Finding the Octopus
“This cookie…taste….taste like laptop,” Thomas said, tilting his head and smiling at me with gap teeth. Thomas Jefferson had quite a lofty name to live up to, after all his namesake wrote the Declaration of Independence. My Thomas Jefferson didn’t speak much and when he did he usually didn’t make a whole lot of sense. He was small boned and darker than my other students. But it was his words that made him stand out; all jumbled up and framed by a toothy smile.
I’m dyslexic so I understood some of Thomas’s plight, perpetually getting words and lines mixed up and out of order creating a new image. When I was in first grade the words on the page all blobbed together and made blocky shapes instead of meaning. I was chubby with a mushroom haircut so I couldn’t risk any other social dilemmas. Instead, I made up my own stories during read out louds. Rather than Jill and Bill riding the red wagon I decided to entertain the class and cover up the fact I couldn’t read. I inserted new phrases that I had heard about a Bill the night before on TV. “Bill is not having sexual relatives with that wagon.” I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant but I remember my sister saying to never repeat the phrase about “sexual relatives”.
Eventually the letters came into focus for me and I decoded or memorized the shapes of words and fitted them to meaning. But I still experiment with words trying to work out placement with a swing and a miss. A few years ago I was on a first date and told a man that I saw a “defecated building on the way. It was really sad.” When the man spit out his drink I decided I might have used the wrong word. A few days later I realized I meant to say ‘dilapidated’. I ended up loving words.
I met Thomas when I was teaching English in one of the poorest schools in North Carolina. He sat in the back row of my inclusion class. This class was made up of students with learning disabilities, behavioral issues and mainstream learners. On the second day of school Thomas informed me that a blank piece of paper “looks like …like my brother.”
At the time I was a twenty three year old first year teacher. The school couldn’t find another teacher to instruct this class so they put me in there to give it a go.
A boy with a police issued tracking ankle bracelet sat in the front row and next to him was a girl who was thirteen but behaved like a three year old. A lot of the time Thomas didn’t get the attention he needed because I was busy trying to control my class. An average day went a bit like this:
Me: “Your warm up is to describe someone at home in four sentences using four senses, sight, smell, touch, hearing.”
“What about them taste?” Lashawn, a smart-aleck would pipe up, “Don’t you taste someone at home? I see your knees is all red. You down on them knees licking your boy?”
They never taught me how to deal with this in training.
“Absolutely not Lashawn. That’s a call home.”
But no matter how disorganized and disruptive the class was Thomas always entered very astute. He came in and took out his pencil set, used notebook and erasers then folded his hands waiting for me to begin.
He had a special education case manager, Ms. Hoyt. She was a first year teacher too and had about five weeks of training like me. A few months into school I approached her about Thomas.
She invited me into her office that had been a supply closet until the beginning of the school year when the administration kicked the janitor out and put in the Special Education staff. It still smelled like pine-sol solution.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“I had a few questions about Thomas Jefferson. I see on his learning plan he gets extra time for tests and I can repeat directions.”
“Yup,” she smiled, “what is your question?”
“His speech is very fragmented…and it’s…it’s not accurate is it? I mean he told me that a piece of blank paper looked like his brother.”
“I have noticed,” she said hesitantly.
“Does he have a speech diagnosis?”
She pursed her lips together and brushed her wispy hair out of her face. “No,” her voice grew tense, “you know what the budget is like here. The school will never get a speech therapist.”
“What do you think it might be? Did you go over anything like this in training?”
“I can’t really comment, Miss Lovett. Just give him extra time on the test and see if he needs things explained again.”
Why was biddy not going to do anything?
Wait—did I really think biddy? I did. My language was expanding with new vocabulary seeping in. My students introduced me to brilliant new words that seemed to fit certain situations better than any vocabulary I had.
Ratchet was one of my favorite words. Ratchet typically refers to something that is broken down. The kids called my classroom decor ratchet because the shades had taken quite a beating and my posters were torn down after many violent outbursts.
Because I loved to try out new words I practiced a few of them with the kids. One of my favorite students pulled me aside one day and said to me, “Mizz Lovett, you so funny with them up-itdy words. I’ll teach you how to talk black. Bys the end of this year you be twerking.”
I was honored that my student had thought so much as to organize a private tutorial for the two of us. But at the same time I was worried. Did the kids see me as speaking another language? Other teachers used slang, no matter their socioeconomic and racial background, but was it right?
