Symphony 17

After his conversation with Carmen, Neil changed his plans. Instead of spending his pre-school days in academic preparation, he worked at getting to know his children. The cumulative folders were a gold mine. He found out who had been suspended during previous years. He found out which students needed the most academic help. He could see which students had a pattern of mid-winter absences to Mexico.

One boy had been registered originally as Dean Mason. Then his name had been changed to Dean Solstenes, back to Dean Mason, and finally to Dean Smallwood, all within three years. It was easy enough to read an unstable family situation from those changes.

On Dierdre Galloway’s folder he found a note that said, “Needs glasses and won’t wear them. Must sit up front or she won’t be able to read the chalkboard.”

Before he met them, he knew that:

Brandy Runyon had repeated kindergarten, and then had repeated third grade. She should have repeated fifth, but at fourteen, she was far too physically developed. She was marking time while waiting for the paperwork to be completed to transfer her to a school where her learning disability could be dealt with.

Oscar Teixeira had been making outstanding scores on his yearly tests every year since kindergarten, then in fifth grade he had scored almost zero. In the last two years, he had been suspended five times, always for insolence or insubordination. Every parent letter made reference to Oscar as being bored with school. He had failed last year’s test deliberately, and had been suspended for it.

Not every folder contained a problem. Some told stories of unbelievable progress. Tasmeen and Rabindranath Kumar had first enrolled four years ago, in first grade. They had come from Madras, in India, and spoke no English. Their first year scores were nearly zero, but by the second year they were only a little below grade level. At the end of the third grade they were both skipped ahead to bring their grade level more into line with their ages. Despite this, their fifth grade scores showed them to be well above their classmates.

Their fifth grade teacher had wanted to advance Tasmeen another grade. She was a year older than her brother, scored consistently higher, and the teacher felt that he was holding her back. The parents would not agree. They said that they both could be advanced, or Rabindranath alone could be advanced, but Tasmeen was not to be placed above her brother.

With sixty-seven children to remember, Neil fell back on a system that had worked for him in college. On five by eight cards he placed name, age, test scores and a four or five word physical description of each child. For most of the children, he could do no more until he met them. For students like Tasmeen, Oscar, and Brandy, his notes filled the card.

# # #

The night before school was to start, Neil sat in his apartment considering the string of students that had passed through his classes during his years in Oregon. The number was staggering. He had been seeing 170 to 180 students each day for four years. Seven to eight hundred students, and he could only remember about two dozen of their faces.

He had a feeling that he would remember these sixth graders long after he had forgotten every high school student he had ever taught.

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