Neither the end or the beginning…

The story isn’t finished; the stories I connected in my last blog, that is. The story in the movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, the story behind the Jewish teaching Tikkun Olan (to repair the world), and my own story are linked in an odd conflation of time. I realize how life unfolds, not “in order,” but it emerges in disorder, maybe even haphazardly at times. The disorder engenders reflection and wonder when I pay attention.

My adult son asked me to expand upon the idea that systems of public education celebrate submission to standardized thinking and dictate acceptable social roles and norms. It was a tall order. Looking back through some of my own academic writing, I uncovered this story about a young man I tutored more than ten years ago. There is more to see here.

Along with the part of town where he lived, Michael was seen as lacking.  Michael didn’t measure up to either the academic or social expectations of his teachers or community leaders. He wore labels that schools generate and use to describe deficiencies and predict outcomes for a lifetime.

Michael’s dad, John, beamed that Michael had failed the test to qualify for a special class as a prospective high school freshman. His son was “too smart,” he said, to be accepted into the class that would separate him from the mainstream. John was looking for a tutor to teach 15-year-old Michael to read before school began that fall.

The director of the Neighbourhood Center contacted me to ask if I might help find a tutor for Michael. I had a long history with the community and knew the family. I decided that the tutor could be me.

During June and July, Michael and I met twice a week at the Center. He regularly brought a book of stories about his favourite cartoon characters, books from the library about dogs or famous people (like Albert Einstein) and his cell phone as reading material he wished to share. Considered a “non-reader” in school, Michael admitted he let teachers read aloud to him as he navigated his way through the school day, in and out of the special services resource room for extra help.

In our time together, Michael found his way to online reading sites (he particularly enjoyed Greek mythology for early readers), read signs in the driver’s manual I thought would be of interest to him, and played online family feud, one of his favourite games. He told stories about cruising the neighbourhood on his bicycle and about the 1964 Ford Galaxy he and his dad had recently purchased to fix-up. Together, we wrote down a few of his adventures to use as familiar texts that supported his rereading. To find another way for Michael to share his stories, I encouraged him to photograph the car he’d been telling me so much about.

Michael used his photographs to create a digital story that he wrote as a short narrative, read as a voice-over, and completed with country music he remixed to add to his video. We made an official-looking CD to share with his family and the Neighbourhood Center’s staff. Michael’s dad watched the video, listening to his son read with tear-filled eyes.

How Michael actually used literacy did not neatly conform to the linear standardized conceptions of what counts as “meeting expectations” at his new school. In contrast to the school community’s perception of Michael as a failed literacy learner, finding Michael in his own stories allowed me, his family, and the community center staff to see Michael in ways that counted in his life.

Yes, it was a Fred Rogers kind of finding. Michael’s story articulates a discourse of possibility that is what Fred Rogers had mastered.

At the end of the summer, I was preparing for a new semester and arranging for Angie, a community volunteer, to take over my weekly meetings with Michael. In our conversations, I eagerly shared: “he likes… he knows… he wants to find out about… he’s really good at… no, he doesn’t like to… he’s kind of scared about.”

Angie was enthusiastic about possibilities, not just for Michael as a reader—we both knew his strength and his struggle—but for Michael as a young man, growing into his strengths. Angie ended the conversation with:  We spend too much time remediating and not enough time encouraging.

Yes, to capaciously find the hidden light in each person; to lift it up and make it visible once again restores wholeness to part of the world that we can touch.

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