I remember the way that bathroom smelled as I sat, waiting for the hands on the other side of it to release their weight and allow me to go free. I remember the echo of every sniffle and every moan that I allowed to release from my throat. I remember the silence that accompanied my pleas for help, and the laughter that drowned out my questions of why.
I remember their words.
It was after school one day in sixth grade that I decided I would ask my English teacher for help understanding our reading assignments. I don’t remember what those assignments were, but I remember wanting help, wanting to learn. Maybe I wanted to learn too much—maybe if I had been less obvious, I never would have been in the situation I shortly found myself. I got to her room too soon, and instead of waiting, I decided that I should wash my hands, or blow my nose, or the host of reasons that bring you to a bathroom.
I didn’t see them. I had no idea they were there.
Armed with my excitement, I pushed the door to exit, but the door didn’t move. I was trapped. I was alone except for their words.
I remember their words.
In my studies as a pre-service teacher, I recently read Turner and Paris’s (1995) “How Literacy Tasks Influence Children’s Motivation for Literacy,” in which they discuss the importance of what they call the “Six C’s” to influence children’s motivation to read and engage in classroom work. Those six items are Choice, Control, Challenge, Collaboration, Constructing Meaning and Consequences. These features of pedagogical design, based on what we know about learning and teaching sound solid, but I was left with a question:
In cases similar to mine, what happens when bullying outside of the classroom, bleeds inside, rendering kids afraid to engage, subsequently stunting their abilities to infer, question, visualize, interact with peers, critically view the word and world—or a host of other literacy practices needed to be successful as a reader?
Whether any of us would like to acknowledge it or not, as social creatures, relationships, acceptance and popularity are strong influences throughout our lives. We depend on it in business, politics, and even the teachers’ lounge.
Turner and Paris (1995) say, concerning their second C, Control, that “students want to see themselves as originators of plans and ideas, not as followers in a grand scheme they may not understand” (p. 667), and while I agree that this idea will empower kids to feel in control of their education, my concern is that we still lump students together in much of classroom activity—empowered or not. In this context, what voices are heard? Who is taking credit for the originating ideas? To be bullied is to be made invisible, not heard from, insignificant. The result? Not only do those who are bullied lose their voice outside of the classroom, they suffer the same injustice inside the classroom, rendering their control non-existent.
From that moment in the bathroom, until I left high school, reading and comprehension was no longer something I desired—it was the very thing I avoided. If I didn’t understand, it meant I didn’t have to speak, with the hope that my silence would result in everyone else’s silence toward me. After all, my questions didn’t result in improving my understanding, but rather, in an extremely embarrassing and unfortunate situation. Questions were the cause of my torment, and in a desperate attempt to distance myself from that torment, my questions ceased. Reading became an object of dread for me, and there wasn’t a reading comprehension quiz I couldn’t fail if I thought it would help me. My preservation strategies only resulted in the adverse effect on my comprehension, and it would take me until the age of 27 to finish a book cover to cover.
Was my experience all that different from one faced by scores of other students around the country? Absolutely not, and all too often cases are much worse that being locked in a bathroom. Even still, the damage of bullying would stay with me, as I am sure it does for a lot of people. In the new age of high standards testing, and the desire to make our children “proficient” on paper, my question becomes:
How can we make reading in the classroom an all-inclusive event, catering it as an exercise in tolerance? Is there a way that we as educators can return words to their position of power as a learning tool, rather than a weapon of degradation?
In the interest of transparency, I am not sure that a text exists to perform that function. I will remain hopeful that as educators we can take up curricular and pedagogic approaches that will provide students with experiences to increase tolerance, directing them down a path that will promote unity with literacy education. I will dream that one day, experiences like my own will be stomped out by the students themselves, never to affect comprehension again. Someday soon, perhaps even through my teaching, students will leave their classrooms armed with knowledge founded in tolerance, and before standing by and watching bullying happen, they will jump into action saying:
I remember their words.Turner, J. & Paris S. (1995). How literacy tasks influence children’s motivation for literacy. The Reading Teacher, 48(8), 662-673.