I learn Rommel can't read on the first day of class at Mildred Green Elementary School.
My roster claims I'll have just 15 fourth-graders. I feel as if I've won the lottery: D.C. public school classes are rarely that small. To be safe, though, I run off 20 copies of the first assignment, which I call "All About You." For the kids, it's a series of fun questions. ("If you could be any flavor of ice cream, which would it be? Explain your choice.") For me, it's a peek at my new students' skills.
I run out of surveys and desks before lunch. New children trickle in all morning with transfer slips. I scurry out to make more copies of "All About You." Conveniently, the copier room doubles as a storage closet; I snag some decommissioned desks and chairs, little wooden wrecks that apparently haven't been used in years.
At noon, I lead a parade of 27 kids down the hall to the cafeteria. So much for the dream class.
Back in my room, there's a pile of surveys to read. I learn that my class is filled with aspiring football players, singers and would-be tubs of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Then I find a survey with the name Rommel Sales scrawled at the top. Otherwise, it's blank. No birth date, no favorite color, and apparently he doesn't want to be ice cream.
Last year I didn't fuss if a student declined an assignment. I'd put a zero in the grade book and call the child's home. Yet Rommel's blank page alarms me because usually every kid acts like an angel on the first day of school.
I go down to the cafeteria, where my students are finishing lunch and waiting for the start of recess. I search for Rommel. Which child is he? There are so many. Yes, there. The 10-year-old without an official Mildred Green Elementary uniform. Boys are supposed to wear gray (or green) slacks with a white collared shirt. Rommel's wearing gray slacks, but his shirt has blue stripes. He's lean and healthy-looking, about the height of a light switch, with closely clipped hair.
"Can I speak with you for a second?" I ask him.
"Uh-huh," he says.
He follows me out of the cafeteria and down the hall. When he walks, he bounces.
"How was your summer?" I ask.
"What'd you do?" He says he doesn't remember. He's jittery. Maybe he thinks he's in trouble.
"Don't worry, it's nothing bad," I assure him. "I'm just wondering, how's your reading?"
"Umm, not so good," he says. "I'm working on it."
I take out the kind of book a child should be reading at the end of first grade. "Let's see," I say, opening to the first page.
Rommel handles the first word "the" just fine. After that the book might as well be written in Aramaic. He can't read another word.
In his defense, he says that he knows the word "c-a-t," which his mother taught him.
"That's really good," I say.
"Rommel, do you know what sound this letter makes?" I ask, pointing to the letter "f."
He furrows his brow and makes the sound "g," as in go.
"How about this one?" I point to the letter "r." He knows that one it's the initial sound of his name, which is pronounced ro-MEL. When I point to vowels, however, he makes the same throaty grunt for each letter.
We chat for a minute. Now that I'm not drilling him with letter sounds, he becomes more talkative.
"I'm special ed," he tells me, making the term sound like a lower social caste. He says he doesn't like sports. Not crazy about music either. He likes art. He shows me a book of his drawings, most of which he's done in the style of Japanese animation. His ninja-like figures are tall and muscular. They shoot fireballs from their hands and have eccentric hairdos.
I admire Rommel's work, but I wonder what I'm going to do with him. This kid shouldn't be in fourth grade.
It's September 5, 2000, and this is my second year teaching fourth grade at Mildred Green, a brick school built in the mid-1960s that sits at the corner of Mississippi Avenue and 15th Street in Southeast Washington. It's the heart of the inner city, but scrubby fields and woods surround the building on all sides, giving it a hint of the boondocks.
Inside, the custodian, a taciturn old-timer known as Smiddy, works hard to keep the worn building looking good. It isn't always easy. One day, I walk past the boys' bathroom and feel a steady blowing breeze. I peek inside. A window has been broken, and dangerous shards of glass jut from the frame. I find Smiddy, and we cover the window with duct tape and a piece of cardboard.
"Damn vandals," he grumbles. "Ain't no way I can fix everything around here."
