Authors: Torey Hayden
“Oh, yeah.” She hits her head with one hand. “Dumb me, I forgot. Let’s see now. Hmmmm. Hmmmm. A six? No, no, don’t count that; that’s wrong. Lemme see now. Uh … uh … A?”
I lean across the table. “Look at it. See, it’s round. Which letter is round like your mouth when you say it? Like this?” I make my mouth O-shaped.
“Seven is a number. I’m not looking for a number. I’m looking for either an O,” and here I make my mouth very obvious, “or an L. Which one makes your mouth look like this?” I push out my lips. “And that’s just about the only letter your lips can say when they’re like that. What letter is it?”
Lori sticks her lips out like mine and we are leaning so intently toward one another that we look like lovers straining to bridge the width of the table. Her lips form a perfect O and she gargles out “Lllllllll.”
I go “Ohhhhhhh” in a whisper, my lips still stuck out like a fish’s.
“O!” Lori finally shouts. “That’s an O!”
“Hey, yeah! There you go, girl. Look at that, you got it.” Then I pick up the next card, another O but written in red Magic Marker instead of blue like the last. “What letter is this?”
So went lesson after lesson after lesson. Lori was not stupid. She had a validated IQ in the nearly superior range. Yet in no way could she make sense of those letters. They just must have looked different to her than to the rest of us. Only her buoyant, irrepressible spirit kept us going. Never once did I see her give up. She would tire or become frustrated but never would she completely resign herself to believing that L and O would not someday come straight.
The day after Boo arrived, Lori came to my room tearful. She was not crying but her eyes were full and her head down. Without acknowledging me, she hauled herself across the room to the table and tiredly threw the workbook down on it.
“What’s wrong, babe?” I asked.
Shrugging, she yanked a chair out and fell on it. With both fists she braced her cheeks.
“Shall we talk a bit before we start?”
She shook her head and swabbed roughly at the unfallen tears with a shirt sleeve.
Sitting down on the edge of the table next to her, I watched her. The dark hair had been caught back in two long braids. Red plaid ribbons were tied rakishly on the ends. Her skinny shoulders were pulled up protectively. Taking deep breaths, she struggled to keep her composure. A funny kid, she was. For all her spirit, for all her outspokenness, for all her insight into other people’s feelings, she was a remarkably closed person herself. I did not know her well even though she usually allowed me to believe I did.
We sat in silence a moment or two. I then rose to check on Boo. He was over by the animals again, watching the snake. Back and forth he rocked on his heels as he and Benny stared at one another. Benny was curled up on his tall hunk of driftwood under the heat lamp with his head hanging off the branch. It was a loony position for a snake, and if one did not know him, one could easily have mistaken him for dead. However, for those who did know, he was requesting a scratch along the neck. Boo just stared and rocked. Benny stared back. I returned to Lori and stood behind her. Gently, I massaged her shoulders.
Again I sat. Boo looked in our direction. Lori interested him. He watched with great, seeking eyes.
“I didn’t get no recess,” Lori mumbled.
“I didn’t do my workbook right.” She was tracing around one of the illustrations on the cover of the pre-primer on the table. Over and over it her finger slid.
“You usually do your workbooks in here with me. Lor. When we get time from our reading.”
“Mrs. Thorsen changed it. Everybody does their workbooks before recess now. If you do it fast you get to go out to recess early. Except me.” Lori looked up. “I have to do mine fast
“Oh, I see.”
The tears were there again, still unfallen but gleaming like captive stars. “I
I did. But it wasn’t right. I had to stay and work all recess and didn’t even get to go out at all. It was my turn at kickball captain even. And, see, I was going to choose Mary Ann Marks to be on my team. We were going to win ’cause she kicks better than anybody else in the whole room. In the whole first grade even. She said if I picked her then I could come over to her house after school and play with her Barbie dolls and we were gonna be best friends. But I didn’t even get to go out. Jerry Munsen got to be captain instead and Mary Ann Marks is going to go home with Becky Smith. And
going to be best friends. I didn’t even get a chance!” She caught an escaped tear. “It’s not fair. It was my turn to be captain and I had to stay in. Nobody else has to do their stuff all right first. Just me. And it isn’t fair.”
After school I went to talk to Edna Thorsen. For the most part Edna and I got along well. I did disagree with many of her methods and philosophies, but on the other hand she had a great deal more experience than I and had seen so many more children that I respected her overall knowledge.
“I’m taking your advice,” she told me as we walked into the teacher’s lounge.
“Yes. Remember how I was complaining earlier about how I never could get the children to finish up their work on time?”
“And you suggested that I make the ones who did finish glad they did?” Edna was smiling. “I did that with the reading workbooks. I told the children they could go out to recess as soon as they finished their pages. And you sure taught this old dog a new trick. We get the work done in just fifteen minutes.”
“Do you check the work when they’re done?” I asked. “Before they go out?”
She made an obtuse gesture. “Nah. They do all right.”
“What about Lori Sjokheim?”
Edna rolled her eyeballs far back into her head. “
I have to check. Why, that Lori has no more intention of doing her work carefully than anything. The first few days I let her go with the other children, but then I got to looking at her workbook and you know what I found? Wrong. Every single answer wrong. She’ll take advantage of you every chance she gets.”
I had to look away. Look at the wall or the coffeepot or anything. Poor Lori who could not read, who could not write and who got all her answers wrong. “But I thought she was to bring in her workbooks to do with me,” I said.
“Oh, Torey.” Edna’s voice was heavy with great patience. “This is one thing you have yet to learn. You can’t mollycoddle the uncooperative ones, especially in the first grade – that’s when you have to show them who’s boss. Lori just needs disciplining. She’s a bright enough little girl. Don’t let her fool you in that regard. The only way Lori’s kind will shape up is if you set strict limits. It’s modern society. No one teaches their children self-restraint anymore.” Edna smiled.
