Brax, well. Brax zipped through the multiple choice section of the test, closed it, and sat with his pencil in his lap. I watched him glance around and watch the rest of the class write their essays. I watched him break his mechanical pencil into pieces. I watched him for five minutes, then crouched low and looked at him.
“Brax, is this hard, or do you not feel like doing it?”
“I don’t know what to write.”
“How are you doing today?” (shrug.) “How’s your mom?”
“She in Florida.”
“No, not your aunt. [The aunt that takes care of him has been out of town all week.] How’s your mom. I talked to your aunt last night, she said your mom was going to have the baby. Did she have it?”
“Yeah.” He turned his head to hide his grin in his shoulder
“Really?! A girl or a boy?”
“A boy.” Still not making eye contact, but his whole face was smiling.
“Ohmigosh, are you excited? Have you seen him yet?”
“No, that’s why I’m– I’m not going to be in school on Monday so I can see him in Little Rock.”
“Are you nervous?”
“Do you have other brothers and sisters?”
I knew he had two besides the baby at his mom’s house, but did not expect him to launch into an explanation of brothers and sisters across Arkansas and into Chicago, Kentucky. If I had been keeping track, I think there would have been more than ten. Including one about which he said, “My daddy couldn’t keep him, so he got adopted by some white folk.”
From there I said, “Okay, Brax, you still have 20 minutes left. I think you can write this.”
“I’m just going to get a F.”
I stood up, walked over to our writing trackers, where I keep their old tests and their bar graphs of improvement. I pulled out his diagnostic, 1st and 2nd TLIs. His scores: 5/20, 0/20, 12/20. I put them on his desk.
“Brax, look. You have a choice. This test, when you wrote nothing, got a zero. You did make an F that day. But then you did the work here. You only wrote a paragraph, but you still improved by 12 points. I know you can write. You already showed me. So if you decide to get an F you will, but if you decide to work you won’t.” Then I took the essays and walked away.
Brax sat with his pencil in his lap. He shuffled his papers to look at the blank lines for his essay. Other students were completing their first, second, third paragraphs. I walked by again. “Do you need anything to get started?”
“A pencil. Mine broke.”
I gave him one and walked away again, but watched him lean close to his paper, write in his perfect neat writing. Then he sat straight, stacked his papers neatly, looked around.
Walking by, his paper said
I think one of these teachers should get this award. The teacher want it.
I asked him what he meant, and he said he thought the teacher that wanted the award should get it. It’s amazing, what Brax can do. How he can walk circles around what you want him to do. He can come up with 15 opposite solutions to the problem you give him. He does something that takes infinitely more thought and skill and comprehension of the problem, but he still adamantly refuses to tackle what’s in front of him… because he fears failure. (?) He fears failure, so he throws himself head-first in it. He puts himself in a situation where he knows he will fail, so there are no surprises. No excuses because he knows he didn’t try at all. If he doesn’t try, he don’t risk anything. He’s safe.
I talked to him a few more times, but his test remained with two sentences. I still don’t know what to do. I did talk to his aunt Wednesday, and he wasn’t in school Friday.
Last year I had a student flip out when he had a new baby sister coming. When the baby came he relaxed a little, got back into more regular behavior. Maybe Brax will be like this. Maybe the baby will level him. Maybe this constant contact with his aunt will help him. Maybe he will leave my classroom with no change, no written essays, no confidence. I don’t know, but I’m going to keep trying.