I hadn't seen Green before arriving here to teach. I'd earned an English degree from the University of Michigan and signed up for Teach for America, which places newly minted college graduates in urban classrooms across the country. I wasn't out to save the world. The D.C. teaching job paid nearly $32,000, and would give me summers off to pursue my real calling: writing.
Most young teachers find their second year in the classroom far easier than their first. Not me. By late fall, my class peaks at 28 students. My room is small. We're squished together like marshmallows in a bag. The broken chairs and desks have been replaced, but the new ones are mostly undersize, built for first- or second-graders. We are all stressed and uncomfortable. I spend much time soothing tempers.
There's a boy who will flip his desk at the break of pencil lead, unless I'm beside him cooing, "Relax, I've got plenty more pencils in my drawer."
Five of the boys have been suspended for beating up a girl who is also in our class. It happened on the playground. The girl's grandmother wants to transfer her to another school. Secretly, I hope she will. It will mean fewer students.
Despite the disciplinary problems, most of the kids read and write relatively well. One girl is reading Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, while a few others struggle with second-grade texts. But even the stragglers are light-years ahead of Rommel. His special education teacher, sober and sorrowful, tells me that "Rommel will never read."
For a long time, I don't challenge that devastating pronouncement. I'm just too busy keeping order and teaching the rest of the class. I make the same callous calculation that Rommel's previous teachers probably made: If only one of my 28 students can't read, I'm still batting .965. That's good.
So I push Rommel to the side, literally. During language arts, when the rest of the class reads literature, Rommel puts on headphones and listens to recorded stories in a corner.
One day, he finishes listening to Jumanji, Chris Van Allsburg's story of a jungle adventure game coming to life. "Mr. Currie, I'm done. What do I do now?"
"Just a second Rommel." I'm wrapped up with other students.
Five minutes. Ten minutes. "Mr. Currie."
"I'm done. What's next?"
"Umm I want you to draw me a picture." It's the assignment I give Rommel whenever I'm too busy to have planned something better.
"A picture of what?"
"A scene from Jumanji. But listen close: I want you to draw yourself in place of the characters."
"Can I draw a lion destroying my bedroom?"
"Can I draw ninjas too?"
"Are there ninjas in Jumanji?"
"So no. If you draw ninjas, I'll lower your grade."
I know that, pedagogically speaking, Rommel's assignments aren't worth a pile of rotting apples. I also know that given an idle moment, he might bring chaos to my class. Chatting. Playing. Teasing. Fighting. My aim isn't to teach Rommel, but to keep him at bay.
Yet he's not stupid. When I teach math, he has no problem keeping up. So why hasn't Rommel learned to read? I ask this question often because there's one part of the day actually two when Rommel truly shines: story time. I read to the students first thing in the morning, after they've come from breakfast, which is free to all of Green's students because so many come from low-income families. I also read to them following recess, when they return from the playground and often have trouble settling down.
Thanks to Rommel, however, I never need to ask the children to behave during story time. He loves to hear me read so much that he takes the role of story-time enforcer.
A typical post-recess story time plays out this way: One of the boys, an overwrought baller, tries to relive playground glory at his desk. "The fifth-graders got nothing," he shouts. "Nothing! Mr. Currie class beat!"
Rommel looks to the front of the class, where I'm stone silent holding a closed novel. Rommel turns to his rowdy classmate. "Man, would you please be quiet," says Rommel.
"What, Rommel! You know we the best. You know we "
Rommel interrupts, asserting himself more. "You don't shut up, and Mr. Currie's gonna take all our recess tomorrow." The noisemaker looks across the room to me. I nod as if Rommel had been reading my mind. Loudmouth shuts up.
I read books that most of my students couldn't manage on their own. For Rommel, of course, that means practically any book. Nonetheless, he's transfixed by the stories I read. He'll chuckle at subtle humor that the others miss, or he'll blurt out "no fair" when a character acts treacherously. He raises his hand to answer questions. He defends his opinions and challenges the interpretations of his classmates. When I read Tolkien's The Hobbit, Rommel goes around hissing like the creature Gollum.
