The lady ringing up the items was hunched over. It was difficult to tell if she was that way because she was tired or because of her age. Or maybe both.
Her name was Peggy. It said so right there in that place near a person’s heart where all names are embroidered. Her hair was the blonde of Sandra Dee’s. It was teased and cement-sprayed. Deep crevasses crossed her face, a map of the journeys she’s traveled over the years.
The guy in the line just ahead of me was patient as Peggy rang up the items of the shopper before him. She moved with the speed of sourghum poured out. It took her about ten minutes to ring up six items.
It was rush hour and my day had been very long.
A student I cared about dropped my class. I’d pulled him aside a week ago and told him I thought he had a natural storytelling talent. I had encouraged him to read some more so that he could get a better grasp on conventions, grammar and such.
“I hate reading and writing,” he said, explaining to me why he wanted to drop the class.
“But why do you hate reading and writing?” I inquired.
“It’s boring,” he said.
That’s what they all say.
Pausing, he added, “I can’t relate to anyone.”
He was my only African-American student.
“That’s because you haven’t been introduced to the right literature yet,” I replied.
“That’s what my last teacher said.”
“I don’t want to let you out of class. I think you can learn something. Something useful.”
“You are too hard,” he whined. “You move too fast for me.”
Perhaps he had a valid point.
“How many graded assignments have we had in the past three weeks?”
“To be honest, I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Three. Two vocabulary tests – which you did fine on – and one essay, which you also did well on. So how is that too fast for you?”
“Do you like to run?” I asked.
“No. I hate it.”
“But you like to play football, right?”
“And in order to play football you have to run, right? You have to do that thing you hate.”
“You are smarter than you think. Your voice is needed. African-American males have one of the lowest reading rates in the nation. When you don’t read, you can’t even be a part of the conversation about changing the world.”
“I just want to be average,” he said. “What’s wrong with being average?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Absolutely nothing, but you are aiming lower than that.”
Then I signed his release form. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not mad with you. I’m disappointed for you. I really wish you’d stay in my class, but I understand this is your choice.”
And there for a second, I saw it. A flicker of regret, a minute of second-guessing, the awareness that he was indeed setting the bar at mediocrity.
Aim low. That’s what everyone told me when I decided to take this job.
Don’t expect much.
Whatever your expectations are, lower them.
So I made one goal for the year: Help students who hate reading recall their love of story. I believe we all were created for story. All of these juniors and seniors who declare they hate reading loved stories as children. What killed that love of story? And can I help reignite it?
We test curiosity right out of children. We are raising up generations of students who don’t wonder or imagine or ponder anything. They simply want Google to tell them the right answer.
Or in lieu of Google, their instructors.
I was thinking about all that while standing behind the tall guy with the bag of apples that Peggy was ringing up.
“Are you from here, Peggy?” he asked. He smiled generously at her.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve lived here a very long time.”
“I’m new here,” he said. Although, I knew him not to be so new to the town. He’s been teaching music for the past couple of years at the high school. He was just making small talk.
“Where are you from?” Peggy asked.
“I’m from North Carolina myself,” she said, ringing up his total.
Next it was my turn to have a few items tallied. I told Peggy I’m headed to North Carolina in the morning. We had a brief chat about towns and friends we have in the state. Peggy said her whole family lives in North Carolina. I could tell she wishes she were there with them.
A few minutes later, in the parking lot, I caught up with the tall fellow who teaches music at Hermiston High.
“I just wanted you to know that I was having a crappy day and seeing you be kind to that woman in there, well, that was just lovely. Thank you for being kind to her.”
And we hugged, right there in front of God and all of humanity.
Sometimes we just need to bear witness to goodness to be reminded that not all is lost.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer University Press).