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E is For Empathy & P is For Perspective

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

Black child in burnt orange long sleeve shirt in empathy article for PlayfulLeigh Psyched

We are taking a little detour this week from our normal content to explore the impact that adults can have on children, and vice versa. The events are based on a true story and shared with permission. Names have been changed except for the names of the schools involved. If you embark on this journey, try to hold in mind the powers of both perspective and empathy.

The Naïve Meet-Cute

Her name was Julie Carmichael. She was less than four feet tall, with skin as dark as rich umber, a perfectly round little face with dimples in her cheeks deep enough to lose the tip of your finger in, and a smile that spread across her face almost wetting her earlobes. Julie was only five years old when I nervously walked into her life supposedly about to teach her, and the other children in her classroom, about literacy and basic mathematics, but that is not exactly how things happened.

I had the opportunity to interview for what I thought would be the best job on earth, a tutor at an elementary school. Apparently, one of the many surveys that I had filled out while I was applying to college returned the results that I’d be great at working with children. The community center at my school was starting a program for America’s youths organized by former President Clinton called ‘America Reads’. I interviewed with the community service program leader Chris Bollington. I remember having to go to his office in between classes one chilly September day. Nervous does not even convey what I was feeling. I was horrified by the possibility that I would not get the job. Chris, as I was told to call him, seemed almost as nervous as I was. (He was a young White guy just graduating from college himself and I was the first interview that he had to conduct). His voice cracked as he spoke to me as if he were a pubescent teenage boy speaking in front of a large group of people. His palm was sweaty -soaked, when he reached out to shake my hand. Even his knee was quickly bouncing at its own, unheard, musical beat.

During the interview Chris explained to me what my duties would entail if he were to pick me for the position.

“Are you aware of how much responsibility you would be taking on as both a full time student and an elementary school tutor?” he asked, as he looked at me in the eyes trying to stare down his own nervousness.

“I realize the amount of stress many would think that I am about to put on my plate, but I do not see working in an elementary school as being terribly stressful. My only fear is that I will not be a good tutor or not be able to help in the way that I want to.” I replied, with my voice shaking even more than his did, hoping that he would still hear my sincerity underneath my fleeting words.

I assured him that I knew that I would be responsible enough to handle both worlds and still be able to let the children be a focus. Chris then smiled at me, eagerly presented his, now only damp, hand to me, shook my hand and said,

“Congratulations, you’re now a tutor for Philadelphia University. If you want the job, it is yours.”

I was beaming. With no prior experience tutoring, I could have never guessed that it would be that easy.

I started working at Mifflin School in mid-October. It was a medium sized school that went from kindergarten to the eighth grade, and had two floors. Located in the suburban part of Philadelphia, the school was less than half a mile away from my dormitory, and maybe a mile away from main campus. The first day that I walked into classroom 104, the room number immediately amused me because it reminded me of a cartoon that I loved to watch, ‘Kids in Room104’ I think it was called. There were two teachers in the room Mrs. Jaras and Mrs. Ilias. Mrs. Jaras was the main teacher while Mrs. Ilias was the Teacher’s Assistant. More than anything else about that day, I vividly remember going to recess with the students in my class, whom I affectionately started calling my kids. When I went out to their playground, I tried not to show my shock in reaction to the conditions that they were allowed to play. There was no grass anywhere except where it was rudely breaking through the cracks of the broken pavement, of which they called their playground. There were soda bottles, empty potato chip bags and broken glass; I did not even want to stand where these kids happily sat. I felt horrible for pitying their conditions, but I could not help but to flash back and compare it to the schools and playgrounds that I had played on when I was in the first grade. My school had a tennis/volleyball court, a basketball court, a jungle gym, a tire swing, and other solid wood fixtures with cubbies and tools that we kids could use to fuel our imaginations. I remember playing kickball on the field during recess, and sliding into home plate. Most importantly, we had grass. Lots of nice green grass. But, at Mifflin School, there was no green grass and no home plate, only black pavement with trash and broken glass for the kids to play.

