Only this was real life.
I tutor kids in writing at Berkeley High, and the night before last week’s session, I got an email from the woman who coordinates the program, asking if I would be willing to tutor Demarcus:
”Demarcus has selective mutism–he won’t talk at school unless his parents are present. He has an IEP. Apparently he will write notes and give thumbs up/down, so that is a good way to communicate.”
I said yes – I was intrigued – and immediately thought of Paul Dano’s character in “Little Miss Sunshine,” the teenage boy who doesn’t speak out of frustration that he can not be an air force pilot.
“Your task is to reflect on what it means to be a member of a group you identify with,” wrote the teacher in the assignment handout. “There are (hardly) any limits to what you could choose, so think outside the box.” She cited as examples of groups, “Latinas, ‘middle’ children, trombone players, gamers, skaters and Muslims.”
I sat down in the desk next to Demarcus’, pulled it in a few inches closer, and asked him the same question I ask every student I tutor:
“How can I help?”
He shook his head. Okay, so I went to my second go-to question.
“Where are you on the assignment? Have you started?”
Again he shook his head.
“Well,” I said, starting to fill out our worksheet, “then let’s begin at the beginning. What groups are you part of?”
“No groups or clubs?”
Again he shook his head.
“Okay, what about your family?” He had to come from somewhere, I reasoned. ”Do you have any siblings?”
He nodded and scribbled down “3 brothers.”
“Okay, so are you one of the three, or are you the fourth?”
Then he wrote down “3 sisters.”
I smiled. “So you’re one of six – three boys and three girls?”
He nodded. Here I didn’t think of “Little Miss Sunshine.” I thought of another pop culture family:
…only a little less…well…blindingly white.
Demarcus is a big kid, broad shouldered, with close cropped hair. He wore a red hoodie and slouched forward in his seat. Another coach had written on an earlier worksheet that he smiled often, and it was true. No surly teen attitude here, and I’ve seen plenty of it. I tutor teens and have a pair of my own.
“Where are you in the order?” He wrote down number 6.
“Ah, you’re the baby.”
He smiled again, but it felt like something was missing. He didn’t seem that enthusiastic about the family angle for his essay. It seemed like he was just answering a question on a form. I didn’t sense any passion, just obligation.
I asked again if he belonged to any clubs at school, and again he shook his head.
“What about religion? Are you part of any church?”
He shook his head.
I wasn’t sure where to go next, so I mentioned as examples that I had been in school plays and that my own son played football.
“Do you play sports?”
“Oh – okay – great – what do you play?”
He wrote down “football.”
I was surprised that he hadn’t nodded earlier when I asked if he belonged to any clubs or groups, but I hadn’t asked him specifically about “teams,” and in my experience, kids are often literalists – approximations and umbrella terms don’t always work – and I hadn’t asked specifically about “teams.” In any case, I now had a very obvious group to which Demarcus belonged.
“What position do you play?”
He wrote down “DE.” Thanks to my own sons, both of whom are athletes, unlike their father, I actually know what that means.
“Okay, so you’re a defensive end. JV or Varsity?” He wrote down “JV.”
“My kid plays for Longstreet High, he’s on the O-line,” I told Demarcus. “But I don’t think you’ve played them, they’re not very good.”
Berkeley High is a big school, with a huge pool of potential athletes to draw from, and the Berkeley Yellowjackets are a good team. Longstreet is a small school and plays in a less competitive league. To line them up against Berkeley would just be cruel to the Longstreet kids.
“You’d probably destroy them,” I added. This time he was modest enough not to smile.
So I had some facts: Demarcus was a defensive end for the Berkeley JV football team. And this time there was something in his body language. I knew he’d be enthused (well, as enthused as any student can be about homework) to write an essay about playing football.
“So what are some feelings you have when you’re playing. Just jot down a few words that come to mind.”
He smiled and scribbled down “proud, hard work, excited.”
Three words. Three wonderful words that could be turned into three body paragraphs.
We would soon be running out of time, and I still had another student to coach. And we were just making headway!
A thesis. A reason for writing at all. It’s what everyone who puts pen to paper needs. So on a scratch piece of paper I cut to the chase and wrote down,
“Being part of the JV football means _________________ to me.”
“Fill in the blank, Demarcus, and you’ve got your thesis.”
He hesitated, not sure what to write, and, like many kids, he seemed to feel he needed to hurry, as if I was impatient for an answer. I see it all the time – it’s just the natural reaction kids have around adults, especially anyone with a whiff of authority-figure about them, so I went to another one of my go-to strategies:
“Take your time,” I told him. “It’s not a race. Coming up with a thesis is the most important part of your essay, it’s also the hardest thing to do.” And then I literally slump in my seat and look around, as if I’m studying the posters in the room. After 10 or 20 seconds (which – try it – can feel like an eternity when you’re just sitting there silently with someone), he wrote this:
“Being a part of the JV football teams means challenging myself.”
We still had a minute or two left, so I asked, “And what do you think the biggest thing is that you’ve learned challenging yourself?” He wrote down three more words:
“never giving up.”
I had one of those goosebumps moments. And I have them more often than not: in the years I’ve spent doing this, I’ve learned that every kid has something to say, whether they can speak or not.
Our coordinator reminded us it was time to wrap up with our first students.
“So do you think you have enough of a road map to write an essay?” I asked Demarcus. He nodded, and I told him I thought he had the makings of a great essay. So did he. I could see it in his smile – it was writ large and unmistakably.
I have no pat, pithy ending for this little episode. Demarcus didn’t suddenly start miraculously speaking at the end – “Alfredo, it was your patience and easygoing manner that has allowed me to break through!” - roll credits….
…but it was refreshing and engaging simply to have the chance to interact with someone whose uniqueness was of a sort I hadn’t encountered before. Demarcus seemed comfortable in his skin, and was obviously comfortable enough to have gone out for football. That takes guts, whether you choose to speak or not. I wondered how he interacted with friends at school, but mostly I just wondered at the variety of us all.