Teachin' For America

Thoughts and otherwise on one particular Teach for America experience.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


     My heart aches for Dontrell.  It breaks and bleeds on a daily basis.  Every morning when he spots me on the playground and cheerfully runs over to say a smiley, messy-faced, and nearly unintelligible good morning, I notice his unwashed uniform, his inability to keep his mouth closed and control his saliva, and his blissful ignorance that anything could possibly be wrong.  I notice his huge fucking smile and hope to myself that it will never go away.  Because if Dontrell ever learns what I know- or think I know- about him, he might not ever want to smile again.  If he ever realizes that the universe is dealing euchre and he ended up with all nines and tens, he might quit playing.  And as much as my heart breaks when I see him now, it won’t even be able to heal if he stops smiling.
     Dontrell is a young man with mental retardation who is quite low-functioning.  His communication is essentially limited to vowel sounds and gestures, so he relies heavily on context to get his point across.  When his point is not in his immediate vicinity and he is unable to gesture concretely, he relies on repetition and the intuition of his listener.  It’s frustrating for everyone involved.  I think this has a lot to do with why Dontrell can, at times, be very bothersome and demanding when he wants something or when there is a point he wants to get across.  While his points don’t tend to be outrageously sophisticated- he typically wants a Kleenex or to go get on the bus- they are certainly of a higher order than the sounds and gestures he is able to use in order to make them.  And that must be so, so frustrating.  I get frustrated when my blog entries turn out to be crap.  Dontrell gets frustrated every time he tries to communicate.
     But at the same time, he only rarely lets this frustration show.  He lives his life happily, patiently telling his clueless teacher over and over again what he wants or needs.  He cheerfully completes his mundane assignments, holding the pictures he is so frequently asked to draw over his head with a prideful smile.  They way he looks to me for affirmation strikes at the core of my teacher-being.  And I know that if he ever comes to the realization that he was asked to draw that picture because his teacher failed to come up with a more enriching activity for him, if he ever gets tired of having to ask seven times for a goddamn Kleenex, the smile will fade.  It will have to.  Who could possibly keep smiling while dealing with that much frustration?  I imagine what Dontrell would do if he were as aware of his disability as I fancy myself to be.  If instead of being proud of his drawings he became frustrated, like I am now, that he is not doing more.  If instead of simply trying again when I failed to understand him he simply threw up his hands and decided he would have to get what he needed for himself.  I imagine these things and I see a very unhappy young man.  One who might not be able- and would have no good reason- to look past the proximate problems of his disability to the possibilities of his ability.  And I am thankful that he is unaware.
     I am thankful that he is unaware that his mother is essentially illiterate.  I am happy that he doesn’t seem worried, like I am, that he will never learn to read either.  I don’t want him to wonder how it can be possible for a boy in his situation to do anything but be under someone’s care for the rest of his life.  I don’t want him to worry, as I do, that without support at home he will never be able to make any significant academic gains.  And I don’t want him to worry about the role his mother might be playing in keeping him from making those steps forward.  I don’t want him to know that a child with his cognitive ability born to wealthy parents would go to a school specially designed for teaching students like him.  I don’t want his heart to break, like mine does, with the weighty realization that he has been served a heaping pile of disadvantage on so many levels.  
Dontrell does not just have to deal with mental retardation.  His concerns go beyond just dealing with the frustration of being unable to get his point across.  There are other things to face besides arriving at school every day with a dirty uniform because poverty prevents its cleanliness.  He cannot focus only on the lack of help with his schooling at home.  These are all things I see, one or more at a time, in each of my students every single day.  And my heart breaks for each of them.  But my heart breaks many more times over for Dontrell, in whom I see so many more of these disadvantages.  In front of whom I see so many walls standing.  And by whom I am constantly relieved and continuously forced to reexamine my evaluation of what exactly it means to be disadvantaged.  
Dontrell’s heart doesn’t break every day.  He doesn’t worry about all of the things I worry about.  As disappointed as I may be that I have asked him to draw another picture today, Dontrell is still proud of what he has produced.  He eventually gets his points across, looks forward to going home to his mom at the end of every day, and can always be counted on to do his best at any assignment that’s given him.  I won’t say that his ignorance is bliss.  I can’t be sure to what degree his is actually ignorant.  But I will say that as much as my heart breaks for this little boy to whom life has given nothing but lemons, I am also happy every day to share his lemonade.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your words about Dontrell broke my heart also. It is a remarkable illustration of the unbearable sorrow and great joy of the human condition. The mercy is that Dontrell is not aware of his disadvantages, and that you are. You are made to see the full range of human potential and to strive to fulfull it. Dontrell is made to see the joy of his own drawing and of his mother's face, and yours. With knowledge comes choices; with choices comes happiness and frustration. Make the most of your time with this boy.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Jeff Pickell said...

I certainly hope the person who made the above post was either a venerable relative, one of your former professors, or the old man who listens to the radio at the bus stop, because they are the only people who have licenses to post stuff about the human condition and other such things concerning emotions.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, Jeff, Jeff. Yes, I am a venerable relative; you've got me pegged! And if it was presumptuous of me to speak of the human condition, well, venerability has its priveleges!

8:00 PM  
Blogger PM said...

Oh my gosh, Jeff is talking to my venerable relatives.

8:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your ANONYMOUS venerable relatives.

9:14 PM  

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