From my earliest memories, I always wanted to be a teacher. I had one aunt specifically that I aspired to be like. I would stand in my basement with my very own chalkboard and pretend to teach my students (who were really just my collection of stuffed animals). I could do it for hours on end and never get tired of it.
When I finally went to college, I declared my major from the start – Elementary Education. I wasn’t one of those kids that fulfilled their gen-ed requirements while trying to figure out what I wanted to do; I knew from the time I understood that I’d need a job in the real world that teaching was my passion. (Funny side note: I graduated but with a bachelor’s degree in communication. #whaaaat!??!)
It took me awhile, but I eventually got a job at the local junior college teaching Remedial English to the incoming freshman. I LOVED EVERY SINGLE THING ABOUT MY JOB. Many of the kids came from troubled backgrounds and very little money. They had built an armor of protection around them that often came across as rude and uncaring. But one of the things that made me love English the most was the fact that they were required to open themselves up through writing. Somehow turning a paper in allowed them the safety they needed to be honest about their innermost thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams.
Just like Patrick in Reading with Patrick, I had a specific student that I connected with from the very beginning. Cliff (**not his real name) came to the first class with pants sagging below his bottom, several gold chains hanging from his neck, and a flat-billed cap cock-eyed on his head. He sat at the back of the classroom, an ear bud in one of his ears. I asked him to remove the ear bud and he gave me a look that conveyed his disrespect, and mistrust, but he did it.
His first essay was the bare minimum and offered no self-reflection or effort to gain any insight from the assignment. After getting the second essay assignment, I noticed him sitting in the back of the room thumbing through various social media accounts on his phone. I walked to the back of the room, knelt beside him, and tried to pry something out of him that may begin to motivate him. His assignment was to write about someone who had demonstrated kindness to him.
He looked at me blankly and said, “I don’t have anyone who did that for me.”
Of course, my first instinct was that he was being lazy and just didn’t want to work on it. I offered some suggestions – a teacher, a coach, a friend? He shook his head no.
“My daddy left ‘fore I was even born,” he replied, with disgust in his voice.
My heart broke. Instantly (and maybe a bit stupidly), I realized that these kids were not blessed with the childhood I had growing up. They didn’t have the luxury of taking things for granted – simple things like the love of their parents.
“How about your mom?” I was grasping for any relationship – anyone – that could possibly help this young man complete his assignment.
“All she do is work. She don’t care.”
“Why do you think she works all the time?”
Cliff just stared at me. Finally, he gave a small shrug; he truly didn’t understand.
“Do you think she was doing it because that was the only way she could put food on the table for you and your siblings? Do you think she was trying to make money so she could buy you clothes? A phone? To give you a home? She obviously is doing it on her own if your dad isn’t around.”
He sat back, silent, and a single tear slowly rolled down his cheek.
“I never thought about it like that.”
Cliff was a different kid from that day forward. He began coming to class dressed in button-down shirts with the biggest, happiest smile on his face. He laughed and joked; the tough exterior was gone. Sadly, I lost touch with him after our semester together, but I find myself thinking of him all the time, wondering – hoping – he’s ok. I have no way to know so I send a silent prayer up and hope it somehow reaches him.
Reading with Patrick was a story that made me miss my teaching days. It reminded me of the incredible people who devote their lives to minimal pay and thanklessness because they have a passion for kids that trumps their monetary desires. It’s a story of heartbreak and despair, but also one of hope. It reminds its readers the power of just one person and what can happen when we believe in each other. This book also continues the conversation about institutional racism and the devastating consequences of our educational system – especially in the more disadvantaged neighborhoods.
This would make a great book club selection, and it would also be a great addition for those looking to expand their diverse reading.