Caroline in the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 20 2012

“I don’t know how to use a thesaurus.” (part 2)

After Brax was unresponsive to both me and Mrs. P, his fourth grade teacher, I had him follow me back to the classroom, where I sat him at his desk with his homework sitting in front of him. I promptly got a thesaurus and placed it on the corner of the desk, saying, “The front is the dictionary, the back is the thesaurus.”

I sat at my computer. He sat at his desk. I looked back at him, “You won’t leave until it’s finished.”

He sat.

Suddenly, he sprang to work, writing hunched over his desk, his face inches from the paper. He then proclaimed, “I’m done!” To the air, waiting for me to come check. As I leaned over, I saw markings not unusual for this boy.

On every single question were the words don’t know scrawled in pencil. Seven times. don’t know don’t know don’t know don’t know don’t know don’t know don’t know

No punctuation, no capitalization, no “I” (is that lack of an I significant?)

I sighed, told him it was unacceptable. He said, “I’m leavin’” to the floor, scooted out of his desk and headed toward the door. Fortunately for me, Brax is a slow mover. I literally blocked the door, something RA training told me never to do. I just could not let this twelve year old win.

And as soon as I thought that, as soon as the word “win” came into my mind, I knew something was very, very wrong. Power struggles are one of my top ten most hated events of life. This psychological warfare, stand off, who can outlast who… it’s the opposite of rationalization, the opposite of everything I believe in, but here I was, engaging in it.

I told Brax, “You can leave when you either answer the questions, or write “I have decided not to do this work. I do not want to stay in Ms. Lampinen’s class.”

Brax knows I’ve been keeping a folder of his copied work to show his counselor, the ALE teacher, and the vice principal. He knows I’ve been keeping close tabs on him.

This began the beginning of a 20-minute stand-off between Brax and I. Literally. 20 minutes is a very, very long time to stand with a child and attempt to rationalize why he needs to do homework. To beat yourself up about why you won’t let him just leave, just let him give up, just let yourself back down. It’s a long time to stare at the back of a kid, a kid, and wonder why you deserve to be there, if you have any right to ever tell him what to do.

It was a long time.

Through spurts of murmured conversation and consistent “I’un’tknow”s, Brax revealed just a little bit more of his story. When I tell him about him potentially going to ALE it’s “too much pressure” (his words), and freaks him out more. He wants me to let him do his work on his own, until he asks for help. (“What about on the work you just did, Brax? I let you do it by yourself and you wrote don’t know for everything. You never asked for help.”) He does not want to go to ALE. He told me he wanted to call his aunt at least 20 times.

To him, I said, “Brax, you know I talk about you more than anyone else? Every time I talk about school I tell people about you. I tell them how smart and funny and great you are, but how I can’t teach you. How hard it is for me to teach you anything, because you write ‘don’t know’ and give up.” Later, “I feel like a failure, Brax, because I am not a good teacher for you. I tried writing you up, I tried calling home, I tried letting you do your homework before school, during lunch, and after school. I tried giving you a partner to help you. I tried letting you do it by yourself. I tried threatening you with ALE. I tried talking to you. Brax, I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how to help you be successful. You are still failing my class, even though you get over 80% on every test. I don’t know how to help you.”

I like to think my honesty helped him relax, helped him realize I don’t hate him or target him, I’m trying to give him what he needs.

To his comment about wanting to do it by himself, I said, “I gave you a thesaurus and let you do it on your own.”

“I’un’tknow how to use that,” he said, barely audible even in the silent room.

“Wait, what? You don’t know how to use it?”


“Can I show you how?” I ask in a high, harmless voice. I ask even though every one of my students has a thesaurus in the back of their binders that we have used for editing more than once in class. I ask even though I have a feeling Brax does know how to use it, he is just too terrified to open it up and remember what it is. He is too terrified to explore the book and figure out what it means. If he tackled it himself, without fear of failure, he would have been fine without me. But in this moment I don’t care, I just want a door, any door, that will get this war to end.

He nods, and though I am terrified he will bolt out the now-unguarded door as I walk to his desk to get it, he doesn’t.

I tell him he doesn’t have to look at me as I explain, just look at my fingers. Look at the book. He does.

“The first word you have to find synonyms for it SAD. So I go to the S’s, I find sad, and look at these words! Can you read them for me?”

“…unhappy, gloomy, depressed…”

“Do those words mean the same thing as sad?”

He nods.

“Do you think you can copy (I wince at this, after all that struggle, he is still doing low-level work, copying words from a book– doing zero thinking on his own) those words onto your homework, then use this book to do the same thing for the rest of the work?”

He nods.

I had it to him, “Go ahead.”

He takes it to his desk, looks at me, “May I go to the bathroom?”

“Are you gonna come back?”

He nods. He leaves. He comes back. He takes 20 minutes to finish everything. He doesn’t complain. When the work is done I put my cell phone on his desk and show him how to do it. “You push this button, then type in the number. If you still want to call your aunt, you can.”

He cuts me off, “I don’t want to call her.”

“You sure?”


“You want a sucker?”


I give him a dum dum and tell him he still has 15 minutes left of after-school (our program that’s supposed to “catch up” failing students– it’s a joke). Before he leaves he throws out his wrapper and turns back, says,

“Thank you.”

From my tiny computer desk that faces the window, I pause to watch his back, his bright red t-shirt billowing as he runs from my door to his after school room, his left hand holding up his jeans as he trots across the 4th grade playground.

2 Responses

  1. Wess

    If I remembered to write more like you do, I wouldn’t get tired of writing and every day could be a story of a real struggle like this one.


  2. shante

    wow. This is encouraging.

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