So the last time I wrote about this topic I talked about the rare moments in an educator’s career that keep us coming back to work each year.
To refresh your memory, I referred to those rare moments where through all the struggles, hardships, joys, and pains make it all worthwhile.
The precise moment in a student’s life where the light of learning “turned on?” and whether or not you (or I in my case) would notice it if you were there.
The last time I talked about this here on this page I talked about the most recent time I had that experience and one I would remember and cherish for the rest of my life.
Well, I am proud and humbled to say that last year I had two of these experiences….. in the same school year.
Allow me to tell the story.
Remember (refreshing your memory) that “due to factors out of my control, and above my pay grade, I had to teach classes as well as complete my administrative duties each day.” Last year, I taught in a primary special education classroom, but the bulk of my experience is in high school classrooms.
Look at the picture to your right.
Say hello to Dewan Smith.
Yes that’s right, that’s his actual name. More on that (as to why you see his actual picture and know his real name) later. Beautiful boy isn’t he? I get goose-bumps at his smile when I saw it every day.
Dewan came to my class with a slight autistic disability, but with significant learning disabilities. He, as a few of the other students, was also an emerging reader, knew almost no sight words, and couldn’t write anything other than tracing letters and copying words given to him. He could not add or subtract even the simplest of problems and had a non-existent number recognition skill. He literally could not do much of anything.
And he was in the second grade.
Just as with the other student, Marc, I began to teach him and really work through his struggles though in this case and unlike the other student, Dewan was extremely apprehensive in trying to do anything independently. He was so used to “looking cute” and having things done for him and having the answers given to him that when it came time to “stretch his academic limits” he fought back tooth and nail.
And OH BOY, did we fight, argue, yell, scream, push and push back with the learning.
He wanted to be the baby boy and not do his work, I wanted him to be the young smart man I knew he could be and do his work well.
I would try to teach him his sight words and teach him to read books at the kindergarten level to begin with and he was having none of that. He wouldn’t even try to read. Even his classmates begged him to try.
I told him “I don’t care what you say, just try to read. You won’t grow as a reader, or as the good student I know you can be if you never try!”
His strength was in auditory comprehension. He could tell you things about what he had heard but in no way could he express himself in written form. I often told him “I know you can get this because you can tell me about it with no problem long after I tell you about it.” Dewan would just smile and give his usual cute little laugh, but still would barely try to do any work unless he could get someone to do it for him.
My aide and I used to both push him and tell him to try on his own and that we were not going to do his work for him. He would cry, pout, fall out on the floor, and throw a tantrum but we never backed down because we both knew that when he learned to work independently, he would grow by leaps and bounds.
Day after day, month after month this went on. I would see little spurts of success here and there, and when I complimented him, he would revert back to his former self in the shell with the baby smile that just melts your heart.
Pure manipulation. Though frustrating at times it was very cute to see.
And I couldn’t get enough of it but I would never let him know that.
We had a phone in the class and I would have to call his mother often to the point where she just began to pop up at will. She frequently told me “something told me inside to come to the school because your son (that’s what she called Dewan) wasn’t acting right.
His mother (who has since become a good friend) was in and out of my class daily. Part parent, part classroom volunteer, part enforcer to her son, we worked hard to push Dewan and bring out the intelligent young man that was trapped inside him.
Even though I pushed him hard with his work, Dewan was always extremely pleasant to me and all his peers. He spoke to me every morning with the most adorable smile and heartfelt greeting with a sunny grin and hug to match. He also would ask what I was going to teach him each day and begged for me to give him work to take home, however I didn’t do that because I knew his family was doing his work for him. I spoke to his mother about that and she said in the shyest voice, “I know I baby him, he is my only son. I know I tend to do it for him but I just want him to do well.” I had to tell her constantly that doing the work for him was holding him back and unless she lets him try (and sometimes fail) he won’t grow because he will always wait for someone to do things for him. She thanked me and said she would work on that, which she did.
Every day I would pull some of the older students in the class for a reading group. I had Dewan sit with the group, with a copy of the story and listen but not ask him to read it because it was above his reading level. Though he was slowly learning new words and how to recognize them, he still could not fluently read even short pieces of text. Soon, his classmates began to ask Dewan to read sentences of the stories and even help him with pronouncing the words. Dewan would try, many times making mistakes, but making progress nonetheless. Through working with me and with his classmates, Dewan began to develop more confidence and started volunteering to try to read parts of the stories in the reading groups. He even began to decode unfamiliar words using strategies he learned in class. This made his classmates proud and they gave him encouragement each day which also gave Dewan much joy.
It was a pleasure to see.
Over time, Dewan started trying to read books, mostly at the kindergarten and first grade level, and with his mother in class on some days, he took pleasure in demonstrating how his reading was improving to her by reading aloud. She asked me to send more stories home and when I did, he would come to school the following day beaming over how much he read the night before. He even demanded to show me that he was not only learning how to read, but that he was understanding what he read by telling me summaries about the stories given to him.
