I want to tell you about Harry. He was one of my students in the Financial Literacy course I teach. All students in New Jersey have to complete this semester long course in personal finance in order to graduate. I teach as many as 250 high school boys and girls every year and some of them have learning disabilities, others have behavior issues, some are hungry, some are abused, some have no home, others have no parents, or at least none that care. My school is one of the most diverse in the state of NJ which is one of the things I love most about my school. I have students from African countries, Asian countries, the Caribbean islands, Latin American countries, NJ cities like Newark, Patterson, and Trenton. The students are just about evenly distributed between black, white, Hispanic and Asian.
Anyway, Harry came to my class in January. He’s from a Spanish-speaking country so I didn’t know if he spoke much English, but, what luck, I speak Spanish. In fact, I can speak Spanish almost as well as a native speaker. Harry liked that! So, Harry was only 14 but he looked to be about 20 to me. He was quiet and didn’t seem to know anyone. On the second day of class, Harry didn’t show up, so on the third day I asked him why and he didn’t really answer. He just smiled shyly. So I said sternly, “Harry, did you cut my class?” He laughed so I figured he was caught, he’d never do it again, but, as I follow rules, I wrote him up. The next day, the dean called. She can be nasty. I’m scared of her, in fact. She said, “next time, check the nurse’s report. Harry was with the nurse.” I apologized profusely, but I figured I better run down to the Child Studies team and read Harry’s IEP before I made any more mistakes, I mean moves.
The IEP really didn’t tell me much except that Harry had some sort of disability, that he often had migraines, and that he only spoke with his grandmother and one brother at home. He was often absent from school. I thought how strange. He can talk but he only chooses to talk to some people. That is so strange. How could that have happened? I’ll probably never know, but what to do?
Ok, let’s see if I can get to the end. After reading his IEP, I began to pay special attention to Harry & speak with him every day in both Spanish and English. I also, sought out his other teachers to touch base. No one told me anything new about Harry, but we maintained these conversations throughout the semester. That would be 8 teachers, including his study hall teacher, talking about Harry. These conversations became so important to me, but let’s move on.
Academically, Harry wasn’t really doing that well in my class. He got solid grades on assessments but he tried to avoid working sometimes and was only really productive when I was by his side which was really hard for me since I had some other very serious issues in the class, including a boy who knocked me into a filing cabinet one day & a girl who threatened to spit on another girl for offering her a seat! Oh, and a sweet boy with serious ADHD, no desire to pass the class & a recently diagnosed brain tumor. There are more, but back to Harry.
The last six weeks of the year, Harry began to show up at my door during his lunch period. My class began after his lunch not during lunch! When he’d see me in the hallway he’d come up from behind and follow me wherever I went. He also started to talk to me! He’d talk about his teachers and all the other students that I knew. These were former students who often visit me but that Harry didn’t know. To my surprise, Harry knew something about each one of them/ I talked to a few of the other teachers and Harry was talking to them too! He had a trick to get my attention. He’d come to my desk, stick his hand in my bag, grab my hall passes and stick them in his pocket! He seemed to love it when I’d say, “Harry, put those back!” He’d laugh shyly and look down at the floor. I share an office with one of his other teachers and she had similar stories every day. One day, Harry told me “all my teachers have yellow hair.” A couple of days later he told me that he liked one teacher’s bangs and that Ms. B who shares my office “always does weird things to her hair.” I said, “really?” He said, “yeah, weird and awesome!” She does her own French braids. So for the remainder of the year, I spent most of my lunch with Harry. All six of the teachers in my work station got to know Harry. All six grew to care about Harry.
The last 3 weeks of class, since the students in that class were so badly behaved, I had them working with a financial literacy online game and reviewing for the final exam with other games which meant I skipped a portion of the final unit on investing. I didn’t feel good about that but the group was just too hard to manage. I told them that they would get credit for all game modules they completed and if anyone completed them all, they’d get extra points on the final exam too! The software contained most of the answers to the final. Harry worked diligently during that time and I would sit with him and play the game with him as long as the others were not breaking anything. He worked and worked. I noticed he worked at home, too! I’d stop by his desk several times during the class and ask him specific questions about the material. He had learned it all and could tell me about the answers with his own voice! I couldn’t believe it! I had never been so proud of a student. He wouldn’t stop talking! He was the only student during the entire year that completed every module of that software.
The day of the exam, Harry came in early. I was confident that he’d easily get an A. He knew the material. He’d answered those same questions to me with his beautiful voice! As soon as the class left, I graded Harry’s exam. He’d gotten a C! But, Bill, you know what, I didn’t even care. Harry knew that material. He answered those same questions to me out loud. A boy who would not talk to anyone except his grandmother and one brother. A boy who was afraid to speak. A boy who has an obvious speak impediment. He talked to me about hair, about teachers, about my favorite students and about financial planning. I know exactly what he learned. He learned that material, but more than that he learned that there are a lot of teachers who care about him. He learned that there are teachers who will help him. He learned that his teachers love him and I, thanks to Harry, learned the most. What a beautiful boy!
Thanks for listening, Bill!
P.S. Harry’d pass your silly high stakes tests if he chooses to! He smart but he might not fill like bubbling in all those little circles!