Arthur Gets Some Help

25 Apr 2010

I teach American Lit at a local career college, the kind of place that has signs on the doors saying, “Check and correct your clothing to ensure that your naval, buttocks, chest or cleavage is not showing,” and, “Remove your hat, stocking cap, ‘do-rag’ or bandanna (this includes both men and women).” The students are almost all adults, trying to become phlebotomists, medical billers, or paralegals. They tend to arrive late and leave early. Most of them take the bus. Many have had the equivalent of an 8th grade education.

Last Thursday, we were going over a speech by Frederick Douglass, and I was having the students take turns reading out loud. The 19th Century prose was tricky, and everyone who read had to be helped over words like “sepulchre,” “ecunemical,” and “perambulate.” It took a long time to get to the end of the passage, but when we did, Arthur volunteered to read.

Since it was so early in the term, I didn’t know much about Arthur. He’s a large man in his late 20’s or early 30’s, with an open smile that shows a lot of missing top teeth, and he’s familiar with the Marines. When he started to read, he ran into trouble at once, stopping repeatedly at the simplest words, and agonizing so hard over fluency that all sense was being lost.

“Allow me to say,” he began, “in con…in conc…”

One of the trickiest things about working with developmental readers is knowing when—or if—you should intervene at a spot like this. Often, you can let them sail over rough parts and keep going, as long as the meaning of the passage isn’t affected. But sometimes the reading turns into a forward rush of meaningless sentences, more guessed at than read. And often, as in this case, the reader simply will not allow himself to fake it.

I waited 2 seconds to let Arthur sound out the word. But someone beat me to it. Quietly, patiently, spontaneously, a woman in the class said, “In conclusion.”

Arthur continued: “…in conclusion, not…not…notwith…”

And then the entire class said, “Notwithstanding.”

“…notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not des…do not desp…”

“Do not despair,” they said.

Have you ever been in church when The Lord’s Prayer, or something similar, was being recited? It sounded like that. And it felt like that, individual and communal at the same time, showing a concern with learning on a personal level while making sure that nobody was left out of the equation. Arthur was a fellow student, and they had his back.

By the time Arthur reached the end of the paragraph, it was 8:30, and some of the students had to hurry to catch the 8:40 bus (the next one didn’t come for a couple of hours), so I ended it there. Some of them will not be in class on Tuesday, nor will they finish the term. Others will try for a little longer, then drop out. Still others, 2 years older and thousands of dollars deeper in debt, will graduate but fail to get work in their field. Those few students who manage to find jobs will make more money than the rest—about $5,000 more, according to some studies.

I wonder, though, if they’ll follow the arc of what is considered success in America: the competitive, survival-of-the-fittest contest, where the winners move farther away from other people, into larger homes, and surround themselves with acres of lawn and a privacy fence. I do know that, after years of teaching, I have never seen anything like what happened last Thursday. And I know, more than ever, that we rise or fall together.

*****

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