Breaking it down


I’m trying to sit with people I don’t know when I decide to eat in the hospital cafeteria. In the past I’ve usually just sat by myself. Now I find that people have interesting things to tell me.

Today I asked a woman if I might join her. When I sat down, I realized she looked rather tired. I hoped that I wasn’t interfering with her quiet time at lunch. We began talking, I soon realized  that she had a difficult time finding the words she wanted to say. She would start a phrase over again several times in an effort to get her thought out. I realized part of it was how tired she was. Part of it was her natural speech pattern. When she paused I began substituting words I thought she might be looking for. I stopped that right away when I thought of how annoying it is to me when people do the same thing to me. I just listened.

I learned that she had been employed by the hospital for twenty-five years. She started in food service and over time took classes and different jobs until she became a registration representative. She said she worked the same twelve hour shift that nurses do. She comes in at 6 AM until 6 PM.

She started talking about her daughter. Her pride in her daughter is obvious. Her daughter is in honors classes and was just inducted into the National Honor Society. She said when she gets home it’s time to drive her daughter around to her many different activities. She proudly stated that her daughter was in a play in a community group so she now has to drive her to rehearsals until May. If it’s not drama, it’s several other organizations.  Her daughter will soon turn 16, but she’s not sure she’s ready for her to drive, especially at night.

The rep is a member of the sandwich generation. She also helps to take care of her mother. In between times she has all the usual business of living and caring for her home. She mentioned several times that she was a single mother. I told her I understood where she was. Fortunately, it was just me and my son together without the addition of a parent to care for. But for me, all those twelve years until he got into college just having the two of us together plus holding down a job was enough.

She’s very proud of her daughter. She told me that she, herself, was always slow in school and nobody really ever helped her break down the material to where she could get it. Her daughter started out the same way, she said.

She said more than once that she knew how important it was for her to help her daughter. Her sister had purchased a “Hooked on Phonics” set that the sister let her use with her daughter. She couldn’t afford to buy a new set, but she was willing to if she had to.  “I broke everything down. I worked with her. Once she got it, she had it! Now she wants to go to college. She’s interested in drama.” She began to smile broadly as she spoke of her daughter’s achievements.

I told her I agreed with her about breaking things down. It reminded me of a student I had twenty five years ago and I told her so. I told her the story of a young summer school student I had when I first went back to teaching. He was supposed to be going into sixth grade but he had already been held back a couple of years. He was in the remedial fifth grade math class. You could touch his attitude a foot away.

I was supposed to be teaching him fifth grade material. He couldn’t do it. He was completely resigned to the fact that he was only in the class because he had to be.  I decided to back down and tested him on the first grade level. He passed. I tested him on the second grade level. He had some issues that I worked with him on. He passed. We went on to the third grade level. It went that way for the whole six weeks. The class was full but I was kind of tutoring him individually as well as working with the others during class time. I had three hours of math time for that class every day so I fit special time in for him.

He remained almost silent the whole time, but I began sensing the attitude changing little by little. I couldn’t resist the “Atta boys” and “I told you you were smart” and all the other things I told him. By the end of that summer he passed the fourth grade test. He was now only one grade level behind.

He still never said much and his dour expression never really changed.  The last day of class I dismissed the children and he left the room. I sat down at the desk to do the paper work. I looked up and watched as he re-entered the room. To be perfectly honest, I was a little afraid. I was in the wing entirely on my own. I didn’t know what to expect.

I stood up to greet him, acting as nonchalant as I could. We looked each other in the eye and all he said was “Thank you.” Then he stepped forward and gave me a big hug. I told him that I was grateful that he let me do my job. He just gave me the biggest smile and walked back out of the room. I swear the light in the room increased 50% with that grin.

I finished my story and told my lunch mate that he is one of the students I’ll never forget. She looked at me and said, “He probably never forgot you either. You were willing to break it down for him.” “Your daughter was very lucky that you were willing to do the same thing for her,” I said.

She excused herself and said it was time for her to clock back in. I think she felt a little proud of herself and a little less tired.  It was a nice lunch. Namaste. Attic Annie

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