Better Than Money

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This morning, driving to school on slippery roads, I found myself thinking how nice it would have been to be snowed in for two days, instead of just yesterday. I finally arrived, parked, and headed for my classroom. As I rounded the last corner, key in hand, I noticed a teenage girl sitting on the floor a few yards past my door. She was leaning back against the lockers, deeply engrossed in a novel she was reading. I love to see people reading, and my spirits lifted.

I passed my room and walked on to the girl. She neither heard nor noticed my approach, so I leaned over and put my hand on the toe of her boot. She looked up, saw it was I, and smiled. I said, “Thank you for the most wonderful gift — this gift of seeing you deeply engrossed in a book. You have made my day!” Her face lit up, showing pride and pleasure. You see…she used to be a special education student in my high school reading class!

She had been in special education for too long, and for too many classes, but I never heard of any plans for educating her up and out of special programming. Suddenly, after several years, she was placed on my caseload, probably by parent request. A charming young 10th grader when she was assigned to me; a confident 11th grader when she tested out of special education three months ago; now an honor student with all general education classes.

Now, I have never been one to complain that teachers are underpaid. At times I could have used a little more money, but that is probably true for most anyone. I believe that I have been satisfied with my financial compensation because my other rewards are so great. What value could one possibly put on the joy I feel when I see a former non-reader become a lover of books?

The moment I unlock my door, my students begin coming in to say hello; to tease me for a bit; to chat because no one talks to them at home; to just hang around where they feel safe; or to visit with friends who also gather in this “home away from home.” A couple times, when I had something very important to complete, I snuck in, kept the lights off and the door locked. The kids soon discovered my "trick" so now they peer through the glass until I give in and unlock the door. Gee! I wish that all the people so dear to my heart wished so to be near me! There is no way to assess my gain from that kind of caring and trust.

A few days ago I stepped out into the hall to encourage students to get to class before the bell rang. During the 2—3 minutes that I was out there, I counted six — 6! — former students who had learned to read in my room, then tested out of special education services from me. I do not even have to pay gift taxes on the feelings of value that accrue when I see their satisfied, happy, normal expressions as they move about their days without needing me.

Today I was talking to a class of 7th and 8th graders about “The Matthew Effect” in reading. I explained that the term comes from the Bible and refers to a passage that says, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” I compared that concept to the fact that children who read a lot, learn higher-level vocabulary and reading skills; which prepare them to read more complex books; which prepare them for ever harder books. The students understood the point that the ‘rich’ reader becomes richer with each successive book.

I then drew a sloping line on the board and explained that ‘poor’ readers find reading too difficult and so choose not to read. They fail to learn higher-level vocabulary and concepts, and as they grow older, and the demands of school and life become more strenuous, the poor readers become ever ‘poorer’ in their ability to comprehend and handle English, whether in written or spoken form. I encouraged them to decide to invest more time in reading.

A ninth grader was eating lunch in my room as I was explaining this “The Matthew Effect” to the other class. When I finished, the older boy asked, obviously for the benefit of the younger listeners, “Mrs. Taylor…isn’t that just like TANSTAAFL? There is no ‘free lunch’ in learning to read, either. It takes work and practice.” Of course he had made an excellent point, and I received another gift — proof that I had taught a lesson well enough that a student could transfer knowledge and use it to understand a new concept.

This same ninth grader was a nonreader until moving to our area and being assigned to my room last year. He has had more than his share of struggles in his attempts to become a reader. His English class has been studying an abridged, prose version of Homer’s Odyssey, but have been curious about the real books. On Wednesday, I remembered to take my own copies to school, and I read aloud a few passages from both The Iliad and The Odyssey. This boy borrowed The Iliad during lunch, read for a while, then put the book down and hurried from the room. Soon he returned, a grin on his face, the library’s copy in his hand.

I suspect that it has been a long, long time since any student has checked out The Iliad, and never a ‘special education student’. This morning I was given a full accounting of all the pages that he read over the last two days. Repeatedly the boy exclaimed, “I’m really into that book!”

The decision — made by a student for whom learning to read has been so difficult — to check out and read one of the most classic pieces of world literature, is a gift of incomparable value and one for our culture as a whole. It is a gift of Hope — Hope that better values and scholarly interests will again have a place in the minds and decisions of our young people, and therefore our Future. That kind of Hope is better than money, any day. I didn’t even mind the icy roads as I drove home.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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