I Couldn’t Promise Sophia I Would Be Back

I Couldn’t Promise Sophia I’d Be Back
By Lallie Lloyd, Director, All Our Children
Trinity Church, Boston

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I’d been reading with Sophia (not her real name) once a week for about six weeks when she hijacked one of our sessions.

She didn’t want to talk about playing basketball with her older brother and his friends, or babysitting her younger cousins, when I asked her how she was doing.

“It’s so unfair,” she said. She told me about teachers who treated her with disrespect. She told me she’d received seven ‘green sheets’ already.

“What’s a green sheet?”

“It’s a paper they give you if you do something they don’t like.”

“Like what?”

“They wanted me to go to the library the other day, but I didn’t want to go. So I took off.”

“You took off,” I repeated in a neutral voice.

“Yeah, I ran down the corridor in the other direction. They couldn’t catch me.”

From April through June I joined six other volunteers from Trinity Church to read with fourth graders at Sophia’s school. It’s an overcrowded school in Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood some call ‘disadvantaged.’ Others call Dorchester ‘under-invested,’ ‘low income,’ ‘formerly red-lined,’ ‘historically neglected.’ Sophia calls Dorchester ‘home.’

Cathy (not her real name either), the school’s reading specialist who paired me with Sophia, had described her as bright and curious – and easily distracted by friends, a handful when she got mad. Knowing only her reading level, I picked five books to spread on the table before her on our first day. “I picked these because I hope one of them will look interesting to you, so we can read it together.”

Sophia picked up each one, slowly and deliberately, looking at the pictures, reading the back cover, as she’d been taught. “Well…I’ve read these two.” She made a pile on her left. “And I don’t like this author.” She placed a third book on the stack. “I know this author. I really like another book she wrote.” Her voice lifted as she picked up Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan, placing it close to her. She reached for the last one. “And this one looks all right.”

“Sounds like you like this one best,” I said, reaching for Riding Freedom, “Shall we read it?”

“OK.”

We read for an hour every Thursday for the next four weeks. We’d pull up chairs at a folding table outside the auditorium, because ‘overcrowded’ means no place to sit. Teachers who knew Sophia told me later they’d never seen her concentrate so hard or be so engaged. Sometimes she read to me; sometimes I read to her. We’d look at the drawings about the true story of Charlotte Parkhurst, who escaped an abusive orphanage in New Hampshire and, disguised as a boy, earned a living as a stable hand. Still disguised as a man, Charlotte became a famous stagecoach driver during the 1880’s California gold rush, and in 1868 more than fifty years before women gained suffrage, Charlotte voted in the U.S. presidential election.

Now I asked her, “What happens when you get a green sheet?”

“If you get eight you have to repeat your grade.”

All my inner alarm bells went off. Repeating a grade is one of the biggest predictors of school drop out.

Sophia was more than bright and curious. She was tenacious in her effort to decode the words of Charlotte’s story and also to understand the gender roles and social mores of Charlotte’s era. She was curious about characters’ inner lives and motivations. She was competitive with a fierce streak that I’m sure played well on the basketball court.

What would be lost if this child – this precious brilliant girl — didn’t complete school? And what could I do? I started by listening.

We didn’t read about Charlotte that week. Sophia told me what seemed unfair, showing a keen sense of dignity and fairness.

“When I look at you,” I replied, “I see a strong person who knows the difference between right and wrong; who can make good choices for herself.” I wanted to bring to her mind people who could help her avoid green sheets.

“Are there any teachers here you feel safe with?”

“Oh yes,” her face relaxed. “Lots.”

That’s when my heart sank. I knew – but she apparently did not, yet — that when she returns for fifth grade in September, not one of those teachers will be there. In October of last year the school learned it had failed to meet two state targets for its turnaround. The targets were important — no one thought the school was doing well enough. But the commissioner of education chose an aggressive response when he appointed an outside non-profit to take over the school. This group offered jobs to less than one-third of the current teachers, and none of them – not one – accepted the offer to stay. They’ll all be teaching elsewhere.

According to some teachers, the non-profit would not compensate them for the longer school day and longer school year they planned. We were told the non-profit would rely on Vista-volunteer type interns — young, right out of college, most of whom have never taught in schools like Sophia’s – to provide intensive tutoring. Not one of the teachers Sophia knows and trusts will be back.

Nothing like this ever happened to me in school; nor to my children. I can’t imagine the disruption and dislocation. Why do we let it happen to Sophia’s school, to Sophia?

Next year, who will know that her edginess comes from boredom? That she needs a meaningful challenge, instead of a green sheet?

Our team met with the director of the non-profit to get to know him and tell him we’d like to be back in September. “Well,” he said, turning his face toward the window, “We’ll be re-examining all our partnerships. Collaboration takes work, you know.”

Sophia finished fourth grade without any more green sheets.

“Things will be really different here next year,” she said on our last day together.

“Oh,” I said, wondering what she knew, “Like what?”

“I’ll have to come to school much earlier,” she said. I wish that were all.

And I couldn’t promise I’d be there.

P.S. And sometimes God works in mysterious ways…After I wrote this, just as we were posting it, we were contacted by the non-profit’s family and community liaison inviting us to meet! We’ll do that within the next few weeks. Maybe I’ll get to read with Sophia after all! Stay tuned.