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  • I. Bones

    “Benjamin. Please face the board.”
    It had been a long day. The fatigue of my voice and sharpness of my tone were enough to send the ancient of Benjamin’s brain into flight mode. He recoiled into a corner, began picking scabs off his legs, and talking to himself.
    We sat in silence for the next ten minutes in the small fluorescent room, until I finally said “You don’t want to be here, do you?”
    Still not facing me, Benjamin replied “No, I don’t wanna leave my house and stop playing basketball to come here and learn letters.”
    “I see. Well...I have good news for you. You already know the names of the letters. We are just learning what the letters say.”

    I had not realized the fullness of the challenge of tutoring Benjamin when the director of The Augustine Project, a non-profit here in town that helps kids who can’t afford tutoring learn to read, offered me the position of being Benjamin’s third tutor during his second attempt at kindergarten in public school.

    Before our first session I talked with Benjamin’s adoptive mom and then understood the depth and complexity of his situation. She told me that his birth mother was a prostitute with many addictions during pregnancy who had not been available to nurture her son in early infancy or as a toddler. He basically got nothing his first three years of life. Benjamin’s adoptive mom gave him a safe home and a new first and last name, but felt an increasing desperation in the realization that he was, despite her best efforts, drowning in school.

    I began my assignment with gusto only to very quickly realize that all the prescribed, incremental lessons were failing. I gave up on my life preserver, the tutoring handbook. Talked with coworkers. Nothing was working. And it was my job to figure out how to make something work. I kept reviewing his assessment notes, trying to figure out his history, some past event that would clue me into exactly why this child could not discern the difference between the sound of a “d” and a “t”. In the end, I figured it really didn’t matter what was wrong, only something that was incredibly lost needed to be found.

    So, literally, one day on a whim, I left all my tutoring supplies in my car and headed into the confined and artificially lit space that we work in on Tuesdays and Thursday’s of every week at our local library. I began miming. Sounds crazy, but I was desperate for traction with this kid. Something, anything. I only wrote the letters on a white grease board hanging on muted beige walls and said their sounds. I cut the verbal clutter of explanations and extraneous information to just pure sound for the child with an auditory processing disorder.

    I would write a lower case “g”, would point at the downstroke, the curve, hold my throat, say “/g/”, then point to my mouth and repeat the sound. Over and over again, letter after letter, while he twirled in circles and watched me. Or more often, I would be a "Silly Mime", and confuse the letters and sounds. The lowercase letter “b” would make the “/d/” sound and then a big loud “NOOO!” would roll from Benjamin's mouth. I would hand him the Expo marker to write the correct corresponding letter on the grease board. For the first time in our sessions, he was smiling and laughing through crooked, new teeth. We had worked our way painstakingly, but successfully, through half the alphabet until the day of his big meltdown.

    After Benjamin had his meltdown on the floor of Room 2 and honesty cleared the air enough to dry tears, I asked him to look out of the window of the door of Room 2 to the library shelves. Standing on his tippy-toes, he looked out of the thick glass. I imagined what it would be like to stare out at a room, entirely dedicated to the very thing which tortures your existence. To see tall strangers sitting at tables working on computers, others pulling books of interest off shelves, children curled up on laps reading with their moms. I imagined not the flow and love of books, but frustration, then anger, then resignation to a world beyond my reach.

    I asked Benjamin what he saw.
    “All I see is bones.”
    “Bones?” I was confused, tired, aching for clarity.
    “Yeah. All I see are people bones and dinosaur bones.”
    I got it.
    “You like books about dinosaurs?”
    “Yes, I like to look at their bones.”

    We left Room 2 and walked past a sunny wall of windows. Under the eaves, a hive of bees had built a nest on the cool side of a white plaster column. Benjamin and I always stop to check their progress when we leave Room 2 to wait on his mom after our sessions. We stopped for our ritual observation of the bees and their handiwork. We observed the hive from a safe distance from behind the glass windows, watching their subtle, hypnotic movements. I asked Benjamin what he thought the bees were always doing in their holes when we couldn’t see their faces.

    He said he didn’t know but he thought they were learning how to be bees.

    I took hold of his rough hand with those dirty little boy fingernails as we finished the walk across the library floor to his mom who was waiting for us in the periodical section. Along the way, he wouldn’t look at me so I spoke to the top of his swirling dark head that we would eat honey and dust off dinosaur bones in the library during our time together next Tuesday. He looked up, and finally, I saw those smiling crooked teeth again.
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