He had the frightened look of a trapped animal–a bullied runt who was used to abuse at the hands of cruel classmates. As we talked he ducked his head lower, turned away from me, and seemed to fold in on himself along the midline–as though he could pull his left and right shoulders together to shield his body from my questions or curl himself into a protective ball.
I was not his usual tutor and had not been able to build any kind of trust with him since he had joined our after school program. From the first time we met, this young man showed me only defiance and passive-aggressive behavior. I started our work time together as every session usually starts. We checked his online grade book to look for missing work or plan for upcoming assignments. As we flipped through the pages, some classes only had a few grades posted for the midterm progress report. I praised him for having no missing work in most of his classes, but then I saw his English class. There were only four grades for the first part of the quarter. Two were homework grades. One was a quiz. The other was a test. Each assignment was worth 100 points. Unfortunately for this student, both homework assignments earned 0 points. Shaking my head in disbelief that four grades were enough to determine how this student was learning, I asked him what he knew about the zero grades. Did he forget to turn in an assignment or was there something incomplete or incorrect? Did he want me to come with him to ask his teacher if he needed to reattempt something with me–his tutor?
And then the walls went flying up in every direction. No, he didn’t want to speak to his teacher. No, he didn’t want to explain the assignments to me. No, he really wasn’t interested in finding out what he needed to do to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. No. No. No.
In the classroom, this kind of defiance used to set off my blood pressure, but here in the tutoring lab things felt different. I saw him take this defensive stance out of self-preservation. What was at the root of it? Shame? Embarrassment? Fear? I had no way to know, so I sat beside him. I waited. I spoke softly and soothingly. And then I listened.
He told me about his third grade teacher. In his words: a jerk who didn’t help him understand, so he quit trying to understand Language Arts from then on. He would rely on summer school for the credit he needed to reach seventh grade. And eighth grade. And so on.
He told me about being bullied on the bus and at home, about learning the only way to solve a problem with someone else is to use force, and about hating school because it was boring.
This boy is one of many armadillos I’ve seen in my classroom over the years who show their tough exterior as a way to shield themselves from pain, hurt, or betrayal. I wish I could say we had a breakthrough, that he opened up just a tiny bit and trusted me to help him confront his fear or shame or whatever it was that was making him so upset, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I wondered what happens to some children as they pass through school from year to year that leaves them so damaged and afraid of adults.