As far as I knew, 16-year-old Isaac was looking for drug deals, crap games and ways to build up his towering physique. The only class that seemed to grab him was physical education; my class in reading held little interest. Isaac seemed the least likely of my students to ask for my help in a spiritual journey.
Like a lot of street-hardened kids, Isaac could keep you at a distance. His commanding presence and cold-eyed stare would freeze even a teacher into submission, or at least into excessive diplomacy when dealing with his defiant ways. His don’t- mess-with-me look was not just borne of the cockiness of one who had learned how to hustle on the streets. Two-hour-a-day workouts in a gym put steely resolve in that countenance along with that solid, well-muscled torso on a 6-foot-2-inch frame.
His rare school appearances were sartorial hits and marketing coups that advanced his recruitment goals. He flaunted his drug wealth with riveting outfits. One day he came wearing an expensive leather jacket with a soft, gold sheen that invited a caressing touch, with matching gold, alligator-skin cowboy boots and a gold wrist chain. Under the leather jacket, which he kept on in class, a maroon turtleneck gave the look a collegiate accent. In fall 1982, this $500 outfit attested to his success as a drug dealer of Mexican-grown marijuana laced with PCP (elephant tranquilizer) known as Wacky Weed and Love Boat. This was before crack cocaine exploded in the late 1980s and early ’90s as the deadly high sold on the streets by the young merchants of bliss and destruction. Washington, D.C., came to be known as the Murder Capital.
That same day Isaac saw me in the restroom and looked at my rather common teaching attire. “How much are you making a week?” he asked. Knowing the answer was peanuts compared to what he could make working the streets, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick, carefully rolled wad of cash and counted out $400, in denominations of $10s and $20s. I pointed to the cash he was proudly flashing and said, “Not that much, but what I make doesn’t burn big holes in my pocket.”
Unable to read on the first-grade level, he was not shaping up as one of my success stories. He was more apt to wind up dead on one of the back streets of D.C. than step into a classroom with a textbook he could read.
Isaac was in many respects a typical student at this experimental, alternative high school for court-adjudicated youths with serious emotional and learning problems. The school was located on Georgia Avenue, seven miles from the White House, and just a mile or so from the famous Rock Creek Park, a weekend paradise for picnickers and perambulators. This park clearly demarcated the black, east side of D.C. from the west, white side of the racially polarized capital.
The windowless, tan-brick school had been the former riot squad quarters for the D.C. police. In my more cynical and apocalyptic moments I would comment to friends that the pre-World War II building was well fortified — made of concrete and cinder block, with a brick facade — and well situated to provide a base for mounting a police force to repel would-be insurgents from advancing into the white precincts of the city. The school abutted a funeral home on one side and a small, colonial-style, white-frame church building on the other. So situated, our school stood between the certainty of death and the hope of the resurrection.
Our students’ more immediate fate was represented by a remnant of the riot squads former days in the building. Students going to the basement darkroom for photography class could not help but notice a discarded jail cell door, oddly painted baby blue and still attached to the heavy metal frame and bars of a jail cell. It seemed a cruel joke that the school’s owners did not remove this detritus, which symbolized the fate of too many of our students.
Judging from their juvenile and academic records, the students came to us as apparently impossible cases, ineducable and incorrigible. They had serious emotional problems that they tended to “act out” in socially inappropriate ways. In the classroom they were loud, combative and disruptive. In the streets they were marauders. The majority had been in lock-up, incarcerated in one of the city’s two detention facilities on juvenile charges. They had serious learning disabilities, ignored for years, that left most of them functionally illiterate, unable to read at all or, at best, barely on the third grade level. They were poor, black and from families that were either nonexistent or fragile, single-female households. Some were orphans who had been shuffled around for years living in group and foster homes.
I was not there just to manage cases and pass them on to the next stage of their institutionalization, be it welfare or the criminal justice system. I was not there to manage the peace in the retrenchment from the failed war on poverty. I was there to do more than correct my share of classroom papers. I was there to correct some civil wrongs.
Clarity of mind came anew each morning during my commute into the District from my townhouse in Northern Virginia as I confronted the challenge before me. I would be on a six-hour tightrope with youth who had an instinct for baiting teachers, especially white teachers, into disastrous moves. They were not only difficult, they were dangerous. Other kids went to school packing a lunch; my students came packing loaded guns, knives, narcotics and numbchucks, a chain with a wood handle on both ends that could be pulled out quickly from under a parka and could take someone down and out with one swipe,
Reducing the plight of these young men to its bare rub: They were learning disabled, emotionally disabled and headed to the District’s penitentiary. The girls got pregnant with disconcerting regularity, dropped out and went on welfare. Grim fates awaited them unless there was intervention in their lives.
These students, 80 percent males, were becoming men before our eyes while taking on more and more the hard ways of the ghetto. Their misery they associated with the Man, the white man, the blue-eyed devil himself. They were hard on teachers, especially white teachers. Just months before I was hired, two white teachers had left after being physically assaulted. A female teacher had been slugged in the stomach and sustained internal injuries; a white male with the same first name as myself had been knocked through a plaster wall in the principal’s office. That latter confrontation was memorialized by an unpainted, white plaster patch in the mustard yellow wall. That scar in the wall served as a reminder of the boiling rage of these ghetto youth.
