The Not Knowing

Lately I have been pinch-hitting at a local school.

It is super fun.

I get to work with kids and explain things like rainbows and dipthongs and fractions.

I bring in library books for story time and host Jeopardy for the older ones if we finish early.

I get asked things like “What color is the universe?” and “What’s your favorite chapter book?” on a daily.

Incidentally, it is also hilarious to see 8th grade boys blush when I call on them in class. [I heard them in the hall outside my room declaring boisterously “Oh man, have you seen the new teacher yet? Math is my new favorite class!” Ah, young hormones.]


But this little urban school has it rough. More than 95% of the students are on free school meals because they live below the poverty line.

There is no library, no playground [in good weather they get to run around the teacher’s parking lot for recess].

For all the kids aged 5-14 there is one microscope, a couple of globes, and the music program has just been axed to introduce computers and iPads once a week.

While I absolutely believe digital literacy is fundamentally important in this day and age, especially for kids without computers at home, it hurts my little heart they have to forgo recorders and singing to do so. What a terrible choice to have to make.


Like most kids, though, they’re quick and eager to please.

They are bright and funny and all the things one would hope for the leaders of tomorrow … but already the difference from their middle-class peers is stark.

The entire 5th grade is below the national average in numeracy. A huge proportion of my middle schoolers are less than functionally literate.

And beyond the testable skills they lack something intangible.

It’s not quite imagination, nor gumption, but something. Something wide and capable. Something that until now I’ve taken for granted.

More than one kid balked at writing about his dream job, protesting “what’s the point? I know I’ll never get to do anything like that” — and this was not a flippant snark from an early teen, but a genuine concern bursting forth from an earnest 9-year-old.

I’ve heard from a colleague the a good proportion of these inner-city Chicago kids have never seen Lake Michigan. A beautiful lake rimmed by free parks less than 5 miles from their homes, entirely unknowable and unknown in their daily lives. (It gives me pangs like the tykes in South Korea and Kyrgyzstan did.)

It’s just that so many of them lack confidence; are crippled by doubt in themselves and in their existing knowledge base. So often they are some sort of buzzy brain-dizzy. Unable to find a work-around, or even the ability to recognize what they do know from what they don’t.

School seems to be a panicky haze of potential pitfalls. For some, everything becomes this overwhelming snowball of I CAN’T and they can’t see the forest for the trees.

A conversation I actually had this week with an 8 year-old:

Me: Ok class, I want you to write a fact about a wild animal.

[ALL the hands go up — no one can spell any animals, so we practice sounding out lion, tiger, gorilla, shark and writing them on the board.]

[Everyone starts scribbling.]

Kid: *raises his hand*

[I go over to Kid’s desk]

Kid: I don’t know how.

Me: Well, what’s do you think is the coolest animal, we’ll start there.

Kid: *shrugs*

Me: What animals have you ever seen at the zoo and liked?

Kid: I’ve never been to the zoo.

Me: Well, if you could have any pet in the world, what animal would you choose?

Kid: —

Me: I’d have an eagle. A giant bald eagle and I’d train it to fly out my bedroom window and bring me back awesome snacks.

Kid: *smiles*

Me: So what amazing pet would you pick if you could?

Kid: A dog.

Me: Great! Write a sentence about a dog.

[Circling back around later, he still has a blank paper.]

Me: So how’s it going? What do you know about dogs?

Kid: *shrugs*

Me: You can write any true fact. What it looks like, where it lives, what it eats…

Kid: Dogs eat dogfood!

Me: (internal sigh)

Me: Sure! Go with that. Just make sure you write a whole sentence.

Kid: —

Me: What’s up?

Kid: —

Kid: … how do you spell dog?

He won’t even look me in the eye at this point.

Together, me kneeling at his side, this 8-year-old and I painstakingly sound out these three little words, and in the process uncover that he doesn’t know the letter F.

It seems almost unfathomable to my privileged school experience that a bright and attentive second grader wouldn’t know all the letters.

Watching panic and embarrassment overwhelm his ability to think of facts, name animals, construct a cogent thought, or even sound out the words he does know is a quick-hit-guide to the downward spiral he faces everyday.

Not to mention the gaps in his spelling and writing knowledge which trip him up at the finishing line. He’s crestfallen, even a little scared.

(Or you know, that he’s never been to the zoo — which is FREE and AMAZING and really quite close. Poor lamb!)

And all the while I have 22 other kids waving their hands in the air, each with roadblocks of their own.


Some context:

By age 3 children in low-income families have heard, on average, 30 million words less than their middle class peers leading to the The Early Catastrophe in comprehension and communication skills.

It is estimated one in four fourth graders across America right now are not able to read and understand basic sentences.

In the Cook County an estimated 19% of adults are not functionally literate. Nationally, 40% of adults can’t perform “moderate or challenging literacy tasks” (like, say, an IRS form).

And these statistics aren’t about inspiring the next Shakespeare or enabling college graduates, though I hope for that, too.

Literacy at its base is about getting a minimum wage job, comprehending the terms of your loan agreement, understanding your kid’s homework, reading directions to make dinner and a thousand other tiny things every day which make life infinitely harder or impossible for those in need.

Literacy is a major factor in predicting (and combating) unemployment, incarceration and poverty.

Literacy (and for that matter numeracy) on the widest, simplest level is fundamental to decision-making and communication, which in turn effect every aspect of human life and well-being.


It just matters.

While I’m glad to see the world of governments, NGOs and academics represented in the links above recognize and care about these issues (after all, they effect every connected human on this planet) —

And I’m thrilled projects like Reading Rainbow’s recent kickstarter are hoping to help bridge the gap for America’s poorest schools (ps the video is adorable) —

— but when I stand on that cliff with a clutch of second graders, I sometimes get paralyzed by the vertigo of not knowing, too, just like the kid in my charge.

5 Responses to “The Not Knowing”
  1. Sara, while it breaks my heart to hear of the trials of these kids, and the sense of helplessness and hopelessness they have for the future, I know that they are lucky to have you in their lives, and that if there is a way they can make something more of themsleves, you will help them find it.


  2. So much potential in their young lives, yet already so many obstacles. It makes me really sad.


  3. greg says:

    Insightful from ground zero. Young minds at risk. Futures at stake. Seems more important than Ebola and Kardashian news…where is the outcry about education ?

    Applause to reading rainbow and levar and poor brent.

    Liked by 1 person

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