Tennyson Street School: affinity

Affinity: (n) a fellow feeling for

While technically still in training, I was asked to meet regularly with Javier. “Ooo, good luck,” the other Fellows had told me with a sympathetic wince. He had a reputation for disregarding rules and fighting back. His test scores showed his attitude more than his ability; a student teacher had advised me Javier “hadn’t felt like trying that day.”

I felt myself bristle ever so slightly. I have an affinity for the smart kid who picks all the wrong battles to fight. I come from a long line of Javiers.

Grandpa Jensen didn’t actually get his degree from Iowa State; he enrolled, took all the required classes, and passed them all – except for one. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pass the English.

Holger was a conundrum for those who knew him: a hard-working farmer but a lackluster student, a fun-loving guy with a strong stubborn streak, a proud man who didn’t talk about himself, humble yet fierce. His thick Danish accent was a daily reminder that he was a first-generation American; he might be born here, even able to speak the language, but inside his parents’ home, vi er danskere. We are Danes.

He became an ROTC second lieutenant who technically didn’t graduate college. Maybe Iowa State didn’t have Fellows or tutors to help ESL students complete their degrees in the 1920’s. They had professors, however, and other students, native English speakers. Holger could have asked for help; the problem was that Holger…just…couldn’t. Something in his character, his personality, maybe his upbringing, made that the distasteful or shameful choice. Knowing him, his attitude would have been to clench his jaw and walk away without looking back.

I’d been told Javier’s family spoke Spanish at home, which might also be impacting his English language skills. I went into the 4th-5th combined classroom to meet him, a beautiful boy who will be a strikingly handsome man one day. Strong and sturdy, Javier looked like an athlete, and his sporty attire confirmed the image. We would be reading together one-on-one in addition to our Literacy Lab time, so after introducing myself, we sat down by the classroom bookshelves.

“What book will we read?” Javier asked me, trying hard not to sound too interested.

“Why don’t you pick one book that’s too easy, and one that’s kind of hard,” I suggested.

He glanced at the shelves, but was actually watching me. “I’ve read all of these,” he shrugged.

“You’ve read ALL of these?”

“Mm-hmm.” He eyed me casually but intently.

“That’s a lot of reading.” I didn’t push; letting the ridiculous exaggeration stand seemed to allow Javier to let it go.

“I can just reach in while I close my eyes and choose, like this” – and placing one hand over his eyes, his other fingers danced over the tops of some chapter books within reach. He snatched one from the shelf.

“‘Bailey School Kids’ – those are good ones. You like the ‘Bailey School Kids’ books?”

“It’s okay.”

A voice popped up on the other side of Javier. “Hey! I know you!” A small, thin boy grinned even as he tried to scowl at me.

“And I know you,” I greeted him. “Your name begins with a D…,” I feigned ignorance.

“D-E-L-E-O-N, DeLeon.”

“Hi, DeLeon,” I grinned back.

Javier looked back and forth between us. “Can we go read now?”

“Did you pick an easy one, too?”

Javier grabbed a thin picture book. He flapped it at me exasperatedly, as if he’d been waiting for hours for our reading time.

“Ready? Nice seeing you, DeLeon,” I waved. DeLeon gave a little wave back. Javier and I left the classroom for a reading and study area up the hall, across from the Lab.

The study area was carpeted and corralled by low walls made of smooth wooden railing and colorful square insets. A high counter ran along it’s farther wall, with bright blue barstools the older kids liked climbing into. The rest of the space was filled with a hodgepodge of discarded office chairs, small ottoman-style vinyl seats in fun shapes and colors, and a brown corduroy papasan chair with a metal frame. I thought of my “learning environment” admonishments: everything in your space MUST serve a purpose; less is more; label everything. Javier plopped into the papasan chair, and with a gracious wave of his hand, offered me the office chair next to it: the teacher’s chair.

I had him start with the easy book. It was a colorful, cartoonish picture book about baseball, aimed at a much younger child. As he hurried from page to page, reading words in the stilted Frankenstein walk of trampled, unrecognized meaning, suddenly a realization came to him.

“Hey! Did you hear that? It’s like a poem!”

“You’re right, it rhymes.”

Javier nodded and continued trampling, occasionally repeating a few words when he recognized the rhyme scheme.

When he reached the end, I asked him what he liked about that book. His big eyes grew thoughtful as he looked directly into mine. “The poetry. I like books with imagery.”

“Imagery like illustrations? Or imagery like pictures in your head?”

“Pictures in my head.”

Javier the baseball fan liked poetic imagery. The picture in my own head was changing focus, gaining depth. The caption I’d been given did not accurately label this complex image.

We started into the chapter book. As Javier stumbled over the character names, calling Liza “Lizza,” I soon figured out he’d never read a Bailey School Kids book before. The premise of this popular series involves a group of four elementary school students who keep suspecting various teachers of being various kinds of monsters.

Where other children grin knowingly as they try to determine if the math teacher is, in fact, a goblin, Javier seemed taken aback. It quickly became clear that he did not want any of the teachers to be any kind of monsters. He seemed relieved when our reading time was up, though he made no move to extricate himself from the cozy depths of the papasan chair.

Comfort zones may be refuges, but they are also limiting. “Time to go back to class.” I stood from my chair, holding the easy book and looking at him expectantly. Javier finally clambered up and out, and now with a gracious wave of my hand, I had him lead me back to his classroom.

“What grade are you in, Javier, 4th or 5th?” I clarified as I opened the door.

“Fifth.” He looked directly in my eyes again, waiting to see how I would respond.

“Thought so,” I smiled.

“We’re going to get you all ready for middle school, bud,” his teacher added now, affectionately tossling his hair and absorbing him back into the room. She was none other than Commanding Teacher.