As I had a conversation with my student about his experiences with reading, I shared my own. As I sat there sharing my reading experiences, I contemplated whether or not to revisit one memory that I know affected my life. It was an experience that I try to overlook, but the images haunt me to this day. At times I still cringe when images from this experience come to mind. Did this experience cause the avoidance I had for reading during my elementary and middle school years or did it help create the desire I have for teaching students who are struggle with reading?
It was 28 years ago. I remember it clearly. I was sitting in the back of the room, avoiding the long-term substitute teacher. She was calling the names of students for a round robin reading activity. I tried hiding behind the classmate who was sitting in front of me. I recall thinking, “Please don’t call on me.” Were those thoughts in Spanish?
Considering today’s educational list of labels for students, I would have been considered an ELL student. I entered kindergarten as a monolingual Spanish speaker. To this day, I cannot recall whether or not I knew English during this negative experience with reading. At that very moment, I heard her call my name, “Bobby, it is your turn to get up in front of the room and read aloud.” I would have never imagined it would be that moment in time that would haunt me to this day.
Little by little I crept to the front of the classroom. I remember looking at my book and not being able to read. What do I say? How can I get out of this situation? Time stood still. I begin by trying to read a couple of words. I struggled. I really tried to read, but could not make out the words. I remember getting a nauseous feeling, and my stomach started feeling heavier and heavier. Never in my life had I been put in this situation. As my classmates stared at me, the substitute teacher looked at me with disgust. Out of nowhere, she yelled, “Sit down – you don’t know how you read!” I believe that moment impacted the way I looked at reading.
How can anyone treat a person with so much cruelty? Did she realize what she just did? Or did she purposely set out to embarrass me in front of my classmates? I remember the journey back to my desk. It was a walk of shame. I felt my face burning. I felt weak. I sat quietly in my desk and put my head down, wanting to run out of the room and hide.
Since then, I do not have vivid memories of my reading experiences. I know I rarely read books. I do not remember the teachers reading to us. I don’t remember them creating an environment where reading was accepted and valued. Actually, I do not remember teachers using phonics in the classroom. I do remember the book fairs that took place in the library. Not having the money to purchase books, I recall wanting a book and being disappointed that I could not purchase one. Those books were only for children who came from what I considered wealth families. What an experience!