They Ain’t Happy Tears, But They Should Be

I had an opportunity to work with Tessa this afternoon. Earlier in the day, she brought a book to me that she hoped I’d share with the class. I said I would, but upon flipping through it, I thought better of it, and decided it’d be more meaningful if she read it instead.

Despite my efforts to make her comfortable, it’s very obvious that Tessa feels she is a misfit. She wears clothes that are stained and don’t fit. She is significantly taller than the other students (and as a hold over, is also at least a year older). She is uncomfortable at a desk that’s too small for her, but embarrassed to sit at a desk that’s bigger than the other kids’. When we practice our play, her movements are so rigid and awkward it’s almost painful to watch. She is near the top of the class in math, writing, reading, and verbal skills and is widely trusted by other teachers for responsibilities. Still, it is crystal clear how very obviously embarrassed she is to be herself.

Now, Tessa has found joy in reading, as she likes to use what I teach her to improve. For instance, she is thrilled to spot new sight words as they appear magically before her in her books. She fancies blends and the way knowing them allows her to read better. Today, I sat with her for a solid 15-20 minutes, and was angered, slightly surprised, and inspired by what happened.

The book she sent my way was called A Splendid Friend, Indeed. The inside of the book was easy enough, being that it was replete with sight words. However the title itself was a minefield.

I saw “splendid” as a splendid opportunity to have Tessa work on chunking a tricky word into more manageable pieces. Her initial attempt at the word was “special.” I coached her to scan the word and see if she saw any smaller words in it that she knew. She spotted “did,” which is one of this week’s words, and from there we were able to proceed. She used a card with blends on it to confirm the “sp” sound. But the internal chunk, the “len” was really a struggle for her.

First, she isolated it and made sense of the “e-n” to form the sound “en.” But the “l” was a major bugaboo. She kept reading it as a capital “I,” and thus, was formulating words like, “spidid” and “spiend”. I helped her see it was an “l” and, even with that knowledge, the difficult decoding process made her forget what she knew right away, that “did” was at the end. Finally, she got it out as, “splendid,” but it was obvious she was worn. Nevertheless, we continued. I complimented her self-checking and determination, and she opened the book.

She flew through it with lovely intonation for the first six or eight pages, when all of a sudden, the word “splendid” appeared in the text for the first time. I reminded her to scan it for known words, which she did, and then again helped her see how to break it into “splen” and “did.” However, she continued to mistake the “l” for an “I.” She referred to the alphabet chart once, twice, and a third time, and when she turned back to me after the last, I saw a tear trickling down her cheek. My initial reaction was anger, and I did my best to maintain my emotions as I said, “Tessa, why are you crying? You are working on such a hard word and you’re reading it!” But I almost instantaneously switched to a much more sympathetic tone with the same message, “I know this is hard, but look at the way you’re reading a fifth grade word like this.”

She wasn’t mollified, but I was damn determined to make sure she was able to read that stupid word, “splendid.” Even with her tears falling into a tissue, I reminded her it was an “l,” and she was able to try again. Then, when she blanked on the “en,” I wrote a word she knew, “hen” and got her to focus on the ending sound. This enabled her to get “len” and eventually, with a tissue tightly clutched beneath the desk, she read the word “splendid.”

We finished the book, and I told her she should be really proud of working so hard to read such a difficult word. I was proud of her. I offered her a reading themed pencil. We went through very similar work, breaking down the phrase “Readers are Leaders.” I referred her to words she knew to help her read the pencil’s text.

When we finished, wiping her eyes, she asked, “What is a leader?”

I thought for a few seconds, thinking of the best way to phrase it for her to understand, and said, “It’s someone who does really well that other people want to be like.”

I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Kind of like you.”

She walked out the door with a pencil in her hand and a smile on her face.

By the way, I informed Tessa I would not be reading the book to the class, but that she would take it home, practice, and then read it to them. Wouldn’t you know it? She was just thrilled.



2 responses to “They Ain’t Happy Tears, But They Should Be

  1. What we say to our students matters. Every moment matters. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Pingback: Thank Goodness for Tessa « From the Desk of Mr. Foteah

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