Once a week, for the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve spent my lunch hour eating and spending time with Murray (not actual name) a some what typical fifth grader. We generally talk a great deal about his weekend and what he’s been up to since we were last together. The conversation eventually gets around to talking about video games. Murray spends a lot of his time wrapped up in a virtual world, closed off from the actual world around him. Given what he’s shared about life at home, I can’t say I much blame him.
Not the best of students, Murray and I will some times spend our time together working on an over-due class assignment. I dread when he has his math book in hand. I’m certainly not the person Murray needs to be relying on for math help. Far too often though, when we do end up spending time working on his assignments, it’s a short-lived, fleeting opportunity. He doesn’t much have the attention span to hunker down and focus for too long.
I won’t lie, there are times I leave the school feeling as though I’ve had very little impact on Murray; let alone any sort of positive impact. It’s hard to fight off the questions of doubt that roam in the depths of my mind. The one’s that suggest I’m not doing this kid any good, or that I’m not doing anything to improve his situation of life. Some times, more than others, I’m able to fend off what I know isn’t true. I know simply by showing up week after week I have an impact. I know that by offering Murray an hour of my time, that’s just for him has an impact. But let’s face it, when it comes to mentoring realizing clear wins can often times be very difficult.
The other day however, I realized a huge win. Murray bounded down the hall toward me, as I waited near the cafeteria this time instead of his Math book, Murray had a composition notebook, folder and a slew of loose papers of various colors. Oh, and a smile nearly as wide as the hall itself. I greeted him in typical fashion, “Murray, how’s it going dude?” His reply, “Good, I’m gonna surprise me teacher and get my writing done!” I’ve been here before with Murray. We’ll eat slowly, as he picks at his food, making small talk about the weekend and video games. I’ll try and glean as much as I can about the assignment due, and he’ll avoid talking about it as best he can.
This time it was different. He had a genuine excitement about his writing project, and judging by the speed in which he downed lunch, I’d say it was at the top of his to do list for our time together. The assignment was simple, craft a story about someone you had researched, using facts about this person’s life. As Murray showed me his rough draft paper, I couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t a single word legible enough to read or even take a guess at. It’s heartbreaking, how lacking Murray’s writing skills are. I couldn’t ignore it, the moment was right in front of me, and so I asked the hard question. “Murray, can you read what you’ve got written there? Your writing looks to be a bit rushed and sort of crazy.” His candid reply, “I some times get in a hurry and my writing gets sloppy.” “Why don’t we work on that,” I said, “I’ll help you try and slow down; we’ll write your story together.”
For the next twenty five minutes Murray and I wrote a story about Jimmy Johnson. I decided that I’d too write the story on my own piece of paper; sort of as a way to try and help Murray pace himself, I suppose. Composition errors competed with grammatical errors, and while those things jumped out at me right away I realized the win for Murray wasn’t writing a perfect story (although his teacher may believe otherwise). The win for Murray was that for twenty five minutes he stayed focused on a single task, and in doing so ended up writing a story that while compositionally was all over the place, was legible.