Alejandro sits alone in my high school classroom. His skin is too light to allow him access to the students who segregate themselves on one side, too dark for those clustered opposite. Even if he were the right color, his inability to speak their language fluently would still set him apart.
All my students struggle with reading comprehension. Some have learning disabilities which hold them back; others hurt themselves with unruly behavior or disdain for learning. Alejandro reads far below grade level but he’s quiet and well-behaved, so his teachers allow him to pass on to the next grade, his lack of skills overlooked.
In my classroom the students express their thoughts using art as well as essays. One project is a life-map: a visual plan to reach their goals after graduation.
Alejandro draws a pickup truck, and I ask him about it.
“I want to go back to family in Mexico,” he tells me. I coax the story from him, and in broken English he tells me he came to America when he was five. His family has bounced from coast to coast ever since, never staying more than a year or two in one place for fear of being deported.
I ask Alejandro questions in Spanish. His sentences are as basic as mine, and I realize the boy’s education in that language has been even more haphazard than in English. He admits he can’t read his native tongue.
Dennis throws a wad of paper at Mike, and my attention is pulled away. Yet again, Alejandro is inadvertently passed over.
A week later I sit in my classroom at the end of the day, grading papers. Alejandro knocks on the door. He has a confession. “I memorize what words look like. I don’t know the alphabet.”
Alejandro is sixteen.
That weekend I buy sign language alphabet posters for my room. The other students are delighted and spend half their time signing their names. Alejandro says nothing, but I catch him studying the posters too.
I teach my students phonics. It’s elementary school work but they love it; we’re deciphering a code that opens up a world of understanding.
We study the long U sound. Tulip. Cupid. Other students easily grasp it but these words baffle Alejandro.
“What is cupid?” he asks.
The class snickers and he reddens.
“He’s a fat little angel that flies around on Valentine’s Day shooting arrows at people,” Latasha explains.
“I know him,” Alejandro says. “And tulip?”
“A flower.” Samuel draws one on the board. Alejandro nods.
It dawns on me Alejandro knows the concepts but not the words to express them. He’s trapped in his head, with no means of communication.
Another trip to the store. This time I buy a bilingual illustrated dictionary. I leave it under his desk before class on Monday; after class it’s gone. He never acknowledges the book, although I catch him using it occasionally. I don’t mind; pride is important when you have little else.
That spring, Alejandro fails the end-of-year reading test. He’s soaked up countless new words and skills, gone from a first-grade to a fifth-grade reading level, but I won’t let it be enough. I hold him back at the end of class.
“You made great progress this year. If we get you into a one-on-one tutoring program this summer, you’ll be at grade level by the time school starts.”
Alejandro doesn’t meet my eyes. “We’re moving back to California in a few days.”
I smile and wish him luck. When he’s gone, I offer up a prayer that his next teachers notice him.
Buena suerte, Alejandro.
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website, http://www.edmartinwriter.com
“Slipping Through the Cracks” was first published in her short story collection, Us, Together, which is available at Amazon.