56 / 365 – Mission

PAM TILLARY

It was the end of the 60s and there were lots of protests on campus. I didn’t want to protest, but I wanted to do something worthwhile. I ended up at a neighborhood center, reading to kids who had somehow gotten to fifth or sixth grade without being able to read a word. They were tough kids, for fifth and sixth graders, black kids, kids who had lived a different life than I had known. I was supposed to be helping them learn to read better, but that lasted just the first afternoon or two. We were sitting around and getting nowhere, the kids just making jokes and snickering. Thinking back on it, I’m surprised I wasn’t scared of them. Maybe I was. I would be if I were sent into a place like that now. Scared or not, they weren’t getting anything out of me trying to get them to read, so I stopped and I made some joke at myself, I was obviously hopeless at this. And everyone laughed and I said, “How about I just read you something?” And they were OK with that.

I picked up something they had lying around, one of those terrible books that are supposed to help you learn to read but that nobody would learn to read on because they’d be so bored, they’d figure, what’s the point? I started to pick up books from the Dane County library on my way over there, books I liked. I remember reading them Where the Red Fern Grows. When the dogs fight with the mountain lion and don’t survive, all those tough boys were looking down, trying to figure out a stealthy way to dry their eyes. I remember one kid, they called him Loney, I don’t even know if that was his real name or not. He was tall and he was the toughest. I had the idea he didn’t go home very often, just got by showing up at his grandmother’s house, his uncles. The day after we finished Where the Red Fern Grows, he sort of hung around afterwards, fiddling around, like he wanted to talk. I wanted to ask him what was up, but you never talked direct like that to this kid, not if you wanted an answer. He made small talk, I don’t even remember what about, but finally he said, “Miss Mason — that was my maiden name — Miss Mason, that book made me wish I had learned to read.” I said, “Well, you still could. We could start it over and read it together. You stay around after I read to everyone and we’ll try it.” I didn’t really think he’d do it, but the next day when the kids were leaving to go out to the rec room to play pool, he pretended he was helping straighten the room, and then we read. I think it took us an hour to read a few sentences, and I thought, “Oh, he’ll never do this again.” But the next day he was back.

He kept at it. It was impossible. Sometimes he had to think through the sound of each letter and then he’d painfully put it together. Just to piece together a story of a boy and his dogs, a boy living a life a lot freer than this kid had ever had.

Then one day he he wasn’t there. Another boy told me he’d been picked up for something and he was in juvenile detention, “juve,” he called it. I never saw him again.

But he had touched me. I knew then I wanted to teach. Tough kids, they scare us and we write them off. They won’t do what we want. We think they’re stupid or they can’t learn. We make up reasons why this is so, just so it will look good in the records. Those kids in that center probably learned more just listening to stories from faraway places they couldn’t have dreamed about than they had in all the five or six years of school they’d had up to then. We could do better, I decided. I was going to teach and do better. That Spring there was tear gas on campus, students taking over the administration building, protests of bombing in Cambodia. I stopped noticing it. I was concentrating so hard on learning everything about teaching in inner-city schools. And working with those kids.

Before our children were born, I taught in the city schools. The kids were tough. They didn’t come in wanting to learn. A lot of them were hostile at first. Tom was worried it was dangerous. He said why don’t you teach in the district by us? It’s safer. And I said, that’s not why I’m doing this. I’d work to reach them. I didn’t reach them all. Sometimes I’m not sure I reached many. But a few. Each one mattered.

I stopped teaching when Christine was born. Then, when Ben was old enough for first grade and I was ready to go back, we moved out here. I’ve taught here ever since.

But it’s a different place. That world I taught in, those kids, they’re miles and miles away from here. I don’t think those times even happened. The war, the questioning of it, people challenging the government, didn’t happen here. People drove around with flag decals on their pickup trucks and everything seemed OK. We get kids in our school who have been neglected, kids who haven’t been read to at home, or kids who have trouble reading. But not kids left out because they’re ten and eleven and illiterate, who will never be able to be part of what’s going on around them. I had a mission back in Wisconsin, but I sort of lost it out here. I’ve had a lot of good students over the years, and it’s fun to see them growing up and being members of the community. But it’s not the same. I don’t have that same hopeful sense that somehow we were making something more right than it had been. That it was important what we were doing. Now it’s as if we teach and kids graduate because that’s what we’re supposed to. It’s what you do until you’re eighteen. And that’s all.

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