David, the homeliest,
skinniest kid I had ever seen. A perfect example of The Three P
Syndrome; piss poor protoplasm: eyes set close together, pidgin
breasted, legs arms like sticks, huge hands feet to match, a
David enters Kindergarten: the teacher, yard supervisors
register constant, desperate complaints: David won’t share,
David won’t listen, David won’t talk, David ignores rules, David
fights, David bits, David’s dirty, David smells, David won’t
learn. David’s weird. Again and again the principal phones home;
permission granted to paddle his bony little behind.
First grade. Worse. David grew in stature, complaints, his
unrivaled claim to fame, urinating on the ceiling of the
bathroom, (The custodian never figured out how he did it?) David
was legendary. He aroused my interest my concerns.
I became David focused. Something perplexing in his demeanor,
the uncomfortable manner not knowing how to locate himself in
his surroundings. An aged child. Never to age. Dead at
twenty-three. A casualty of war.
I knew this child. I knew his family. Eight children, he’s
number seven. Not one free from problems: truancies, runaways,
thefts, vandalisms, pregnancies, drugs, alcohol, incest,
whatever was destructive lived in his home: thrived, spread,
radiated, a malignancy.
Yes indeed, did I know this family. Countless home visits,
advising: means of controlling the children, getting them to
school. Me the white liberal social worker: lots of words, lots
of ideas, lots of recommendations, hardly realistic support for
a family in another cultural world, the culture of the poor. My
middle class values of no use. I was so ignorant, arrogant.
Gifts of clothes, food, toys, candy: “False Consciousness,” Marx
called it ― and Freud, I suppose would put these efforts down as
I found out later that I was referred to, by many of my
families, as the nice lady, well intentioned, but a clueless,
insufferable do-gooder who thought that she could change
everything with words, I had to adjust, realize that I had no
experience at living their lives; being in the trenches; not one
who had ever manned the oars. David changed all that.
My first encounter with David was at his house. One of the
hundreds then thousands built fast and cheap, in this formally
ignored valley, until 1955. Short of water, inaccessible, with
high temperatures, winds, and nicknamed, the ass hole of the
county, more politely arm pit, later the added portrayal; the
land of the midnight movers.
This house: It was a bilious green with brown trim. Paint was
peeling in green and brown strips from every surface. There was
a torn, dirty grey plastic sheet covering the north side of the
roof. The dirt yard strewn with debris, plants skeletal brown.
Black oil spots of various sizes, shapes and age covered the
cracked asphalt driveway. The garage door was propped up on the
right with several bent 2 x 4’s.
The left side was left to hang. The garage filled with car
parts, tools, broken toys, discarded clothing, baby stuff,
whatever was shoved out of the house.
The front door was covered with ugly words cut into the wood.
I rapped a polite knock―knock―knock. No one could hear over the
blare of the TV, the screaming, the swearing, sounds bounced
like cannon shots off the walls. Knock again ― still
louder―bam―bam―bam; better use the heel of my shoe next round.
I moved to the adjoining window, peered through thin, torn,
dirty curtains saw figures darting here and there. The glow of a
television. Back to the door.
I removed my shoe. I heard the click of the door latch. The door
opened, one inch, held by a short chain. Peering into the minute
opening, I saw no one, but heard breathing. Looking down,
attracted by a flutter of movement, there was a splinter-sized
silhouette of a little person, peeking out.
Stooping down, careful not to snag my stockings,
eye-ball-to-eye-ball, holding my breath “Is your mother home?”
The door clicked shut. I was left kneeling before the scared
wooden wall. Back into a more dignified pose I waited. I waited
and waited, not about to leave.
Suddenly the door was snatched open. I was facing a half-naked
giant who couldn’t see his feet for his belly, those feet bare
and dirty with long toenails encrusted with filth. His red face
was covered by days of bristling whiskers, bloodshot squinted
eyes, and the biggest hands I had ever seen. “Whatcha want?”
I held my ground stammered about the truancy of one of his
teenage daughters. A lopsided grin: “Come on in, girlie, close
the door behind ya, I’ll get the woman.” He wheeled, took two
giant steps, plopped himself down in a huge ragged chair, lifted
his opened beer can shouted “Someone here to see ya.” Standing
there my back to the open door, I pushed it shut not all the way
so to be secured by the latch.
