This is Billy in May.
This was not Billy in September.
In September, when we all dropped everything and grabbed a book for ten minutes of Book Love (independent choice reading time), Billy had a whole lot of avoidance tactics. Here were some of his ploys. Asking me questions about my weekend or the ski conditions or “Can I go to the bathroom? Get a drink? Go to my locker?” Sharpening his pencil, even though we all know you don’t need a sharpened pencil to read a book. Stabbing the plastic on his binder with pens. Removing the plastic and cutting it into little hearts and diamonds. Dropping things-his pencil bag, his book, his extremely heavy, bullet-proof water bottle, which is NOT quiet when it falls off the table. Of course none of it goes unnoticed by my class of kids who are mostly, unlike Billy, reading. Actually reading rather than faking it or trying to distract other kids from reading.
I LOVE Billy. And I get it. In September, Billy did not love to read. He did all that he could to avoid it, and boy, that takes a lot of energy.
I don’t know if this was the right strategy for me to employ, but here it is.
I didn’t give up.
I didn’t force it.
I let Billy be kinda loud and avoid reading, and I didn’t punish him for it. Luckily, most of the kids, even in this already excitable and easily distracted class, ignored him and kept reading their books. Book Love had already hooked them in, you see. I still had hope that maybe it would hook Billy, too.
Most importantly, I was patient. And patience pays off.
Others conspired with me. Billy’s book whispering reading teacher used her own magic. At one point, she exclaimed, “Thank God for audiobooks and headphones!” So did our book whispering librarian. We all kept handing him books and saying, Try this one. Try that one. Oh, you don’t like that one either? No big deal. We’ll find you a new one.
I didn’t see the same resistance with writing at all. He can sit down and generate ideas, staying focused, trying new things. But books? That was a completely different ball game.
But there kept being glimmers.
In the fall, I handed Billy Paul Volpani’s sports novel Top Prospect, about an 8th grade boy who gets recruited by a college team to play football with them when he graduates from high school. He learns the hard way about the dark side of such deals. Billy read it and couldn’t stop talking about it. Before we came into class, he’d tell me what he read the day before. He’d try to pry spoilers out of me. I’m terrible with remembering details of books (I just remember how they made me FEEL!!!!), so I never cracked under the pressure!
Then, in the winter, when the sky was grey and the snow was still three feet deep, I handed Billy The Outsiders. I had forgotten about its superpowers. Now I have multiple copies on the shelf in my classroom library.
NOW the problem during Book Love (again, our quiet independent reading time) was that Billy couldn’t stop talking about the book. How Dally was his favorite character. Why certain characters had to die. How the book was SO MUCH BETTER than the movie.
Billy was hooked.
Okay, then he unhooked, stopped reading, and kept wasting time during Book Love for another extended period of time. I hid my annoyance and remained patient.
Then, Billy surprised me again. At the beginning of class this spring, he started looking through a pile of books sitting on my messy desk that I had pulled for other students. He had to be observant to pick them out out of my usually disastrous, bomb-exploded desk.
There was Sunny by Jason Reynolds-the third in his Ghost track series. Rebound and The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. He kept eying Sunny, which I had just read and found it a little harder to follow than the first two books. But then he saw The Crossover. I’d put it aside with another student in mind, but it was one of those moments. I handed it to him, and he started reading.
I told my friend Leslie, his literature teacher. Leslie took the picture of Billy on page 110 and texted it to me the next day. It’s the picture at the top of this post. Then, I cried.
Earlier in the year, Billy wrote an essay about persistence. He talked about ski racing, which I was really familiar with-we’ve discussed his race season a lot this year. Billy knows he could kick my butt on the ski hill, so he’s very sweet, humble, and patient with me about it. But what interested me more was how he wrote about learning to ride a unicycle. He talked about how it took him THREE SUMMERS to learn it.
Then he’d get back up and keep trying.
I’ve seen it this year with books. I’ve seen him fall down. I’ve seen him get back up. In between, when he’s driving us all crazy, we are also not giving up on him. And while it may look like he’s giving up, he’s not. He’s finding his way. Persistence looks different from different students in different situations. Billy reminded me that not everything happens in a straight line or on MY time line.
I’m not a huge believer in standardized test results, but when a kid raises his lexiles by 400 points, that’s no fluke. I don’t have his reading stats in front of me, but he told me he has read much more than usual this year.
I have always loved this line from an e.e. cummings’ poem. “Now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.” This year, Billy and his classmates have pushed me to open my ears, eyes, and heart every single day in class. My students are my greatest teachers when I stand back, pay attention, and really, really listen to them.
Since April, Billy has read The Crossover, Rebound, and he’s on to Both Of Us Die at the End. Never woulda guessed it, but it’s all about patience and perseverance and teamwork. We’re all in it together, and his triumph is ours, too. He will remind me to never ever give up hope on a kid. Even when he’s driving me to drink. Not really. But close…
This is Billy on his unicycle.
Another word for patience is hope.
Look what happens when we do both.