with this one particular child, learning to read would not happen the way it has been happening. He needs more than a literacy tutor. He needs all of me.
However, one session out of the 15 or so that we have worked together was very different than the rest. This was the day I thought I lost him. This was the day my feelings were so hurt and never have my feeling been so hurt by a six year old before. This was the day that I had to move beyond my own feelings very quickly and think of his first.
What usually started off with fist bumps and hugs, started with withdrawn, suspicious behavior. He looked at me differently that morning. He would not focus. He would not sit down. He would not read. I was perplexed. What had happened to all of our progress? He seemed even more perplexed. Then he said it. What had been racing through his mind but too scared to say: “I don’t like you because you are white and you don’t like me because I am black.” There were more related comments from him, all pointing to his first statement. I now know it wasn’t the statement it seemed at the time. It was a question, only he wasn’t sure if it was a question himself.
I was so hurt. It never occurred to me that we would be in this place. I closed my books, put away my tutoring materials, and asked him to sit down and talk to me. I asked him some questions but he just withdrew. It was something he had heard and was now questioning the validity of it. He wanted to know if it was true.
“I think your skin is beautiful and I hope you think mine is too, “ I said while touching his little arm. “And if that were true, I wouldn’t be coming to see you twice a week. I care about you.” I tried to give some more affirmations, but he wasn’t ready to move on.
My heart hurt. I felt weakened by his confusion and my head started to spin. But I quickly realized as he buried his head into his arms, that he was hurting too. As the adult, it was my responsibility to put my hurt to the side and comfort him, to show him that I love him no matter what color his skin is. We talked for the next forty-five minutes about differences, similarities, love, acceptance, and more. When he asked for a sticker, I said no. It pained me to say no but the only thing I wanted to leave him with that day was our conversation. I wasn’t sure how much resonated with him or what he believed. I told him I would be back in two days, then the next week, and all the weeks after.
Before our next session, I went to the library and checked out children’s picture books on race and diversity. I spoke with the librarian about what specifically I was looking for. The following day, my student and I only read these books, once again putting aside our lesson plan. While reading the books, I asked him questions and he asked me some back. With each book, I felt both of our hearts growing lighter. Some of the books we read were:
– “Black, White, Just Right!” by Marguerite Davol
– “Whoever You Are” by Mem Fox
– “It’s Okay To Be Different” by Todd Parr
– “The Skin You Live In” by Michael Tyler
While it was an unexpected bumpy road, I am truly happy we went down it together. After that session I asked, “What does your heart tell you?” He replied with, “To like you.” I told him my heart also told me to like him regardless of any differences. I told him to always follow his heart when in doubt. During our last tutoring session, I was sitting down and he stood up and put his arms around me neck and said, “I love you.” My eyes still tear up thinking about that moment and our journey. You can now see why the Augustine Literacy Project’s homepage says, “Tutor one child…Change two lives.”
The entire experience became teaching moments for my own children as well. We talked about what had transpired over the course of a week for many weeks. I shared my student’s perspective and asked my children for their perspective. Important conversations were held in our home, achieving new depths. Tutoring one child has not only changed my life, it has changed my children’s lives as well. I really hope they all get to meet one day.
So in these weeks of reflection and thanksgiving, I give thanks to my Augustine Literacy student. He has no idea how much he has given to me, to my heart. I am so thankful.