But when story time ends, Rommel's transformation is sudden and remorseless. Like a wizard drained of his magic, he loses his animation. Once again, he's the child who can't read or participate. I send him to special ed, where he spends 10 hours each week. Or I give him a watered-down assignment, which he completes in the corner. Often he just takes out a piece of paper and draws. If he falls asleep, I don't bother him. So long as he doesn't disrupt the rest of us.
As Smiddy says: "Ain't no way I can fix everything around here."
The literacy squeeze
After the Christmas holidays, Green hires a new fourth-grade teacher, and I'm down to 18 students. I develop a plan if you can call it that for helping Rommel. I name it Pinching Words.
Rommel and I spend 10 minutes a day reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, just the two of us. It's a story he absolutely loves. I do most of the reading, of course. Rommel is responsible for one or two preselected words. These words are the pinching words.
"Rommel, today the pinching word is off. Here's how it's spelled." O-F-F, I write. Then I begin the story.
Eventually I'll come to a sentence like this: "And the old man hugged Mr. Dursley around the middle and walked " At this point Rommel is supposed to recognize the next word as the pinching word. Either he says "off" or he doesn't. If he does, I continue reading. If he doesn't, I pinch him on the arm.
So word by word, I'm pinching the illiteracy out of Rommel. My method is untested, unorthodox, probably illegal, but heck, Rommel likes both the attention and the story. Besides, I don't pinch that hard.
"Pay attention to Mr. Currie"
It's spring, and I've been promising Rommel that we'll do some serious work. After weeks of pinching, he's still not reading.
I've planned a phonics lesson for today. Rommel and I will work alone while the others are at gym class. I tell him it'll be a regular thing.
Unfortunately, there's a fight on the way to gym class. It's two of my boys. "Sorry, Rommel, I've got to deal with this. We'll have to reschedule."
"That's okay," says Rommel. He doesn't seem too upset. Gym class beats phonics any day.
A few weeks later it's Rommel who gets in a fight. He's suspended. It's not the first time.
When Rommel returns to school a week later, his mother, Zelonda Sales, accompanies him. To be here, she had to take time off from her job as a security guard. Rommel's baby sister is also here. She sleeps in a bassinet next to her mother.
We meet with Florine Bruton, Green's tireless assistant principal. She and I take turns flinging platitudes at Rommel. Practice self-control. Fighting doesn't solve anything. Ask your teacher for help. Blah, blah, blah.
I snap to attention when Ms. Sales brings up her son's reading. Rommel hangs his head. His mother is on the verge of tears. She pleads with him: "If you would just listen to your teacher, Rommel. You can learn to read. Pay attention to Mr. Currie; he'll teach you."
I don't want to tell Ms. Sales that she's wrong. Her son's not the problem. It's us. The teachers, who should have taught Rommel to read. The administrators, who passed him along. All of us have failed this skinny boy who's slumped here in self-disgust.
A wasted year
The school year is coming to a close, and I finish reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to Rommel. He asks me if he can keep the 341-page novel. The request puzzles me.
"Please, Mr. Currie. Can I just borrow it for the summer?"
"No, Rommel, it's not like you can even?" I stop myself before pointing out the obvious. What's the point of him having the book? "Rommel, it's my only copy. I don't want the book to get lost."
Finally, after more fruitless pleas, Rommel returns to his desk and takes out a sheet of drawing paper.
At the end of the day, I go home. I take off my shoes and rub my sore feet. I look around my little apartment. Books are piled in teetering stacks because there's no shelf space. Monuments to the joy of literacy.
I should have given Rommel the book. I put my shoes back on, walk to the bookstore, and buy Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on cassette tape. The next day I ask Rommel to stay after school. When I give him the tape and a Harry Potter book, his eyes bug out in astonishment.
"Keep them, Rommel. They're yours."
"Aw, man, thanks!"
