Stories From the Heart: Evelyn, Queen of the Jungle

I asked Evelyn for what felt like the hundredth time that day to spell a word she probably couldn’t…and we both knew it. She and I sat together twice a week in the freezing school library where the librarian glared from behind a desk, sighing as she scanned each checked-in book.

The first time I went there, I remember thinking, “This is a school where kids do not like to read.” That was a complete understatement. In third grade, Evelyn still confused her b’s and d’s. Reading and writing were horrible bullies to her, and she was beginning to find out that the antagonistic subjects loomed in every corner. On my first day as a tutor, I learned that this was not only a school where kids did not like to read, but one where many could not read.

In a perfect world, I would have given the children I worked with at Sims Elementary a clean slate – loving and available guardians, a community with more money and energy to invest in the school, and financial stability. But even in an imperfect world, I managed to hand Evelyn a relatively clean slate and a piece of chalk. I drew six short lines on the slate, preparing her for our own version of Slate of Fortune, a fill-in-the-blank game where nobody got hanged or went bankrupt. Best of all, contestants never feigned illness of sobbed in frustration.

“I have another word from your book for you to try,” I said. “Now listen very carefully to all the sounds and take your time. The word is ‘jungle.’” I began to prepare my consolations. Evelyn had already missed easier words in our session that day. She was always the last to finish the book, to master the concept, to be dismissed at the end of the day.

Evelyn smelled like the oil in her cornrows, stale milk from lunch, and the accumulated sweat of clothes handed down years too long. Among other painful inheritances were her mother’s poverty, her father’s absence, and her community’s lack of resources.

The first time I asked her to read for me, Evelyn hid under a desk crying. I took it personally. I assumed she must not respect me, but really she dreaded another defeating session with the printed word. Evelyn did not have any support outside of school, and this outraged me. How could I undo her years of pain and neglect?

I was disheartened that I could not help someone who needed it the most.  I was just born into great fortune – the victor, rather than the victim, of my family’s circumstances. These circumstances allowed my parents to nurture me by communicating with my teachers and helping me learn. They made my education one of their priorities. I grew up “sheltered” and “comfortable,” though at the time I called it “bored.”

When Evelyn said she had written “jungle,” I asked her to think about it again. It is a difficult word to spell. I don’t even know why the first letter is a j instead of another g. I was hungry and shivering in the fluorescent lighting of the library, fidgeting in a too-small chair, and getting impatient with my inability to reach Evelyn. I wondered what would have happened if I had never boarded the #6 to East Austin that day. I will probably never know. However, I can guess that Evelyn would not have spelled “jungle” correctly, because to my amazement, that’s exactly what she did.

“You spelled it right!” I marveled, and even the librarian knew this was not an occasion to be shushed. “I was right! I was right! I can spell ‘jungle!” Evelyn hollered until we were finally asked to lower our voices. This was my loveliest parting gift from that day’s game of Slate of Fortune and my entire year as an Americorps literacy tutor.

Evelyn gained a newfound confidence that day. Reading and spelling became easier and more enjoyable to her, because she finally knew she could do those tasks. So did I. Evelyn may have taught me more than I ever taught her. I discovered that teachers and tutors will never manufacture epiphany; they can only ease it along. We must keep the faith that if we try our best, we will eventually be successful. Just when I began to think that my efforts had been fruitless, I was pleasantly surprised. There was a whole “jungle” out there.

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