When I graduated from college in 1971, my dream was to teach for a year, maybe a year and half, in a local high school and save my money, then I would go get my doctorate in Spanish and teach in a college. I would travel during the summers to all the Spanish-speaking countries of the world and become world famous for my studies.
I had a teaching assistant job offer good for two years at UT Austin and the promise of a Ford Fellowship. Everything was set in place. I just had to get through the next eighteen months.
My mid-year teaching assignment was in a high school in the deep south side of the city. I was to teach junior and senior Spanish and English. Since the neighborhood was mostly Latino, so were the students. No problem, I thought. I was from that neighborhood. I was Latina. It would be a piece of cake.
These were kids about to graduate, so they didn’t give me much trouble. My biggest problem was my age. I was twenty-one and my students were ages 16-21, so I looked too young to be their teacher. My second biggest problem was that everything was fine as long as I didn’t expect the kids to do any work.
If I read to them, they listened and answered questions, but if I asked them to read on their own very few followed through. When I called on kids to read for me, the same handful of students would volunteer, but if I called on others, they refused and the same handful of volunteers would intervene and read to the class.
I became suspicious and one day announced that each student would be required to read one paragraph out loud for me as a test grade. I started up one row calling on students. Some refused belligerently and others got violent. Nothing I said calmed them down so I required them to see me privately, before or after school.
It did not take me long to discover what was wrong. Most of the kids were illiterate. Handfuls were reading on a pre-primer or primer level. I was shocked.
I had gone to a neighboring high school. I had always been in advanced classes so my circle of friends were “the smart kids.” I never realized how lacking the school system was back then for the kids who had learning disabilities. Those who made it to the eleventh and twelfth grade had been passed on or had dropped out.
I was saddened by the fact that there were hundreds if not thousands who would “graduate” from high school but would not be able to read more than their name.
I kept on saving my money for graduate school but in the meantime I studied all I could on my own about teaching older students to read. The deadline to take advantage of my UT teaching assistantship and my fellowship came and went, and I continued to teach in the same old school district. I transferred to a nearby junior high and took a job teaching remedial students. Maybe if someone started with students who were a bit younger, they would not end up holding a useless diploma.
I got my graduate degree in reading. I got a job as the reading coordinator for that same school district, and for five years I helped develop a reading program with twenty-two top-notch reading specialists who served four middle schools and two high schools. They did awesome work.
I transferred to another school district after that, but by then remedial reading programs in secondary schools were sprouting all over the nation. It pleased me to see more and more accountability towards high school graduates.
I never got my doctorate degree in Spanish language and literature. I never traveled to the many Spanish-speaking countries of the world. I never became a world-famous college professor, but there is a large group of adults who are able to read because I traded one dream for another.