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So, I’m teaching a 15-year-old to read

I’ve been around books as long as I can remember. My mom was reading stories to me as a kid. I don’t remember how I learned to read. I do remember that when learning to write my own name I would draw too many lines on the uppercase E.
But I was always reading. I was a member of the Troll and Scholastic book clubs. I always brought lots of money to the annual book fair at school. I entered summer reading challenges and was reading at a high school level by the time I was in third grade.
It was no surprise to one of my former substitute teachers (and a family friend) to find out years after she taught me that I was a writer.
So a couple of months ago – more than a year after signing up for a local tutoring agency – they finally placed me with someone. He’s 15. He’s an at-risk youth. And he’s been court-ordered to receive tutoring in reading.
I had no idea where to start – so on our first day, when we met at the library, I just had him read a low-level story. He guessed the fifth word – “puppy.” “People?”, he said.
And that’s where it began.
So for two months I’ve been spending two afternoons a week trying to teach this kid how to read even the most basic words. Finally after picking out a book called Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, I was finally able to get some progress by starting from scratch.
And it’s been one of the most difficult jobs of my life. Every week he fights me. He doesn’t want to be there. He finds distractions in everything – a pencil, a desk – his hands, the chair. In him I see myself when I didn’t want to pay attention in class.
But when I see him struggle to read words it just hurts. And it hurts worse when he tells me he’s never going to learn to read.
Meanwhile, this is my first real experience in teaching someone. And I don’t even know if I’m making progress. Sometimes I’ll have good days when I come home and feel really good about the progress made. But then last week he cursed at me and walked out during a session because he didn’t want to deal with the consequences he could face if he doesn’t learn to read.
And I’m getting suggestions from friends who educate in schools and in the home – but a lot of people keep saying “How did he go that long without knowing how to read?”
I don’t know. I really don’t. Because I can’t imagine growing up without being able to read. I can’t imagine being able to function in the world without being able to read. Reading is everywhere. On telephones, food labels, remote controls.
But right now – as I remain one of those casualties of the recession and live in unemployment – this is the one thing that keeps me going. I don’t really know why, because I am still not quite positive that I am making a difference – but I guess it’s just that I have a challenge unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
I wonder if he will be forever changed. I wonder if I’ll ever get to break through. I wonder if when he’s my age he can say to his kids that they need to do their homework and will tell the story of when I taught him to read.
And I wonder if he’ll just keep fighting me and telling me he doesn’t need me. This job is more painful than rewarding. But it’s all I have. than anything.
And last week I was attacked by online strangers for the work I’m doing. made to feel as if I’m supposed to think my “charity” work is just so I can feel good about myself.
I’m not teaching this kid to read so I can feel good about myself. I’m teaching this kid to read because any 15-year-old kid deserves to know how to read, and no one seems to be able to tell me who will do it if I don’t. Not his careless parents, not his teachers, not his caseworker and not my boss.
So – in case you’d been wondering why I’d been on hiatus for a while – well, that’s one of many reasons why.

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