I’d tried everything.
I’d had moderate to very good success teaching all the students in my first grade class to read but one: Tammy.
We had two Tammys in our class. One was Tammy Osborne, aka “Tammy” and the other was “Tammy-Who-Can’t-Read.” It was the latter who earned the title of The Funniest Girl In First Grade.
Not that it mattered, but Tammy lived with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend and a feral cat in the infamous part of the county named “Rabbit Town.”
The rest of the class lived in split-levels or ranch designs, were driven to school by their mothers and held
the school buses and their riders in abject disdain.
Tammy didn’t endear herself to me because she was poor, had stringy blonde hair and needed sympathy.
Rather, she wrapped herself around the tendrils of my heart because, well, because she was Tammy.
She was so hyperactive that she couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes. Several times a day,I would find Tammy firmly ensconced in the small bathroom next to our classroom belting out, “You’ve Two-timed Me
One Time Too Often.” It was her mother’s favorite song, she explained, shrugging her thin shoulders.
Tammy didn’t have a serious thought in her head. The world was one vast playground and she was determined to try out every single ride. I’ve long since decided it was her main defense mechanism to help deal with her sad and tawdry home life.
Indeed, it was her home life that caused me to discontinue “Show And Tell.” While other students brought
Grandpa’s war memorabilia, a pet boa constrictor, or 5 baby kittens to “Show and Tell,” I was relieved that
Tammy preferred “Tell” to “Show.” There was no telling what she would have brought to class.
Tammy often mentioned her mother’s boyfriend in her stories and I was contemplating what to do about it.
But the day she plunged into a blow-by-blow account of her mother’s latest fight, with police banging on the
door and dragging her screaming mother off to jail, I put a permanent end to “Show and Tell.” The class
never forgave me. This was a new world to them, their own soap opera told by the best story-teller in school.
But I digress.
Well, it was nearly December and Tammy still hadn’t learned to read. I suggested she try reading anything,
even the back of her breakfast cereal boxes but she regularly had sugared donuts and Coke for breakfast, she
said. I asked her to pick out words on billboards as she was riding the school bus, but the only words she
could remember were Camel Cigarettes and Budweiser beer and even then, she asked a fifth-grader what the words were.
I kept her after school for tutoring, even took her home with me to provide a more relaxed setting to learn to read. Nothing helped. We tried phonics and sight-reading and Reading Is Fun programs. Everything!
Tammy had clearly set up a barrier in her mind, a block that told her she would never learn to read.
In those days we had reading groups: A, B, and C. She didn’t belong in any of them and asked me one day with her lopsided grin if she could have a “D Group for Dummies.” I told her to hang on. It was just a matter of time.
I have no idea how it happened. But one day while the reading groups were in their circles and Tammy was
leafing through a book at her desk, she suddenly started reading aloud! Just like that. Slowly sounding out
the words, she read an entire paragraph. The entire class stopped reading just to listen.
When Tammy reached the end of the page, she looked up. The room burst into sustained applause.
Tammy clutched the book to her breast and with a mix of tears and laughter, shouted, “I can read. I can read!
I CAN READ!” It was as if a light bulb had suddenly been turned on in her brain and the whole idea of
reading made sense to her.
We took turns hugging Tammy. It was a first-class, first-grade love fest! When it was finished, they all took their seats and were quiet for a few seconds.
Then Tammy raised her hand and begged, “Now can we have “Show and Tell” tomorrow? My mother had a really big fight last night.”
“NO,” I thundered.
Even success has its limits.
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