During my thirty-five year teaching career, I had worked with thousands of students for whom I cared, but the student who impacted me more than any other was Robert. Although I had never taught Robert in my college preparatory reading class, I had observed him in his personalized reading class, in my role as the school’s Student Support Team Chairperson. I had, also, learned about Robert’s developmental history through talking with his mother and through analyzing his academic history in my role as SST Chair.
Robert was 18 years old when I first learned of his difficulties in school. I thought that it was amazing that Robert had lasted in school as long as he had without dropping out at age 16, considering his reading difficulty. I also thought that it was a testimony to his innate character that he had remained in school as long as he had. You see, Robert was able to read only on an elementary level. It was during his 11th grade year that he came to the attention of the Student Support Team. How can a student reach the eleventh grade and read no higher than an elementary grade level? Part of that answer is that he had failed many classes, as a result of his reading problem, yet he had kept trying and had passed just enough classes to keep going. He had learned to compensate for his reading problem. He enjoyed being with his classmates. People naturally liked Robert. The paraprofessional who worked directly with Robert had told me that he could not recall the words she had taught him from one day to the next, yet he was not a slow student, she had said. I interacted with Robert in her classroom and I, too, realized that Robert was not a slow student. But he did have a severe reading difficulty.
His eleventh grade year was a turning point for Robert. He was beginning to believe that he would never receive his high school diploma because of his reading problem, and he was, afterall, already 18 years old. I noticed that he had begun to miss more and more days of school. I talked with his mother. She told me that he had recently become involved with the wrong crowd, outside of school, when he missed school. She said, too, that when he was a young boy – about 8 years old – that he had been a very sweet and loving child. I could still see that quality, deep inside of him, even at age 18, after years of failure in school, which would have made a lesser person feel jaded or bitter. I felt a strong maternal instinct for Robert and I was determined that he would not fail because I knew that in his core, Robert did not want to fail. He had had enough faith to remain in school until he was 18 years old, and his reading difficulty was not his fault. I knew that if we could get him tested that that test would more than likely document his problem, officially, and that he could receive the special help that he needed. When Robert had missed about five days straight, I sensed that he had decided to drop out of school. I called him at home and talked with him. He admitted to me that he recently had thought that it was futile to continue and that he was going to drop out of school. I begged him not to do that. I pleaded with him just to show up the next day and take that needed test – for me. I promised him that, if he would do that for me, I knew we could still help him to graduate. He promised me that he would make that last effort for me.
I believed that Robert would show up the next day for the test, but I also knew that that would be the last day he would come to the school as a student. I called the county office and asked to speak to the professional who administered individual diagnostic tests to students, but she could not be reached because she was testing in another school. I knew that I had to track her down THAT day. So I called her supervisor and told the supervisor the story. I told the supervisor that Robert HAD to be tested the next morning at my school. I said that making that happen would determine the difference in Robert’s life. I said that we would lose him forever, if he was not tested the next morning.
The next morning both Robert and the professional who tested students showed up at my school and Robert received the test battery. He did qualify for special help which he received. He stuck it out for another year and a half even though he was the oldest in his class. Robert walked down that aisle and received his high school diploma at age 20, almost 21. Robert had innate class. He had earned that diploma not only for the last year and half of his tenure in school, but for the previous twelve and a half years that he had stayed in school coping with a severe reading problem that he had had from birth and with which he would need to cope all of his life. But his determination and his desire to have a productive life had overcome his apprehensions, his embarrassments, and his deficiencies. After he graduated, he and I had a picture taken together. We were both smiling broadly because we knew that, together, we had made this day happen for him.
The last time I saw Robert was about a year before I retired from teaching. He had come by the school to see me, and he had brought his wife and two children with him. He had a job in a hospital. It was obvious that he very much loved his wife and children and that they were a happy and loving family unit. He wanted them all to greet me. His wife had been my student in my Advanced Reading class a few years earlier. I was so happy for Robert and so proud of what he was making of his life. I will never forget Robert. I had felt like a second mother to him and I think he knew that. I could not let Robert fail because Robert simply did not deserve to fail. He had given all that he had to give in school for so long, hoping – beyond hope – that he would somehow succeed. I have never been prouder of a student than I was of Robert. In a way, I loved Robert for his faith, and his hope, and for his courage.
Robert’s story reminds me of the words that St. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13:8: “Love Never Fails.” I have always found that to be true.