Such thoughts ran through my mind as I stood over Danny’s desk. All the other children had been writing furiously since I had instructed them on the daily journal prompt, all but one--Danny. I had never seen a kid so resistant to writing in all my years teaching middle school English. I had never tried so many times to rephrase the question, coax, and encourage, yet it seemed no matter what I did, how long I waited or held on to the fraying threads of my patience, Danny’s page would remain the blue-lined void with which he had started. Whenever I would ask him a question, he would turn his palms up in the air and shrug, creating what his teachers began referring to as “the Danny ‘W.” A marked sign of surrender before he had seemingly made any attempt. I felt myself becoming exasperated, desperate, irate. What was I going to do with this kid this year?
Danny, one of the several eleven year olds I had in my English class, was smaller in stature than the other boys. His shoes were constantly untied and his hair was always over his eyes. He wore a dog tag around his neck and kept his hands in his pockets whenever he walked about school. In September I thought he was defiant. I started to interpret his slouching as a sign of apathy, and in the back of my mind, in a place that I was ashamed to admit, “lazy.” It’s not my fault I can’t reach this kid, a part of me reasoned. He just doesn’t want to learn. And after all, you can lead a horse to water…
A part of me wanted to give up on Danny. It was easier. It was easier to justify it through the lens of helplessness. Some kids you just can’t reach, I heard in the back of my mind. You can’t get to all of them.
But there was something about him. Maybe it was the way he tried so hard to appear tough within his child-sized frame. Maybe it was how he always looked down at the ground and hid behind that overgrown mop of hair.There was something apologetic about his slouch. I don’t belong here, I could hear him say. Just keep walking.
A part of me wanted to give up on him. It was too overwhelming; the reminder of my own inability to come up with “the right answer.” I had exhausted all my training in teaching writing. I had given graphic organizers, sentence starters, high-interest prompts, wait time, extra time on assignments. It seemed that no matter what the approach, Danny was frozen in a place where I could not reach him, and I didn’t know what else to do.
A part of me wanted to walk by his empty journal and focus on the kids who had already written three pages, who, in just a few minutes, would shoot their hands up in the air with glee. It would have been easier. If I just focused on the others I could see myself as a successful teacher. Look, I could say to myself, it’s not me, it’s him. But the longer he averted his eyes, the longer my feet felt glued to the ground. Just keep walking, I could hear him say. It would be easier for both of us.
But I couldn’t leave.
Years before, I had had his older brother in my class; so I knew about his home: alcoholism, divorce, abuse, high mobility rates. I had remembered how the father acted one morning when the school had set up a meeting with the teachers, principal, and student present. For thirty minutes he attempted to shame the child, citing how disappointed he was, how his son’s failure was “the last straw” and “he was sick of it.”
An eleven-year old kid does not freeze up like that without a history.
That weekend, in an effort to shake off the weight of my job, I decided to try my hand at cross-country skiing. The sport seemed like the ultimate way to enjoy winter’s beauty and the peacefulness of nature--all while getting some good exercise. I imagined myself like all the skiers I had seen in movies and on posters gliding effortlessly through the snowy woods, their limbs gracing the glistening paths. I booked a weekend and traveled up north to sail among the pines, envisioning myself with rosy cheeks and a smile that would match the brightness of the landscape.
Yet once I arrived, I could not ignore foreign sensations my body felt. My feet felt shaky and constrained in the boots, and my limbs--instead of gliding effortlessly--suddenly barely trusted the ground upon which I stood. Instead of the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh I had imagined, I heard crunches, scrapes, and crashes. Every time my momentum increased, my legs--perhaps in primal terror--would lock up and turn me into a Gumby look-alike, sending me careening off the trail.
During one of the many instances in which I flung myself into the bushes, I heard one of the women on the trail whisper angrily to her skiing partner: “They should not let amateurs on these trails.”
In that moment, I became Danny.
I wanted to throw my poles and melt into the snow. I hated how my legs wouldn’t do what I wanted them to, how they fought against every attempt I made to remain upright. I hated how happy everyone looked, how much pleasure they took from those lovely sounds of mastery: swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.
I wondered if this is what it felt like to be in Danny’s brain when he sat in my classroom, surrounded by the scratch, scratch, scratch of pencils all around him. The blankness of the page. The blankness in the mind. The shame that can come with learning. The looping struggle against yourself.
This was supposed to be a peaceful trip through the woods, yet with every fall, I felt the rising emotions that can accompany the learning struggle: self-doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, embarrassment. Over and over, turning on itself. I wanted to throw my poles and drive home. I did not belong here.
Through my immense ineptitude at skiing, I felt the discomfort of being a learner; the distress that comes with floundering, the self-judgment and the perceived judgment of others. Slipping and sliding, I realized how learning can involve the constant feeling that I was about to fall. The hotness I felt in my cheeks at the sound of this woman’s utterance surprised me. When had shame become part of my decision to learn something new? Had I forgotten what it felt like to be a beginner at something? Had I, in my seven-year practice of teaching English, disconnected from the learning experience?
Danny’s struggle was far from limited to his difficulty with writing. If I was to help Danny, I needed to connect with the beliefs he held about himself as a learner. While graphic organizers could help him develop his ideas as a writer, they did not address the biggest obstacle to his participation in the learning experience--his response to feelings of shame within himself that may or may not have had their origins in external factors. Likewise, I had to acknowledge the judgment percolating in my mind. When we reach the point of empathy, our judgments about students fade.
What does it truly mean to be a learner? What does it mean for us to empathize with the feeling of learning, and the beliefs about ourselves that can arise as a result? Learning, at its best, brings a sense of accomplishment and pride. At times it appears as a child skipping back to her desk, a wide grin or a glistening of the eye. But there is a period that happens long before this, and for many students, this period lasts a long time. For many, the end is hardly in sight.
What does this stage of learning feel like?
Awful. Sometimes, it can feel awful.
That day on the trails, I wanted to go home. I didn’t want anyone to see me flailing in the snow. It was at that moment that I realized: some of my students feel like this every day.
As teachers, we sometimes forget about this experience. We see it from up above as we look down at them sitting in their desks. We think about standards, evaluations, upcoming tests, our competence in our profession, and a million other things. And how can we not? For most of us, the day begins as a whirlwind--and ends in just the same way. And so we forget to breathe. We forget to see. If teaching is about learning, then learning is about discomfort. If we are to be effective teachers, we must begin by being able to empathize with this (excruciating) experience. Sometimes, learning--just like skiing--is not fun.
While I had spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to teach empathy through stories and class discussions, I had forgotten about an important lesson for myself. What does ineptitude and shame truly feel like?
When I returned to work on Monday, I stopped standing over Danny. Instead, I pulled up a chair and sat beside him.
Sometimes, ineptitude is a gift.