"Excuse me?" He's not supposed to call me "man."
"Sorry. I mean thank you, Mr. Currie." He slings his backpack over his shoulder, accidentally knocking it into his desk. Out tumble dozens and dozens of drawings on crumpled pieces of notebook paper.
He begins stuffing them in the trash can by the armful. What a waste. Not of paper, of a year. Fourth grade did nothing for Rommel. Nor first, second or third. Predictions for fifth aren't hard to make.
That night I make a decision: I'm going to teach Rommel to read.
Nine months, one student
I could kiss Mrs. Bruton. She's blessed my unconventional idea for tackling Rommel's illiteracy and even given me a little classroom, the former band room. Rommel and I will spend nine hours there each week. I won't be responsible for any other students, and I won't be paid, which is okay because my new job waiting tables in the evenings more than covers my old salary. Now I need to tell Rommel and his mother.
On the first day of school, September 4, 2001, I find Ms. Sales and Rommel in the lobby and make the promise.
"I'm going to teach Rommel to read," I say to Ms. Sales.
"You're going to tutor him?" she asks.
"Not exactly. I'll be his private teacher for the year. Mrs. Bruton gave us a classroom to ourselves. I'll work with him three hours a day, three days a week."
Ms. Sales smiles and thanks God. "I've been trying to teach him at home, but nothing works. I don't really know what I'm doing."
Yes, I know the feeling. All summer I wrestled with the size of this commitment and harbored doubts about my competence. Where to start with an illiterate 11-year-old? I sought advice from a friend who teaches kindergarten. She referred me to a booklet called Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science. As if that title alone weren't daunting enough, a prominent caption in the booklet reads: "Teaching reading is a job for an expert." Be that as it may, I'm going to do this.
After I finish talking to his mother, Rommel pulls me aside. "How come you didn't flunk me?" he asks. Then his voice drops to a whisper so his mother won't overhear. "I hardly did any work last year."
A is for alligator
Rommel and I sit down for the first time in our little classroom. There's an old snare drum and a box of sheet music in the corner.
"Welcome to the Douglass Literacy Project," I say. I've named our venture after Frederick Douglass, the great writer and statesman who, like Rommel, lived in Anacostia and spent much of his youth unable, though yearning, to read.
"So is there going to be anyone else in here?" he asks. Specifically, he wants to know if one of his pals can join us.
"No, Rommel, it's just us."
I pull out a phonics book. "Okay. Let's get to work."
Rommel doesn't know letter sounds, so we start with "A." I open to a page filled with pictures of ants, astronauts, apples and alligators. "When I point to each picture I want you to tell me what it is." I point.
"Alligator," says Rommel.
"Good. Now what sound do you hear at the beginning of that word?" He makes a garbled croak. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was choking.
"Listen Rommel. Aaaalligator," I say. "You try it."
"Aaaaaaaaligator," he says.
"That's it. Now, what's the first sound you made, yeah, the funny one?"
"Aaaaaaaa." He laughs a little and opens his mouth more than necessary.
"Go on. Hear the sound."
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaa." He takes a breath. "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa."
"Louder. This is our classroom. We can be as loud as we want."
"That sound we call the short a."
We learn one vowel sound and one consonant sound per week. Rommel devises his own mnemonic system. For every new sound, he creates a character. Alex the Apple Axeman. Iggy the Idiot Iguana. Oscar the Octopus. Dingo Dog.
He's drawn cartoons of these characters, covering an entire wall of our room. When he forgets a sound, he reminds himself by looking up at the wall of characters. Slowly, he learns to blend these sounds into words.
One step at a time
Rommel and I show up at Mrs. Bruton's office, which is filled with students. "Children, excuse me for a moment, please," she says.
Rommel sits beside her. He clears his throat and opens Dr. Seuss's The Foot Book. Like a solemn minister he begins to read:
Left foot, left foot
Right foot, right
Feet in the morning
Feet in the night
For a week, he's been preparing for his meeting with Mrs. Bruton. It's a recital as much as a reading, so well does he knows The Foot Book. When he finishes, Mrs. Bruton hugs him. "I'm so proud," she says.