I looked around: Everything that I had heard and seen from the
outside was the same inside. Total chaos. To my right was a
light switch. Not so unusual except that on the cover plate was
a naked Richard Nixon with the actual switch in the place of his
genitalia. On the floor was this small huddled person, face just
inches from the screen the sound blasting.
Pathetic little thing, snotty nose, weepy eyes, hair crusted to
his head, mouth pursed shut, thin as a famine refugee. He was in
a dirty ragged tee shirt dirty yellow stained underpants, dirty
bare feet. I saw dirty everything everywhere. This must have
been the kid who had peered at me through the crack in the door.
He turned his head around, smiled, lifted his hand just inches
from the floor to wiggle his fingers towards me. All I could
think to do was to smile wiggle my fingers back at him. He
turned around disappeared into the television screen.
A disheveled woman a drooling toddler tucked under her left arm,
crashed into the room. “Damn it, turn that TV down, I can’t
think for not hearing. Whatcha want? Which one of my kids is in
Want something to drink, maybe.” I wanted to talk to her about
the absences of her children from school, no thank you for the
drink. We talk; she assures me that she would get the kids to
school. I remind her that her welfare payments are based on
school attendance. Thinking, why is she on welfare? Husband is
in the home. I kept my mouth shut.
All the while, I could not take my eyes off the child on the
floor who kept glancing up at me. “That’s David,” she says, “he
don’t talk, just shy.”
Nothing changed for the family, but the ages of the children.
They got older, they were more troublesome in the schools the
neighborhood. No matter how many times I visited the home,
attempted interventions, offered recommendations, I was
defeated. One of their teenage girls ran away. I tracked her
down living at the Charles Manson compound. She eventually
disappeared as did three other children. There was nothing, no
one, no agency that could alleviate their predicament.
For three more years I scurried around the community, doing
whatever was possible for the families in my assigned area. I
thought of those families that could/would not be helped.
Frequently thought of David and his family.
There were successes. I was a success. I loved that job. I was
developing a new expanded approach to the old position of truant
officer. It came to an end.
Thus, in 1975, David and I entered elementary school together.
My training for teaching was directed toward the secondary
level. I had taught high school and had been an assistant
principal. When I applied for work in this school district, it
was for a Child Welfare and Attendance counseling position; once
known as the Truant Officer.
I had been stationed at a Junior High, assigned to circulate
among six feeder elementary schools, identifying families and
children in need, by virtue of poor attendance; the best of all
After three years, my position was eliminated because of budget
cuts. The services offered by my position saved the district
$250.000 a year in State attendance payments. But so goes the
irrationality of the educational system. I was subsequently
assigned to a teaching position at an elementary school. Never
mind that I was a secondary trained teacher. The decision makers
thoroughly disliked my innovations in the position, my
aggressiveness, (unsuitable for a woman) my ethnicity, my
I had lost my position but at the very least I wanted to be
remembered as a successful teacher. Fortunately, for me the
assigned school was one of my six schools. It was the one that
I was technically qualified. I had not the slightest idea how to
conduct a classroom in the primary grades except from my own
vague personal memory. I conducted it as I would a high school
classroom, my only experience. There was absolute order. All
children had to have a three-ring notebook with dividers, a
homework pad, an orderly desk. I knew how to teach. I had a lot
For instance, when a six year old tells you that he has to go,
and you respond with “so go!” plan on the custodian mopping up
the puddle; or when it’s raining, plan on being trapped with
thirty children at recess and lunch. You get the idea.
After three years of primary grade’s frustrations, I was
disheartened. I knew that I needed something more. I needed a
substantial challenge. I had tried private tutoring with a few
children who were in need of instruction that was more
individualized, increased parent involvement, after school
classes of no more than five children, home visits after
uncovering unusual problems (I was really good at this). Almost
everything worked, but too restricted in dimension.
A reading specialist had been assigned to our school, a teacher
I had worked with in the past at this school. She and I had the
same teaching/learning philosophy: literacy was the key to a
child’s success in the entire learning process. Get them as
early as possible before they got lost in the automatic grade
level elevation system. Stress reading!!
I found that she too was also suffering from the frustration of
not having a specific focus for her program.
the Saber-tooth Tiger
We developed a plan. We met with the teaching staff,
surreptitiously. We needed their total support, assistance. We
got it! The hard line philosophy was that all classrooms had to
be heterogeneous. Our plan would run counter to sacred, ancient
progressive tenets. We proposed to slay the saber-toothed tiger.
