The Common Good

Recognizing Greatness in a First Grader

There is a wonderful scene in Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird where the all-white jury has returned an unjust verdict against Tom Robinson. Atticus Finch begins to wearily walk out of the courthouse. His children, Jem and Scout, are in the balcony with the black folks of the county. They all rise as Atticus walks out except the children so the Rev. Sykes says to Scout, Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your fathers passin.

During the first weeks of school, Scout's story came back to me as I was benchmarking the reading levels of our first- and second-grade students. Before I took the students through the benchmark test, I asked them open-ended questions and listened to their answers. At first they were shy, as children often are when they meet a new teacher. But soon they were telling me their stories with confident voices and dimpled smiles.

I learned a lot about them. One of our second-graders named Q has an encyclopedic knowledge of horses:

"Q, tell me about you. What are some things you like to do?"

"I lived in Mexico for two years and learned all about horses. I know how to fix a bucket of oats for them to eat, I know how to put saddles on them, I know how to ride them. I have two horses at my house. Their names are Midnight and Daybreak. Let me tell you about them ... ."

Another named J loves to eat at Japanese restaurants:

"J, tell me about you. What are some things you like to do?"

"Tonight, my family is going out to eat at a Japanese restaurant. I went there before on my birthday. I wore a crown and they sang Happy Birthday to me in Japanese. The chef does tricks with knives and cooks the food right in front of you. I'll bring a picture and show you ..."

Both these stories are surprising because we are an inner-city school. Most of our students know more about asphalt and apartments and McDonalds than pastures and farm houses and sushi. But as teachers, we always have to be open to surprises.

One of our first-graders named M sat down and looked across at me with clear, brown eyes. She is one of our many English-as-a-second-language students. Her parents speak only Spanish in the home. Carola and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco have written brilliantly and eloquently about children like her in their book Learning A New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society. They remind us how valuable and vulnerable our immigrant students are in the first years they are in America. M is indeed learning a new land.

"M, do you speak Spanish at home? Do your mommy and daddy speak Spanish at home?"

"Yes."

"And you speak English at school." 

"Yes, I'm bilingual!"

"You are bilingual. You have to be so smart to be able to speak two languages and to help your mommy and daddy understand your teachers."

You do have to be smart to live in one land and learn another. After M finished her benchmark test, after she translated my English into Spanish and the Spanish back into English for me, and stood up and walked with me to her classroom, I felt like saying, "Teachers and administrators, stand up. M's passin'."

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, SC. He is a blogger for the Teaching Toleranceproject of the Southern Poverty Law CenterPhoto: Stack of classic books, sergign / Shutterstock.com

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