“And with all due respect and credit to what you’re trying to do, Torey, I can’t see it myself. Giving her all that extra help when nobody else gets it. It’s a waste of time on some kids. I’ve been in the business a long time now, and believe me, you get so you can tell who’s going to make it and who isn’t. I just cannot understand spending all the extra time and money on these little slowies who’ll never amount to anything. So many other children would profit from it more.”
I rose to wrestle a can of Dr Pepper out of the machine. The right thing to do would have been to correct Edna, because to my way of thinking at least, she was dead wrong. The cowardly thing was to get up and go fight the pop machine. Yet that was what I did. I was, admittedly, a little afraid of Edna. She could speak her mind so easily; she seemed so confident about her beliefs. And she possessed so much of the only thing I had found valuable as an educator: experience. In the face of that, I was left uncertain and questioned my own perceptions. So I took the coward’s way out.
Unfortunately, the situation did not mend itself. The next day, too, Lori was kept in during recess and still she lugged her reading workbook in to me all full of errors. She was more resigned. No tears. The day after that was no different either. Or the day after that. If we did not get through the book during our time together, if mistakes still existed at the end of the day, Edna kept Lori after school also. Edna continued to perceive Lori’s mistakes as carelessness. That Lori maintained a sort of gritted-teeth composure throughout Edna’s disciplinary campaign and still did not get her work right convinced Edna it was a battle of wills.
The tension began to show on both sides. In with me, Lori could not concentrate at all. Everything would distract her. As the number of days lengthened, a distressful restlessness overtook her. As soon as she came into the room and sat down, she would have to get up again. Down, up, down, up. While working, she would lean back in her chair every few minutes, close her eyes and shake her hands at her sides to relieve the pressure. Edna was not escaping unharmed either. She redeveloped migraines.
The next Monday things came to a head. At Lori’s appointed time with me she did not arrive. I waited. Over by the animal cages with Boo, I talked to him about Sam in his shell. Yet my eyes were on the clock and my mind on Lori.
I knew Lori was not absent; I had seen her in the halls earlier. Finally when fifteen minutes had passed and she still did not show up, I took Boo by the hand and we went to investigate.
“I sent her to the office,” Edna replied at the door of her first-grade classroom. She shook her head. “That child has had it in this room, let me tell you. She took her reading workbook and threw it clear across the room. Nearly whacked poor Sandy Latham in the head. Could have put an eye out, the way she threw it. And then when I told her to pick it up, she turns around as pretty as you please, just like she was some little queen and says … well, let me tell you, it was a
word. Can you imagine? Seven years old and she uses words like that? I have the other children to think of. I’m not going to have them hearing words like that. Not in here. And I told her so. And sent her right down to Mr. Marshall. She earned that paddling.”
I too went right down to Mr. Marshall’s office, dragging Boo behind me because there was nothing else to do with him. There, sitting on a chair in the secretary’s office, was Lori, tears over her cheeks, a mangled tissue in her hands. She would not look up as Boo and I entered.
“May Lori come down to class with me?” I asked the secretary. “It’s her time in the resource room.”
The secretary looked up from her typing. First at me and then, craning her neck to see over the counter, at Lori. “Well, I suppose. She was supposed to sit there until she finished crying. You done crying?” she asked across the formica barrier.
“You going to behave yourself for once? No more trouble this afternoon?” the secretary asked.
“You’re too little to be getting in all this trouble.”
Lori rose from the chair.
“Did you hear me?” the secretary asked.
Back to me, the secretary shrugged. “I guess you can have her.”
We walked down the hallway hand in hand, the three of us. My head was down as we were walking and I looked at our clasped hands. Lori’s nails were bitten down to where blood caked around the little finger.
Inside our room I let go of both of them. Boo minced off to see Benny. Lori went directly to the worktable while I shut the door and fastened the small hook-and-eye latch I had purchased at the discount store.
On top of the worktable was one of the pre-primers I had been using with another student earlier in the day. Lori walked over to it and regarded it for a long moment in a serious but detached manner, as one views an exhibit in the museum. She looked back at me, then back at the door. Her face clouded with an emotion I could not decipher.
Abruptly Lori knocked the book off the table with a fierce shove. Around the table she went and kicked the book against the radiator. She grabbed it and ripped at the brightly colored illustrations. “I hate this place! I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!” she screamed at me. “I don’t want to read. I don’t ever want to read. I
reading!” Then her words were swallowed up in sobs as the pages of the pre-primer flew.
Tears everywhere and Lori was lost in her frenzy. She clawed the book, her nails squeaking across the paper. Her entire body was involved, bouncing up and down in a tense, concentrated rage. When the last pages of the pre-primer lay crumpled, she pitched the covers of the book hard at the window behind the table. Then she turned and ran for the door. Not expecting it to be locked, she fell hard against it with a resounding thunk. Giving up a wail of defeat, she collapsed, her body slithering down along the wood of the door like melting butter.
Boo and I stood frozen. The entire drama was probably measurable in seconds. There had been no time to respond. Now in the deafening silence, I could hear only the muted frantic fluttering of Boo’s hands against his pants. And Lori’s low, heavy weeping.
he class was formed.
Following the incident in Edna’s room, Lori was assigned to me all afternoon, along with Boo. Tim and Brad, my two other afternoon resource students, were transferred to the morning, and now I had Lori and Boo alone for almost three hours. Although officially I was still listed as a resource teacher and these two as simply resource students, all of us knew I had a class.