For the last year I have been teaching at a public middle school in inner city Los Angeles with the program Teach For America. In and around my school campus, a sprawling collection of graffitied buildings just west of Koreatown, lots of things demand attention: the noise, the skateboards, and the quick bursts of violence. The aspect of my experience that is presently most vivid, however, is the daily life of those students in the first percentile. These are the students with special needs I teach in room 407. They will most likely not graduate high school—most read at roughly a second grade level in eighth grade—but they are bright enough to fool the casual passerby. In one way, their deficits are more agonizing than those of the oblivious jokesters with mental retardation who sit in the back of my homeroom. When talking to my students with less severe special needs, who look like they should be able to solve simple math problems, I have to remind myself to soften my confused exasperation when time after time they just don’t get it: negative three plus two is not five!
Toward the end of the year, as I was browsing the cumulative folder of one student, I paused a moment to try to empathize with her experience. I’ll call her Sarah, and she has never scored higher than the seventh percentile. After fourth grade, a string of ones completes her record. What if, May after May, with watermarked seals, bar graphs, and statistical norming tables it were shown that you were the dumbest of every hundred people? Heck, maybe even dumber than that for all we know with our stubby bar graphs—it becomes hard to measure. The main message of the other eleven months doesn’t come in an embossed envelope, but the entire community delivers it daily: you don’t have any friends.
I’m made some small progress coming to grips with the day-to-day implications of such a life, but in the classroom it looks like a lot of frustration, odd mistakes, forgotten rules, misunderstood test directions, and terrible behavior. My students have met failure after failure, and there are few opportunities for dignity apart from the respect young people reserve for those thrown out of school.
In room 407 we are trying to change some of these things, and I’ve found frequent and sober reflection on the work of Christ serves the effort. How blessed we are to serve a God who does not rest with the ninety-nine, but goes out to find the last forgotten sheep. Let us go and do likewise.