For a while now, I have been spending time with two boys who make my head spin for being so alike. To my knowledge, these boys have never met, and yet, one is so like the other, like a perfect image of his earlier self. Both boys are shy, and both are charming. Both live with single parents and struggle in school. Both probably have diagnosable disabilities, although neither has been diagnosed. Both boys speak very softly, sometimes even inaudibly. I could go on and on, but I’ve already labored the point. And yet I haven’t said the half of it.
I should mention that for all that they do share, these boys don’t really look alike. One has close cropped hair, the other has let his grow. One is tall, the other is not. Not yet, anyhow. The older boy, with the bigger eyes, has acne. He’s always running his hand over his forehead, feeling this strange new teenage terrain. I have been where he is, if we are speaking strictly of age. But I don’t come from where he lives. And I can come and go as I please.
The shorter boy, the younger one, I met in a quiet, comfortable space. It was chosen partly for the quiet, and because it is a safe, reliable place. I liked being there, but he didn’t. He said that he was scared to be there if he had to be alone. At least that’s what he said later. When I arrived for our initial meeting, he didn’t care to talk to me, or even to look at me. And yet he wanted adult eyes on him at all times, even as he waited, and waited, and waited for his ride.
My job, what I do with these boys, only really involves reading. I see the older boy far more often than I see the younger boy. But any time that I spend with either boy is time spent spinning. Both have lives that are spiraling, one due to his own choices, the other due to the choices of those around him, many of them made years ago now. Either way, that kind of constant motion in a life is nauseating. It is distracting and demoralizing. How am I supposed to teach with that going on? How are they supposed to learn?
Teaching a child to read, particularly a child with a language-based disability, is largely an act of anchoring: sounds to symbols, symbols to patterns, patterns to words, nouns to verbs, and so on, at increasing levels of complexity. Anchors are solid; once they are dropped, they dig in and stick. That is, unless you happen to be spinning. A strong enough centrifugal force will tear anything out of the ground. That’s what chaos, trauma, and disability do inside a child’s brain: they tear up whatever information has been planted and then shred it, leaving its pieces to drift down into the darkest, unreachable depths.
I’ve already mentioned that these two boys don’t look alike. They don’t. But as I sit here, I wonder if maybe we all look alike to them. All of the well-meaning women sent in to test, treat, and tutor them are, as far as I can tell, quite similar. We are middle-aged women from the middle class. We tend to drive decent sedans or minivans to wherever we’re sent, which is often into neighborhoods we don’t live in now and never have. If I stay with my water metaphor, I’m not sure if I we are acting as lifeguards or bouys in these neighborhoods. Are we trying to save these kids, or just warn them? I guess it depends on the situation. When I think about these two boys, I’m not at all sure that either one has ever learned to swim.
If I am being honest, I think that in this situation, I am trying to prevent one of these boys from growing into the other. And I am trying to do that by working to ensure that the younger boy somehow learns to read. That is, if he can learn to read. Right now, that’s a maybe. Right at this moment, that boy is both spinning and drowning while his counterpart, his likely future self, has perhaps spun himself into depths that I don’t have the arms to reach. Perhaps he has, because that’s where the pipeline carries boys like him.
It is a sickening feeling, to spin and spin and spin. It is dangerous to be pulled ever downward, to come unmoored, to constantly lose sight of anything good in the darkening space that you are in. But this is where these boys are right now; this is where life has put them. So, right now, this is the situation that I and my look-alike cohorts will choose to put ourselves in. Eventually, and whether or not the spinning stops, or the boys drown or learn, through exhaustive efforts, to barely, barely, swim, my time with these boys will end. And then I will meet two others, two different boys, yet eerily just like them. And I will do this all again.