One day during the final month of the school year, Dewan and I were reading a short story, one he had not seen and heard before. Dewan read some paragraphs, and I read others. Just like before with Marc, my attention became distracted and I looked away but what pulled me back to pay attention to Dewan was that I noticed that he just kept reading the story himself with no difficulty on his own. He looked at me, eyes beaming with that smile that melts the heart and said: “I’m reading all by myself!”
Once again, right at that precise moment I could see that the learning light within him turned on.
The story was at the second grade level.
And I had to fight back the tears of joy that began to stream down my face.
The next day, Dewan’s mother came to the class (she had since began to volunteer in the class on a regular basis) and when she came in I asked her to sit down because I wanted Dewan to make me proud again by showing her what happened yesterday. I called Dewan over, and asked him to read the story he read the day before. One that he had never saw, and one I didn’t send home for him to read for homework with his mom.
Dewan began reading, and as each word exited his mouth, a tear formed in his mother’s eye until she was crying with utter joy. She looked at me, her face flush red, tears flowing down her face and said: “I have waited for this day for so long! I prayed every day and night for this day, where I would see and hear my son read!”
And we began to cry together.
Her dream of seeing her son read and learn had been realized.
She thanked me for all my hard work, though I really didn’t want the credit since Dewan was the one who put in all the effort to learn to read. I was just there for the ride….so to speak.
The next week our school had its award assembly. I lined up my class when it was my turn to present their awards and gave a brief description on what each student did to earn their award. When it was Dewan’s turn to receive his award, I called his mother to stand next to her son, and told the same story you just read today.
I was honored to present him with the award of “most improved reader” in my class. I also told the story to the audience of what we went through that school year.
As I told the story, I choked up again and cried with joy.
So did the parents in the audience.
So did the staff.
So did other students.
And so did his mom.
The look of pride on his mother’s face was priceless.
When I say there was not a dry eye in the room that is an understatement. Everyone cried tears of joy for someone who truly deserved it. The feeling and positive energy in the room was amazing and heartfelt.
It was a moment I will never forget.
As I have said before, we as educators often describe moments where our students are learning and what happens in that moment. But when we are there on the exact moment where the learning begins, it truly is a special experience. One I am humbled to have experienced twice last school year.
Dewan’s mother is a very spiritual person. Though I am not as much as her, I can say I have been blessed to have met her and to have been able to teach her child and be there when he was able to read at his grade level 10 months after he was not able to read at all. She tells me all the time that things happen for a purpose and though I say those moments are extremely rare, I know she would disagree with me and tell me that there is a plan and purpose for everything. I simply feel privileged that I was there to experience his “learning light” turning on and I will cherish that moment and respect that it was given to me.
You may be wondering how Dewan is doing currently.
He is in the third grade, reading material at the second grade level.
He is still the most beautiful, pleasant boy you will ever meet.
And I couldn’t be more proud.
This school year I don’t have a class to teach every day and I miss teaching him dearly. There is something about being there when a student is growing that just warms you up inside. It can bring an inner peace and an outward aura that shuts out all the issues that we as administrators (and educators) go through each the day.
There are days I where I just cant get enough of teaching kids.
Because above and beyond everything we deal with on a daily basis, what really matters are the students we are charged to educate every day!
So why did I use his real name and picture?
Because Dewan Smith deserves it.
And because Ms. Smith insisted that I tell this story.
“Everyone who has a child, especially those with autism, and has wanted to give up thinking that their child just won’t get it needs to hear this story” she told me.
“Just tell them that they shouldn’t give up. It may take a while, but their child will get it eventually, just like Dewan did.”
“Tell them because there are others struggling with the same issues and could really use the inspiration that Dewan’s story can bring to them.”
I have been going back and forth with that request for months on whether I think I should use his real name and picture, but I can’t escape the conclusion that she is right.
We only have few opportunities as educators or even as human beings to touch and inspire the lives of others. As Dewan’s teacher, more so than being the assistant principal, I know that what is truly important is that whether good or bad, day in and day out, everyone has a special gift and can learn more than they realize as long as they have someone who believes in them. In every moment where we are dealing with children, there are times we want to give up and quit. It is precisely during those times where (as Ms. Smith would tell me) life shows you that our efforts are very much worthwhile and that we all have a purpose in life.
As I said in the previous time I wrote about this topic about Marc and am referring to Dewan this time: I miss having him in class and sincerely hope I have the opportunity to teach him again. If not, I will cherish the moments I was with him and appreciate that I was able to experience twice in the same school year, the rare moment a young man began to realize he could learn.
Until that day, let me say “Good luck Dewan!” I look forward to watching you grow into the intelligent, successful young man I always knew you could be!