Sara Mosle

Sara Mosle

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 14 1997 3:30 AM

Sara Mosle

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       I got a call from Christopher's school. He's been acting out in class. We needed to talk. I taught for several years in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, and Christopher is one of my former students. I taught him third grade and he's now in the sixth. I helped to get him and three other boys from my last class into a small, alternative public school in the neighborhood last fall. Why I've stayed in touch with them and not other students is a complicated question.
       Christopher's family doesn't have a phone, so I got on the B train and went uptown to see him after school. He and a group of other kids I know live on West 164th Street. A few Dominican drug dealers usually stand at one end of the block by the pay phone. At the other end is a small federal prison, with high fences topped by barbed wire. The dealers smirk at me as I walk by. "Hi, Teach," one of them says. It's their usual greeting. Because I'm white, with blond hair, I stand out in the neighborhood. Occasionally, someone new turns up and he or she will approach me to push something. It doesn't matter if my students are with me. I wave them away in disgust. Every once in a while, a shouting match develops between the Dominicans on one side of the street and the African-American residents on the other. The blacks hate the Dominicans for peddling drugs in their neighborhood, but the Dominicans know that several of the blacks on the street are their customers. There's an uneasy truce.
       My students complain constantly about the dealers in their buildings. "The police come in and bust them, but they just switch apartments," Christopher told me. I notice that the locks have been broken again on the building's doors. Christopher lives on the fourth floor. The stairs are steep and it's a real hike. I pause to catch my breath before ringing the bell. His mother answers, looking a little frazzled. We've known each other now for five years. Christopher has eight brothers and sisters who live with him in his tiny apartment. His father lives with the family and has worked as a butcher near 176th Street all the time I've known Chris. His family seems solid to me; it's just poor and overwhelmed. His mother, however, seldom makes it to Chris' school. She has a newborn at home. We confer about what his teachers have told me. Christopher hides behind her as we talk.
       I know what the real problem is. Christopher can't read. When he entered my third-grade class, he barely knew his alphabet, and could only sound out simple words, like "dog "or "cat." Many of my students were at his level. My school started grouping children according to their ability in the first grade, and in my last year, I had the sixth of six monolingual classes. These were ranked in descending order; the criterion was the students' reading scores. My class was "the bottom," as teachers would invariably announce in front of my students (making me want to slug them). It was a difficult year and it made me angry. I felt as though no one had really tried to teach these kids before. One of the reasons I stayed in contact with some of them had to do with my anger. I knew I'd failed them as other teachers had failed them. But there was only so much I could do in one year, or so I told myself. And so now he is having trouble in school.
       I've seen Christopher and a few other kids on the block about once every other week, on average, since the fall of his fourth-grade year. Sometimes I see them as often as twice a week. Other times, because of work or other obligations, I'll go a month without seeing them. We go on trips and to the library and to the movies. Or they come over to my house and we cook. One of them, T.J., calls me regularly on the phone. Last June I took the whole crew, and two parents, to Washington, D.C., for two days for the "Children's March on Washington." I drove us all down in a big green van. The kids loved seeing the White House and the Lincoln Memorial and the National Air and Space Museum, but what they loved the most was staying at the Holiday Inn in Crystal City, Va. None of them had ever stayed in a hotel before.
       I've tried to help Christopher with his reading. But in all this time, despite my nearly constant contact, I haven't helped him much. I'm beginning to feel desperate about Chris at this point. I'm considering getting him a tutor. (A friend tells me that Columbia University's Teachers College has a free program run by students training to become reading specialists.) I'm even considering paying for one. His mother and I discuss the possibility in her doorway.
       I am not a saint. I beat myself up constantly for not seeing these kids enough, for not doing more. I know that my involvement with them is just a drop in the bucket. There are nearly a hundred other kids from my classes whom I've never seen again. I often resent the time that my group of kids takes up and am secretly glad (though guilty) when I go a month or more without doing something with them. I often resent the money I spend on them. I sometimes wonder how I got myself into this situation, and wish I could disentangle myself from their lives. I wonder how one million literacy volunteers, such as Clinton mentioned in his State of the Union address, are going to be able to help children like Christopher learn to read, when these tutors probably wouldn't see their charges as often as I see Chris, or know them nearly as well.

Sara Mosle is a contributing editor for the New York Times Magazine.