The More Important Test

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As with many things in life, change is hard. That’s why I celebrate small victories.

“Sorry, but I can’t play chess today,” I explain hastily. “Hold on a minute, though,” I continue while shuffling through my binder. Accepting a math worksheet, he replies with only a scowl as I point out that Wednesday is homework day in his homeroom and his teacher wants to help with math.

Unfortunately, he is below grade level in mathematics. Despite his daily struggle with the subject, the problem is either unknown to him or he’s unwilling to admit it. Slowly—very slowly—over the past few weeks he has been warming up to me and the idea of doing extra math practice.

Fast forward to math class. He, several other focus students, and 30 more kids all wrestle daily with a huge class size, a long-term substitute, and math. Today a test looms large. If they’re not nervous, I am.

After a brief set of instructions, the teacher asks, “Are there any questions before I hand out the test? We have time…”

Silence. Averted gazes. Crickets in the shuffling papers, feet, and tension. Giving up, she turns slightly to gather the stack of tests.

Then, from my perch atop the side counter, I see something startling. A worksheet has materialized on a student’s desk and a hand climbs meekly into the air. Sure enough, scribbles fill the top half of a familiar worksheet and a numbers spout from uncertain lips.

It’s hard to stifle a cheer. I excuse myself to the back of the room before my silly grin becomes a distraction, and he studies the board as the teacher works through his problem.

In the end, that test ended better than expected for my student. There’s still a lot of room to grow, but he genuinely surprised me that day. Teachers have told me that students really start to learn when they “buy in” to the underlying motives and process behind their education. In the short term, his decision to put in a little extra work is a victory worth celebrating. His buy in to learning is a start; with continued investment and growth, he will make something better for himself. And that will be a huge victory. But it will not come all at once. We’re going to have to work for it, and I plan to cheer him on every step of the way.

November 2016 Update: He did continue to grow and I did cheer him on. With those gains, he continues to work at self improvement and making the most of his education.

Each month, AmeriCorps Promise Fellows produce narrative reflections about their service. One component of these reflections are “Great Stories,” in which Fellows share anecdotes that highlight particular challenges and successes from their day-to-day interaction with youth. This series aims to share some of those stories. Note that immaterial personal and situational details may be changed in order to protect the confidentiality of minors or to improve story clarity.