Returning to First Grade

Black teacher and Black child reading

I went to room 104 after my 7:50am class let out, and before my 1:05pm, class began, everyday except Thursday. Thursday’s I had a four-hour lab so I could not go to work. Generally, from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm I was with my kids. At first, I had several children that I would work with throughout the course of the morning, then the numbers started to dwindle as I learned who were the students that needed specialized support. I would usually take one child from class for one-on-one reading sessions, three during lunch period, and one during recess – Julie. (I want to note that I do not support children losing recess in place of academics. However, as a tutor, I did not have control over their schedules) Before Julie started spending her recess with me, I noticed that she could not read. She could not even recognize her own name. That made her stand out and earn more of my time. Her problem was able to go unnoticed for so long because her best friend happened to be the class genius, Alexandra. Xandra used to ‘help’ Julie, the way that kids sometimes do, by giving her the answers so that they would be finished at the same time and, most importantly, before anyone else. Julie and Xandra sat adjacent to one another, so whenever Xandra would notice that Julie was not on the same question she would show Julie her paper.

Every weekend I would think of ways to make learning fun and effective for Julie. She was in danger of having to repeat the first grade if I could not get her reading and math skills up to grade level. Knowing the poor outcomes for Black children who repeat grades, I was going to do everything to make sure that did not happen. I made lesson plans for us to review and flash cards to help her learn her letters. Teaching Julie the alphabet was the hardest part. She had taught herself the sounds of the letters, but she had done it the logical way instead of the phonetic way such as, the letter ‘W’ making the ‘d’ sound instead of making the ‘www’ sound. Each day we would go over the alphabet focusing on the difficult letter of the day. At the end of the week, we would play word games or letter games that I had made up to reward her for all of her hard work. Her favorite game was ‘Letter Memory’. Letter Memory was played using the flash cards that I had made for her. We would randomly place the flash cards on a flat surface (such as several desks pushed together), look at them for a few seconds, then turn them face down. The object of the game was to get a matching pair. This could be done either by matching an uppercase letter with its lowercase counterpart or by matching a letter with the animal or object that starts with the letter that was turned over. Unlike ‘picture memory’, in order for the pair to count, she had to be able to say the letter and give the sound.

“I have a matching pair,” she said gleefully.

“What letter is that and what sound does it make,” I replied pointing to the capital letter W that she was holding in her left hand.

“It’s a capital W and it makes the ‘d’ sound,” she said.

“I’m sorry Julie, that is incorrect. The letter w makes the ‘www’ sound as in water,” I said.

“Okay, I didn’t get that one right. Now it’s your turn”, she said.

This game was probably just as fun for me as it was for her because it gave me so much joy to see her progressively give the correct answers. Her face would light up and she would flash her infectious smile, dimples and all and say, “Really, I got it right?”

P is for Perspective: Putting Things into Perspective

It seemed as soon as we were making the most progress everything started to fall apart. When it became apparent that Julie needed some work to be completed at home, I gave her worksheets to reinforce what we had gone over during her tutoring sessions, but she never completed them at home. If she worked on them at all, she would do so first thing in the morning before class would start and before I got there. Most of the time, however, they had not been touched at all. Mrs. Jaras suggested that I discuss my concerns with Julie’s grandmother who was Julie’s legal guardian, Julie called her mom, and she conveniently worked in the school. Therefore, the first opportunity that I got I kindly approached Mrs. Carmichael and proceeded to voice my concerns about Julie’s changes in behavior, her attitude towards learning, and her increasingly low self-esteem. Her response helped me put their home life into perspective,

“Kids will be kids and there is nothing that you can do about that. I’m doing the best that I can to raise all of my grandchildren alone.”

And that was that. I understood then Julie had a loving mother who was overwhelmed with the situation that life threw her way. Julie her school support system to change the approach and perspective on helping her. I understood that raising five grandchildren and working full time to do so, could not have been easy. Mrs. Carmichael was doing her best and relying on the school to do their part to help Julie.

E is For Empathy: Social-Emotional Foundation of Learning

During one of our many lessons, Julie started to cry out of frustration. She called herself stupid and then asked me if the only reason that she was ‘special’ enough to have me work with her was because she was dumb. She used the word special because Mrs. Jaras had told her that working with me was a special reward that she had earned for be