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Virginia Journal of Education

How Carlos Slipped Through the Cracks

by Amy Issadore Bloom

In the middle of a fifth-grade science lesson, Carlos got up and wandered around the room. Sometimes he would crawl under his desk and hide. When he arrived from El Salvador, he was placed in fifth grade because of his age. But, with his previous “education” and current maturity level, he would have been better off in third grade. He was tiny, adorable really, so no one would have been the wiser. 

His father, like many immigrants, established a new life here while supporting his first family back home. He met a woman, got married, and had more children. Years passed, and finally an “uncle” brought Carlos to the United States to reunite with his father.

In spite of (or maybe because of) the effort they went through to get him here, Carlos’s father and stepmother seemed resentful of him. Maybe he reminded them of the life they left behind–civil war, poverty, violence. Perhaps they worried about the financial burden of another mouth to feed. For whatever reasons, Carlos wasn’t treated as well as his American-born siblings. Some of that is the system; they had health insurance, he did not. So when Carlos become ill, or had that giant lump on his neck, his parents didn’t know how to navigate the system, what questions to ask, what resources were really available. But there were other things too. Unacceptable things. Why didn’t Carlos have a winter coat or gloves like his brothers did?

His story unfolded at unexpected times. One day during our word study lesson, Carlos looked at a picture of a large truck and said, “Oh, like when I come here, we were in the rig. It was hot. It smell. Some womans get sick.” He said it so casually, as if talking about a plane ride, not an illegal and dangerous journey.

Carlos’s favorite movie was Titanic. I suspect it was the first movie he saw on DVD when he arrived to his new home. Rough edges and all, you could tell he would grow up to be sentimental and romantic. He had a dreamy look in his eyes whenever he made a connection between the movie and something we were talking about in class. Maybe watching the movie (over and over) helped him escape his own hardships.

One day he came in with bruises, and when I questioned him about it, he said he fell off his bike. Reina, a painfully shy classmate, her hands always chapped from washing the family dishes, looked at him, looked through him, and said, “Mentiroso. Tu papa te pegó.” Liar. Your dad hit you. It’s a phrase that has haunted me for years.

Still, Carlos was happy, eager to learn, and extremely quick to pick up spoken English. He made tremendous progress, jumping several levels in reading. But it wasn’t enough, and couldn’t be measured with the state-mandated standardized tests. The reading level of the books used for science and social studies were still far too difficult. Furthermore, he simply lacked the background knowledge for the academic content, so there was nothing to build upon. He was years behind his peers academically, even those who were also learning English.

Toward the end of the year, his classroom teacher and I recommended him for retention.

There was a meeting. The guidance counselor quoted statistics about the risks of retaining students beyond first grade. The administration nodded in agreement. They talked about the stigma of it, how hard it would be socially.

But Carlos was different than the other fifth-graders. He had run across a desert in the dark of night, saw things he shouldn’t have, and came out on the other side, to a school in Virginia, filled with caring teachers, two meals a day, and a library of books to take home. Why couldn’t he stay an extra year with us?

Despite my efforts, Carlos was promoted to sixth grade, which meant moving up to middle school. When I taught his younger brother three years later, he informed me that Carlos was no longer living at home. He had been sent to some type of juvenile facility. The brother wasn’t sure exactly why, but told me with certainty that Carlos “didn’t do it.”

It was exactly what I’d feared. He got to middle school, fell in with the wrong crowd, and fell through the cracks. I thought about getting in touch with him, sending letters with stickers to make him smile.

But then, there have to be boundaries. My time with Carlos was over. It was someone else’s turn—a teacher, a social worker, a relative—to make a difference.

Issadore Bloom, a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at







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