I came home a little bit proud last night. At home I dubbed myself, jokingly, The Miracle Worker because, when all else fails, they call me.
“C.,” they say, “Mr. Oro here has been trying to pass the GED the past three years he’s been here, and he’s scheduled to leave for the community in ten days. Well, we’re offering him a special test on Friday, the last time he can take it this year, because he missed the test last week by ten points. Ya, see?” I see. I look at the calendar. I see that I have four days to work a miracle.
Under normal circumstances I might get frustrated or tired from the extra assignment, but this week is my last week with my students. I didn’t appreciate losing my last couple hours to listen and mentor, some I had known a full twenty months. On top of that, four rooms have been packed and stored in boxes on account of our remodel and shuffling of classrooms, so when I asked for a diagnostic test that I’d used before to help tutor GED reading students the teacher just threw up her hands in despair. Heavens, she didn’t know where they were stored. I said nothing, but I wanted to remind her that I had four days and no one could tell me what exactly the boy needed to work on. The next day I asked again, so she had a couple offenders move her boxes around until we could find the diagnostic test. Three days remained.
The tests confirmed what our conversation and work the day before had revealed: he could not answer any analysis or synthesis question correctly. Not one. I tried to hide my horror: I was supposed to raise and change his cognitive process in 72 hours. At any rate, I had to convince his short term memory to think in a different way. I rolled up my sleeves.
I had heard Oro’s name often, but I couldn’t tell you anything more about him. All I could surmise was that he had a bad attitude and a big mouth that landed him in a heap of trouble all the time. That could describe a lot of people I work with, but most didn’t end up in our Incidental Reports every other week. This didn’t bother me. He had motivation now to pass the test and we didn’t have any history. In situations like these I rely on the 1:4, or 1:7, rule–it depends who you ask. At my last school, we tried to practice four positive comments for every one criticism we gave our students. I was told, about four months into my time in the prison, that with the youth we serve, it’s more like seven positives to every negative. I used my imagination to come up with ways and reasons to compliment Oro the first day because I needed him to work with me. One the second day I knew exactly why his name came up often and everyone just laughed when they found out I got stuck tutoring him, but I persisted and he kept working without complaint. A word and I could redirect him.
“Miss,” he said from the back of my room, his eyes droopy, hours before his test,”I’ve never studied this hard in my life. I wish I had done so earlier.” He took a break and told me how he couldn’t sleep or eat with ten days remaining at the facility and everything hinging on his GED test. “It’s stress,” I explained to him, but he wouldn’t believe me. No one wants to admit that they’re afraid of going back, uncertain of what changes they are really going to make or what they intend to get away with, and how to manage it all. He had the added uncertainty of passing his GED, because if he didn’t, the administrators were saying, he couldn’t go home; instead they would send him to the half-way house. No pressure, on him or me.
The morning of his test he got drug out of bed for a quick review with me. I promised to hold positive thoughts for him all afternoon, and I was glad to be too busy all that morning to worry much. At 2:30 PM we got the good news; he didn’t just pass, but he gained twenty points on his test. “Thank you, Miss,” he shook my hand, “that is a huge relief. I can’t stop smiling.” What a relief, in a sense. I think we all expect him to mess up his life, although he also seems to understand what he has to do to change. I’m left to wonder, as I’ve been doing lately, if I really helped him. Is he going to use this tool, his GED, to do anything with his life, or is he going back to prison some day? All I know is that I did my job, and I did it well. That’s all I can do, helpful or not helpful.