April 2014
Shélynn N. Riel, MEd, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island, USA

I write this piece in commemoration of a student of mine whom I have lost, not by his removal from this world, but rather his removal from my school, and my care.

Tito came to the Providence public school district from the Dominican Republic in 2011. He began in the first grade at a dual language school, where he struggled to make friends and assimilate into the school’s culture, as his formal schooling experience in his native country and here has been immensely interrupted. Lack of sociability within the confines of the school caused Tito to get into ample altercations with other students, which decreased his amount of time in class and eventually led to his demise when he was held back for a second year of first grade.

Although Tito’s performance in the classroom left much to be desired once again his second time around, he was miraculously promoted to the second grade. During his time in both first and second grade, Tito went on several hiatuses, returning to his island to visit his relatives, specifically his incarcerated father and his mother, with child for the sixth time. When 11-year-old Tito was promoted to third grade, it was an action nothing short of negligent on the teacher’s part. After another trip to his country, Tito returned to Providence 3 months into the school year to live with his aunt and 12 cousins of varying ages.

Tito was placed in a different school, one whose population is 60% bilingual Spanish-English. One might have believed that the demographics of this particular school would lead to the success of this “lost boy,” as he would be surrounded by many in similar familiar and educational situations. Tito was placed into a “bilingual” classroom, but given that the long-term substitute was not bilingual (an unfortunately accurate portrayal of programming deficits in the district), Tito was left to “sink or swim.” It was in this dismal environment that I encountered Tito, with tidings of good luck from his homeroom teacher. Perhaps it was the sadness in his eyes that caused me to connect with him instantaneously or the unjust way in which he was referred to by nearly all adults that surrounded him. I found their general lack of interest in helping this student appalling, and I knew that I could help him, if only I had time . . . .

I spent a short 3 months providing literacy intervention to Tito, assisting him in understanding social cues and acquiring conversational language skills. Without any warning, Tito disappeared from the school once more, indefinitely as always, administrators remaining unable to tell me whether he has returned to his native land or transferred to another school in the district. He was making indisputable gains in a system that had previously failed him, and now all that I can do is hope for his well-being, helplessly.

“Teacher, teacher,” he yelled,
voice about four notches too loud for the classroom,
hand waving frantically in my face.
“Tito, tenemos que trabajar en esto, we have to work on this,”
I tell him politely, “siempre con la mano callada en la clase, quiet hand in class.”
“Raúl está molestándome,” (Raúl is bothering me) he proclaims,
“Como siempre,” I respond,
as this is seemingly always the case.
“Let’s focus here, Tito, tenemos que enfocarnos en la tarea,”
I say with patience,
as the two boys have become rivals,
and it is difficult to tell who is the instigator,
and who the victim,
although I have my suspicions.

Outside of the classroom, Tito approaches me, hurriedly,
diciendo que “Raúl la empezó,” (saying that Raúl started it),
la lucha, or the fight, that is.
The students laugh at him,
because he is much taller and older;
nearly 12 years old in the third grade.
If he is irritated, one could naturally see the reason,
as he cannot defend himself, yet lives in a constant state of defensive turmoil.
I am the one that Tito seeks in times of confrontation,
which are painstakingly abundant,
as many teachers remain unable to communicate with him,
and assume that he began the ordeal,
as he is “angry,” or “troubled,” with “social issues,”
or even worse—
that he is “unfixable.”

Away from his enemies,
Tito is enthusiastic about learning,
eager to share his anecdotal experiences,
from the classroom in the Dominican Republic,
where he claims to have excelled.
I don’t doubt his tales,
but wonder what he means when he says excelled,
as he cannot read in Spanish either.

Every morning, as he strolls in late,
he smiles large and asks,
“Teacher, ¿vamos a tu clase hoy?”
He loves my classroom, and I love bringing him there,
without distraction, without pressure of his peers and teachers,
all of whom have no faith in his abilities.
“Tito, ¿sabes qué quiere decir la palabra potencial?”
(Do you know what potential means?)
Me responde que “no,” which doesn’t surprise me,
as the adults in his life aren’t exactly encouraging.
“Es algo que tú tienes adentro, y vamos a activarlo juntos tú y yo.”
(It is something that you have inside of you,
and we are going to activate it together, you and I.)
Tito smiles, and we continue to decode words.

The day that I walked into school and was handed a release form
which stated that Tito would no longer be in attendance,
as his family has pulled him indefinitely,
my hopes and aspirations crumbled into a fine dust;
as quickly as he disappeared,
so did my faith in his relatives, the administrators, the district.
Why is no one recognizing the vicious circle that has been created?
Why doesn’t anyone care but me?
Why aren’t we communicating with the parents,
boasting about success thus far, explaining that it could become a trend,
if only given more time?

Today, I mourn the loss of my endangered student,
I witnessed his fall through the cracks,
but with few actually attempting to understand;
plummeting into a downward spiral,
entrapped by his ever-changing situation.
And I mourn the deficit of impassioned educators,
along with a system that doesn’t cater to newcomers such as my Tito,
whose story is not unlike that of many others—
all of whom are left to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar territory,
a sociocultural abyss,
a nullity formed from injustice—
a system disenfranchising students as it did my Tito,
leaving them stranded in a constant state of linguistic purgatory.

Shélynn Riel is a literacy interventionist in the Providence public school district and adjunct faculty member in the Intensive ESL Program at Rhode Island College. Although she specializes in TESOL, Shé is currently pursuing bilingual/dual language certification in order to better serve the community that inspires her every day.