First Person: Narratives from the Classroom
To Tell the Truth
By Amy Issadore Bloom
I was rushing around Target, my toddler on the brink of a breakdown, when I saw someone who looked familiar. We both paused, taking a moment to make the connection.
“Bob?” I asked.
“Ms. Bloom!” he replied.
At one point, I would have hugged Bob, but it probably would have embarrassed him now. It’s much easier seeing younger students out of context. They treat you like a celebrity, and whisper to their parents and siblings, “That’s my teacher!” Then either they give you big hug or shy away completely.
Bob was an eighth-grader now, and seemed just like your average American teenager, hanging out in the electronics section. He’d been a student of mine when he was in second grade. I continued working with him for several years, negotiating the personalities of each new classroom teacher, and ultimately advocating for his special education testing.
Bob gave himself that American name. His real name was much more ethnic, and often confused with the name of the famous literary elephant Babar. I can’t blame him for wanting to change it. He so desperately wanted to fit in.
As a young boy, he claimed many different things. He would talk of his family’s mansion, but then come to school with the same dirty shirt on three days in a row.
We suspected that he and his family were political refugees, and that Bob had spent some time in a refugee or detention camp. But we were never able to get a complete story from him, even after his English skills took off.
It became hard to distinguish when he was telling the truth, when he was exaggerating, and when he was just outright lying. Ironically, another student in our small reading group that year, Brenda, was also inclined toward exaggeration. Maybe they weren’t a good influence on each other.
She used to brag about having all sorts of things. If someone said they were getting a new computer, she would respond “My Dad is buying me three new computers!” If a classmate talked about their puppy, suddenly she had a new puppy, too. Occasionally, I would give her a look, and she would pause and say, “Well, we might get a computer.”
It used to bother me, the fibbing. But Brenda’s was always about stuff, as opposed to, say, cheating on a test. And, Bob, well, I suspected he just needed to reinvent some of his life, and leave a difficult past behind.
I finally stopped questioning whether they were telling the truth. It was taking up too much of our time together, time we needed to spend catching up in reading. We had a very short class period, and my “room” was a table at the end of the hallway. We really couldn’t afford any more distractions.
In first and second grade, lying like that is pretty common. It’s a theme in countless classroom lessons, television shows, and children’s literature. At some point, I had to trust that these kids would mature, that the stories and lying would stop.
Brenda qualified for the free and reduced lunch program, and her mother worked two jobs. I knew her parents couldn’t afford all the stuff she bragged about having. She knew it too. Eventually, I just didn’t want to be the one to remind her of it.
Same with Bob. As much as I wanted to know his story, it wasn’t something I could change, and it wasn’t helping us go forward. Sometimes we really need that back story, to know why a student is acting out, or struggling academically. And sometimes, we can follow the lead of our students, let go a little, and stay focused on teaching.
Despite their tales of family wealth, I still made sure both Bob and Brenda were on the list for the winter coat drive, as well as the Thanksgiving meal box. They knew enough to accept it, and graciously.
One day, Brenda brought in Junie B: First Grader, Cheater Pants to share with the group as our Read Aloud. I’m not sure if she finally got it, or it was just a coincidence, but I was delighted to read it with the students.
I’m still curious about Bob’s story. At Target that day, he responded to my questions with short answers and nods, like any other teenage boy. School was “ok.”
If I asked him for more, what he would share? Perhaps it’s best not to know, to let him continue with the life he created for himself, leaving the difficulties of the past behind.
That’s the power we have: to give students a second chance, to let them have a fresh start, allow them to live in that mansion with four computers and 10 puppies, even if only in their imaginations.
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 www.bloomindc.com.