In this excerpt from her essay "Literacy Development for Latino Students" (The Best for Our Children: Critical Perspectives on Literacy for Latino Students, Teacher's College Press), the author describes the connection a reluctant reader made with one of the books he picked up from her desk.
Read more from this essay in Hooking Reluctant Readers.
I knew them the minute they swaggered into my room, Frankie, Joe, Ruby, Miguel, Myra, Hector, and the others (names are pseudonyms). Their stance and flat affect challenged other students, the system, and, most of all, me to try to teach them. These were the survivors, the ones the system had not yet devalued or destroyed attendance was a term of their probation, or school was the safest place to go. They had outsmarted the system and were still here, these clever ones. They could all read, but were not readers.
School had done a good job of teaching them to decode and bark words, but school had not shown them literature that reflected their lives, that touched their hearts. They wanted to know if I was going to force them to read more of that "boring stuff." Some had not even had enough time with that "boring stuff" to find the magic of literature that could transport them away from their lives and their troubles to a place of hope and peace.
Frankie was one of those extraordinary students. He showed up about once a week in my alternative English class, held after the regular school day for kids who couldn't quite make it in the "normal" school population. I can still see him hunched over a Low Rider Magazine at the back table, head shaved, carefully starched and pressed J.C. Penney T-shirt revealing "Lola" tattooed on his arm. Unacknowledged, I sat next to him, touched one arm, and asked "Who's Lola?"
"My mom," he replied in his usual monotone, firmly focusing on the magazine in front of him, making it clear I was not welcome at his table.
This class was small, but the girls in all three classes were in dispute over who got to read the new book I had just brought, Two Badges: The Lives of Mona Ruiz (Ruiz & Bucher, 1997). I resolved the conflict by allowing one girl in each class to claim the book for herself by placing a bookmark in the place where she had left off. At the end off class, she was to leave the book on my desk, forbidden territory for all students except the girls with bookmarks. No one could take Mona home. This system worked until I was absent for 3 days and came back to find the book was gone. Needless to say, the privileged readers were angry and so was I. Then Frankie, late as usual, sauntered in.
"Hey, Mrs. H., I like that book."
"What book, Frankie?"
And he pointed to the empty corner of my desk. "You lifted my book!" I nearly grabbed him. "Ah, don't be like that. I like it. Ya know, her life's like mine." Something at school finally had connected with Frankie. I had to negotiate with him to bring back the book. We agreed he could take Mona home daily after the dismissal bell, and return it before classes the following day to the corner of my desk if he wanted to keep reading it. He couldn't read it during class because the girls had it reserved. He agreed, and, for a change, Frankie started coming to school every day. I felt as if I'd won a small victory. He was, after all, a man of his word.
And then, no more book; Frankie stopped coming. I made repeated trips to his house in a menacing neighborhood with threatening young men glaring at me as I got out of the car, until they found out I was Frankie's teacher. I discovered he had stayed home to protect his mother from an abusive old boyfriend, but promised to send the book daily when he couldn't come to school. That worked for a month or two and then he stopped coming altogether. I returned to the house and found he had been picked up for carrying a gun. Four months later, a letter arrived from Frankie (this and all student writing is presented in its original, unedited version).
How are you doing Mrs. Houtchens? I'm just writing to let you know how I'm doing because I was thinking about when I was in your class. I know your class especially helped me. You helped me start to change alot but I kept myself down. I still got that book "Two Badges". When I got locked up in the hall, I started to think alot. I thought about the book and how Mona Ruiz didn't give up. So I didn't give up. I'm in School right now and I got to stay here for 14 months. . . I'm doing good, I keep my mind focus. I should take my GED test in 3 months than after that I'll be working on my high school credits. I'm going to get my diploma so I could keep the book. I have not forgot our deal.
I know he will graduate. Frankie is, after all, a man of his word.
Students like Frankie, Joe, Ruby, Miguel, Myra, and Hector will continue to swagger into classrooms, but beneath their swagger will lie the realization that literature is about them. I know I cannot prevent all of them from becoming lost to the streets, but their awakening literacy will prevail. The magic of literature will continue to reflect their lives, will help them escape their troubles and perhaps reveal solutions to their problems or the problems of their children.