I hated the third grade. It was one of the most traumatic experiences I had in my life besides being a homeless teen. As the son of a single-parent housekeeper, we moved from apartment to apartment as I was growing up and by the time I arrived at another new school to start the third grade, I could not read or write and barely knew how to add and subtract. Showing up at a new school knowing my deficiencies put such a knot in my stomach that I wanted to throw up to avoid the inevitable that my new teacher and the students in the class would come to find out.
I vividly remember walking down the long narrow hallway with my mother who had to take the day off without pay to enroll me in school with the principal to meet my new teacher and classmates. As we entered the classroom, the teacher was quick to meet us at the door and when introduced by the principal she abruptly said;
“I’m sorry but I don’t have any extra room in my classroom for any new students.”
I looked over her shoulder only to see an empty row of seats in the back row and a table and chair facing the window perpendicular to the front of the classroom. I looked then at my mother and could see a cloud of depression overwhelm her and an expression of disappointment on her face as if to say; “Oh no..not again.” Understanding what the teacher was really trying to say about me, the principal pulled the teacher aside and had a word with her about her comments. Reluctantly with a look of frustration on her face, the teacher ushered me to the table and chair facing the window. As I walked to the back of the room the students manifested the demeanor of the teacher and rolled their eyes and hissed their disappointment as I walked by.
Then came the inevitable day I feared when I first arrived at the school. The teacher decided to pick out students from the class to come up to the front of the room and read a passage out loud to the rest of the class. When she asked for volunteers no one raised their hand and I looked down at the ground as if to pretend that I did not hear her request. Then I heard her say in a sassy voice; “Dougie, I would like for you to come up and read out loud to the class.” Shock and awe consumed me and at that moment time stood still and I was paralyzed with fear from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I knew I could not read and the teacher knew I could not read and now all of the students in the class would know. As I drudgingly rose to my feet, my right leg started to shake and twitch uncontrollably to the point where I had to hold onto the wall and desks around me not to fall.
Almost instantly the other students suspected that something was wrong with me and as I made my way to the front of the room the teacher had a smirk on her face and matter of factly handed me the book with the page bookmarked that she wanted me to read out loud. As I grabbed the book the weight of the moment almost made me pass out. I opened to the bookmarked page and the words on the paper blurred into one another and the ink on the page started to run like the tears that uncontrollably fell from my face. All I could see was the blank white pages staring at me along with the entire class. When reality went through my bones and it was clear that my secret was revealed, I threw the book to the ground and immediately ran out of the classroom.
To make matters worse at the end of the school year it was apparent that I did not grow academically enough to move up into the next grade level. The principal, teacher, and my mother met to discuss what options would be best and the principal felt that since the teacher I was with knew me the most it would be best if I repeat the third grade with the same teacher. When I heard the news, that was the day I decided that I wanted to quit school and put my guard up against all teachers.
Maya Angelou wants said; “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I will never forget the way my third-grade teacher made me feel. I felt invisible, inept, insignificant, stupid, and out of place. The feeling of not belonging sends chills down my spine to this very day. The psychological isolation and invisible manipulation that happened in her classroom was borderline mental child abuse. Since that time, I have made it my life’s work to make sure that no other students experience what I experienced in her classroom. I also learned that great teaching is not just about knowing your specific content area well or creating a powerful lesson plan, but, being able to reach each student in an authentic way with love. The best teachers I ever had loved me, accepted me, and made me feel as if I was the most important student in their class.
After graduating from college with my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I got married and my wife and I started having children. Needless to say, I was really involved in my kids’ activities in school and made sure that each of their teachers knew my name and my expectations for teaching my children. My first three children had a great experience and for the most part, had some great teachers. But, sad to say, my last and youngest child was not as fortunate. When she was in the first grade the third-grade nightmare that I thought would only happen to me, happened to her. I noticed unlike kindergarten, Mei-Mei was not as excited to go to school and would ask us to walk with her to her line after the morning bell and had a hard time letting us go. For the first time, she struggled academically and felt insecure about herself. She would wake up in the morning begging to stay home and not go to school. We started to get calls from the school regarding her behavior and episodes of acting out almost on a weekly basis. My heart sank as I was witnessing the life of my 7-year-old daughter slowly disappear. Then one day I sat Mei down and asked her a question that I will never forget her response to;
Mei-Mei, do you feel that your teacher loves you? And with a stone cold look on her face without even thinking about it our 7- year old immediately looked me directly in the eyes and responded with a “no”!
If I was asked the same question when I was in the third grade my response would have been no as well; perhaps even hell no! As a parent, I felt hopeless and was not sure what my next course of action would be. We started to pay more attention to Mei and listening more than talking. I met with the teacher, principal, and even had a conversation with the superintendent about the situation but nothing really changed. By God’s grace, we made it through the end of the school year but our daughter was not the same and her love for school was gone. The most unfortunate part was that the teacher is still teaching at the same school and it turns my stomach that other students – year over year have to endure the same treatment Mei went through.
Needless to say, when Mei went into the second grade I was very particular on who her teacher would be. There was one teacher that stood out to me. His name was Mr. Inocencio but all the students called him Mr. I for short. In a very unassuming way, Mr. I exudes a love of teaching and caring for students. I wanted Mei to be around that type of teacher who would love her just as she is and encourage her to do better. Almost right away I could see the difference and Mei enjoyed going back to school each day. It was so apparent that I personally thanked him for embracing Mei like no other teacher ever had.
Every child deserves a teacher like Mr. I. A teacher who loves and cares for them and promotes their strengths and not their deficits. Mei got her life back and has made a 180-degree turnaround both personally and academically. She has her joy back and enjoys waking up in the morning and going to school and Mr. I made the difference. So at the end of the school year, I asked Mei if she felt that Mr. I loved her, and with a big smile on her face without hesitation she said; “YES.”
I dedicate this post to students past and present who have suffered through the pain, embarrassment, and disappointment of feeling invisible in the eyes of a teacher. To those who stayed back, were told that they have a learning disability and cannot learn. To those students who were singled out for behavior issues, or told that they were not college material; I want you to know that you are loved and continue to RISE!