The first grade teachers would identify the children seriously
deficient in reading for inclusion in this intense remedial
learning program; all placed in one classroom, my classroom, the
poorest scoring first in. The reading specialist would
concentrate solely on reading; I would handle classroom
management with additional reading, printing and arithmetic,
nothing else! As soon as pupils scored at grade level, they were
transferred out into the regular classroom another child on the
waiting list would be transferred in.
Parents had to give permission, agree to a strenuous after
school homework program, meet every six weeks for group
As it turned out, this would be an exciting innovation: parents
in groups of six met with us, they discovered they were not
alone; that other children, other families had similar problems.
We brought in mental health professionals to be of assistance.
The entire faculty was supportive. They would do whatever
needed: provide tables, materials, collect discarded,
discontinued primary readers from the storage rooms. The
custodian was included in our scheme: did he know of any tables
hidden away, unused lost from the inventory. He did. He cleared
away all of the single desks in my room. He hauled in from all
over the campus thirty tables. A two place table for each child.
Children need space, privacy, ownership.
The reading specialist teacher had a smaller adjacent room. She
set up her listening posts, visual reading machines, picture
cards, word recognition stations. Devised a daily schedule. Six
children for each forty-five minute time allowance.
We had a beginning, a middle, next the principal’s consent, a
bit after the fact. We knew what his arguments would be. We
His first issue, what about the support from the other teachers,
we had that one covered. He objected to a homogeneous situation.
We countered with there would be boys and girls involved all of
whom would be a various levels of reading skills; total
non-readers to readers with some skills. All would be under
Then the objection, cost. Where was the money coming from?
District certainly wouldn’t shell out money nor would they go
for an experimental program. We countered that there was no
additional costs, that remedial reading was certainly not
experimental. The district wide funding for reading specialists
was evidence of this.
He waved his hands in submission. His approval came with the
statement that he didn’t want to hear any more, just get on with
the program. Moreover, he added, what District doesn’t hear
about was the best path for us to pursue. That was fine with us.
We were off and running.
The children were identified. Placed in our program. David was
one among twenty-nine others well below grade level. After two
years of school he was at 0.2 in reading proficiency. His
problems on the playground had accelerated, paddling’s
accelerated, inattentive in my classroom, not troublesome. Did
his work as best he could. He was there but not really there,
I noticed that David was just a beat behind the other children
in following directions. He looked around watched before
initiating a task. I moved him to row one. I began to walk back
and forth across the front of the classroom watching his
reactions. His eyes followed me no matter where I stood. While I
was to his left, he was a bit more responsive, but to his right,
not. If I raised my voice when I was next to his desk he looked
up, as I moved away he just stared at me.
At times, I would tap his tabletop with my pencil or
fingernails, he would respond immediately. I noticed when he was
out on the playground and the yard duty lady told him to give up
the swing, he kept swinging, when the bell sounded, he did not
stop playing. When the children were told to line up, David came
I suspected, knew David was seriously hard of hearing. The
school nurse did an audio monitor test. David was totally deaf
in his right ear and 80% in his left. Parents notified. Doctors
involved. Diagnosis, sound blocking growths in his ear canals.
They could be surgically removed were. David would hear, have to
learn to speak, to read, to socialize, all from scratch. Could
it be done? Could he do it?
Seven years of silence. Seven years of no social proprieties.
Seven years of non-academic learning. David would strive to
manage his deficits. Two years in our reading program through
third grade, he persevered. By the end of second grade he could
read some, print some, handle some math skills. He made friends.
Leveled out in playground activities. A stranger to the
Principal. He learned words, their sounds, their meanings. David
remained in the program through third grade. After two years 2.6
reading proficiency, sufficiency in basic math skills, printing
legible. Everything was falling into place. Came to school
clean, brushed teeth, combed hair. Stayed after school to help
clean up. A kid on cloud nine. Ditto the teacher.
David, end of third grade, the last day, after all the others
had gone, came up to me, put his arms around my waist, his head
burrowed into my body, felt for my hand, thrust a balled-up bit
of paper, no bigger than a spit-ball, between my fingers scooted
out. I carefully smoothed it:
A gift of love from David.
I never saw David after
that, heard mention of his average school successes, his
graduation, his entry into the military. My time in the
elementary school had many rewarding encounters, but none like
David. I never forgot David. I wondered. Did he remember me?