I didn’t want kids to feel there was such a thing as talking ‘black’ or ‘white’. Language comes from our community, our parents and in many ways our socioeconomic background. The student who wanted to teach me how to “talk black” was primarily surrounded by black and Latino peers and only saw white people in a teacher role so they assumed language had set racial profiles. The linguistic rhythms many of my students had been brought up with made a lot of sense and fit together quite beautifully.
However, I also realized that if my students were going to a job interview later on in life, using the word “ratchet” was going to get them an instant rejection.
I knew that Goldman Sachs and Bank of America didn’t care about being linguistically sensitive during their interviews. I ended up teaching with ‘proper’ English and throwing in a piece of slang now and again, when appropriate. I don’t know if it was right or wrong. I still don’t.
What I did know is that for a lot of my students language was hard and English class was the most difficult class for them. Words fit together in a different sequence than they heard at home. A lot of the words that the kids weren’t exposed to were the complex vocabulary of academia.
Sometimes Thomas’s struggle with language was brushed aside as a typical language deficiency that most of the kids had. But I knew it was more than that – something wasn’t connecting. And the odds were already against him so I tried to give him some special attention.
I never questioned Thomas’s intelligence. He loved nature books. Especially the ones made up of photographs with lengthy explanations beside them. His favorite animals were the most ferocious ones – bears – sharks – venomous snakes.
In March I taught my non-fiction unit using National Geographic Kids and picked out all of the most terrifying animals to teach.
In one of my classes I focused on lions.
“What do lions eat?” I asked.
“They eat them boo out,” Lashawn piped up.
“Really? Really guys? We’re talking about lions and y’all have to make it sexual. Come on people at least pretend like you’re ready for the seventh grade.” I paused, “Look in the text. Paragraph three.”
I let the class go silent.
“Carnivores,” I heard a very tiny voice say.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Carnivores,” Thomas Jefferson repeated.
“Yes, yes that’s right Thomas. They are carnivores.”
He nodded, “Eat meat.”
April in the American south is hot. My car air conditioner broke and by the time I got to school I was dripping in sweat.
Inside the school was not much better, legally they were supposed to have air-conditioning but it was broken and when things broke at Wilson they didn’t get fixed. I noticed a lot of the kids still wearing sweatshirts and long trousers. Thomas wore a black sweatshirt everyday and black jeans to match.
Thomas never said that he was hot but had melodramatic pretend faints.
When I lined the kids up for a bathroom trip Thomas would get out of his seat then put his hand over his forehead and collapse back into his chair.
I called his mother to discuss his clothing. The call went as follows:
“Hello, is this Thomas’s mother?”
“Yeah, whose this?”
“This is Miss Lovett his English teacher. Thomas is having daily faints. I think he is just being dramatic. I think it’s because of his clothes—we have—“
“Give em a flooze shot.”
“I can’t give him a flu shot. I’m not a nurse. I think—“
“Give em peptal bismal.”
“I don’t think that’s going to help.”
“Sorry mam I can’t do anything about it. I gotta go.”
At the end of the year Ms. Hoyt gave me some insight into Thomas’s future. She invited me back into the closet office for an end of the year update on my students. The smell of the pine-sol had faded and the room was now cluttered with colorful inspirational posters. She sat in front of a neon pink owl poster that said “I’m a Hoot.”
“I talked to Thomas’s mother. She seems to have some speech issues too,” I said.
“I’ve talked to her too. It could just be education. You know how it is here.”
“It’s really sad. It might be a language processing disorder.”
She shrugged, “Could be but in this school it doesn’t matter what it’s labeled.”
“But I worry about what will happen to Thomas when he gets out of school.”
“Don’t worry about Thomas. He’ll go through the Special Ed department and they do a work placement.” She smiled, “when he gets out he’ll be set up with a job as a janitor or cashier. You know Thomas, he never makes a fuss. He’ll take home a pay check and be happy as a clam. If you think about it he’ll be doing better than most of our students.”
Better than most of our students, better than jail was what she meant. That was why no one in the school thought it was important to teach the language for a cooperate interview, because it was understood that none of them would need to use big words to impress. It wasn’t Hoyt’s fault. She was a first year teacher like me and didn’t have any resources either.
On one of the last days of school I gave the students a writing assessment to gage their personal growth. The question was: What do you want to do with your life? What steps will you take to achieve this goal?
This time Thomas wasn’t writing, he was looking out the window.
“What are you thinking about Thomas?” I asked him.
“I want to go outside.”
“Not right now. Let’s see what about the question? What do you want to do when you grow up? Do you want to work with animals?”
“Go…go on a journey,” he said.
“Do you want to be an explorer? Go on lots of journeys?”
He shook his head, “One big journey,” he paused then added “and see an octopus too.”