Rommel plays like it's no big thing. But then Mrs. Bruton says: "I'm going to call your mother and tell her." Rommel can't contain himself any longer. His face breaks into the giddiest grin I've ever seen.
As the holidays approach, Rommel and I are discussing the devilish double-o. It makes two different sounds, as in hoop and book.
"How do you know which sound to choose?" Rommel asks.
I don't know what to tell him. "You just know," I say.
"This is complicated," he says.
Indeed, the English language is filled with irregularities and rules that are broken almost as often as they're kept. The inconsistency of our written language makes the teaching of it a potentially frustrating experience. I tell Rommel that the paired letters "ea" make the long "e" sound, as in each. Then we encounter the word bread, which he predictably pronounces breed.
"So you're saying b-r-e-a-d is pronounced b-r-e-d?"
Rommel is now learning to read at an astounding pace. We are saturated with letters and sounds and stories, and he absorbs it all like a starved, desiccated sponge. I almost forget his official classification: learning-disabled. His progress is an awful indictment of the school system. It's not that he couldn't learn. We simply never taught him.
But in all the hoopla of reading instruction, I've forgotten its equally important twin: writing. After Christmas, I give Rommel a journal and tell him we will begin each session by writing in it.
Rommel's first entry his first self-authored sentence reads: "I like pasta."
An exclusive bubble
Rommel returns from spring break bragging that he's reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the series. I ask him to write about it in his journal:
In chapter two, Harry chose to run away from home. He chose to run away because he blew up his aunt Marge. The consequences were that he met fudge and thay had a talk. I think he made the right choice because if he'd stayed he'd be in trouble.
Rommel's progress has been dramatic but only because he's been my sole focus. The Douglass Literacy Project is an exclusive bubble, a la-la land, totally shut off from the real challenges of urban education.
No one proves this more than a skeletal-looking fifth-grader who transferred to Green earlier in the school year. He can't read, his teacher tells me.
"Mr. Currie, can I come to you?" He keeps asking and asking. Always, I say no.
Twice this week he's opened the door to my classroom and yelled in, "Mr. Currie's a fag." I understand his anger, but I ignore it. I tell Rommel to do the same. I've started locking the door.
Smiddy's dictum is as true as ever.
Rommel's new world
I step into the science room at KEY Academy, a public charter school across the street from the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast. Rommel sits arrow-straight among 21 classmates. They have just returned from their winter vacation. He acknowledges my entrance with a quick glance.
Although we talk on the phone occasionally, I haven't seen him much since the Douglass Literacy Project ended last June. The science teacher asks a question, and Rommel raises his hand, leaning forward eagerly.
Last summer I urged Ms. Sales to transfer her son from Green to KEY Academy, where the curriculum is far more rigorous than what's offered in most D.C. public schools. He'd have to repeat fifth grade, but the sacrifice would be worth it.
At KEY, Rommel is in class from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. He has up to three hours of homework nightly, goes to school on Saturday, and will attend a three-week summer session.
Sarah Hayes, Rommel's homeroom teacher, says he had a bumpy first few months adjusting to the school's demands, but is now doing well both academically and socially.
When science class ends, Rommel and I walk to a private study room. I hand him this story. "Here it is Rommel. You ready to work?"
"Ready if you are," he says.
I read one paragraph aloud. He reads the next. When we finish, I ask him what he thinks.
"Actually, I'd make a few changes." I take notes as he talks. He suggests, among other things, that I drop the anecdote about Pinching Words.
"If pinching me was illegal, Mr. Currie, you might not want to tell the world. I'd miss you if you went to jail."
We finish editing, and I escort Rommel to his next class, language arts. The day's lesson is already in progress. Rommel quietly moves to his seat at the front of the room. He takes out a notebook and starts writing. He knows exactly what to do.