I watched five dedicated and capable white fellow staff, including two Jewish art therapists, a former Peace Corps worker and a psychotherapist, go through accelerated burnout and all but flee this arena in less than 18 months. One of these teachers got his forehead gashed with the cutting edge of an aluminum tent pole by a student on a camping trip. The victim’s provocation? He broke up a pot party in a tent. The average white teacher lasted less than a year and the average black teacher not more than two.
They made an exception for this white man. Much of my tenure I was the only white person in the school building. My gender and race made me the personification of the enemy; I represented the Man who made the urban hell that made my students the terrors that they were. Yet, I stayed despite my white skin because I showed that as a reading specialist I could open the eyes of the blind. I could get students — blinded by learning disabilities, years of frustration and failure, bad instruction, uninvolved parents, blinded by poverty and the insidious aftereffects of that “peculiar institution” — literate. Once I discovered this, armed guards could not keep me out of the school.
Even so, I had to endure what seemed like a never-ending gauntlet for five years, getting buffeted by the retrograde forces of the ghetto that always threatened to subvert real learning from taking place at this school. Students cursed me out, targeted me for death threats, slashed the tires of my car and took swings at me. I was singled out not because I provoked them but because I would not pacify them. I refused to let my role as a teacher be reduced to playing custodian at a holding tank for juvenile offenders.
I would not cater to them, but I would help them plot an escape from the ghetto. “He will work you to death,” they said of me, and I took that as a compliment. And the physical education teacher told me that one of my students, Paul Warner, said of the irresistible pull of my class, “I don’t know what it is about that white man but I get all psyched up when he comes to get me for reading.”
When I started at this school in 1978 as a 28-year-old novice teacher, it was an educational warehouse. Two days out of five the students were taken on field trips, because classroom management was so untenable. I became the spearhead of a vanguard to gain control of the school and build an educational program that would give these disadvantaged kids half a chance at taking control of their own lives through literacy. By my fifth and final year, the 1982-83 school year, it was a model school.
The school’s turnaround started with bright, orange, smiley-faced stickers. With an incentive program that used these stickers on achievement charts and offered as rewards bubble gum, cash and McDonalds lunches, I developed the school’s first successful behavior modification program with my students. Then, working with a consulting educational psychologist, we expanded this to a school-wide behavior modification program. But we built into this system a set of much-needed rules and consequences. For this was a school where the philosophy of permissiveness had run riot. There was nothing in place for behavior control but sweet persuasion and infinite tolerance for the misbehavior of volatile youth with poor impulse control, that unchecked only led to bedlam and psychological and physical trauma for teachers and students. Following the nostrum of the school’s psychologist, “Catch them when they are good and reinforce it,” was unworkable in the midst of an avalanche of misbehavior. There was no substitute for building a system that created the conditions for learning.
Because you cannot teach a hungry student, I organized a free lunch program with the support of a suburban Catholic church in Northern Virginia, some friends and my sister Katie’s initial gift of $120 — the amount needed to feed 40 kids a lunch every school day for one month.
The students were supposed to bring a lunch from home, but this expectation exceeded the resources of their dysfunctional homes. We had students, by far the majority, who started the school day without breakfast, and brought nothing for lunch. One student’s mother padlocked the family refrigerator to prevent neighborhood kids from pilfering food. We had students like Gerard, whose shoplifting was motivated by hunger. One day I discovered him concealing a sirloin steak, still in its shrinkwrap, that he had snatched from a nearby supermarket.
“What are you going to do with that?” I asked.
“I’m going to take it home and cook it, what else,” he said.
“Got a quarter, Richard?” was an irresistible demand I heard a dozen times a day from students. After collecting a few quarters from staff, they would disappear and return with snacks and coffee, loaded with cream and sugar, and make of it a wired lunch. This begging routine left them suffering from the knife-edge of hunger in the afternoon. Hunger cut into the final shreds of their ability to perform in the classroom. By midafternoon verbal stabs at each other quickly escalated into fights, shattering the final semblance of classroom order. I participated in this sorry spectacle for six months, meanwhile doling out pocketfuls of quarters.
Unable to stand it any longer, I organized the lunch program. The school’s administrative assistant, Willie Mae Wesley, oversaw with maternal care the daily lunch preparations, recruiting some of the female students to help her. Making lunch for 40 students a day was not part of her job description. Feeding the hungry, however, was part of her Christian calling.
“What do you know,” I told my wife, a nurse, “if you feed kids who are malnourished and hungry, you will increase attendance and morale of the students and teachers.” It was a start at raising this dysfunctional school out of the bowels of deprivation.
My job as a reading specialist was to get them reading, whatever it took. I made it a life-or-death issue. Like an actor losing himself in his part, I had to lose myself in the wild and dangerous world of an illiterate, 15-year-old, inner-city black youth with a humiliating problem that would have tragic consequences if not addressed. He would be doubly disenfranchised as black and illiterate if I failed. I had to gain their trust, get inside their heads, learn their wants, understand the frustration and overwhelming sense of failure that their whole education had been because of an inability to read. It meant getting down on all fours to find the pilot light of their deepest motivations, using as my lighter an easy-reading version of anything that fascinated them. In so identifying with them I never ceased to be amazed at how white my hands were when I wrote something on the board.
Once the furnace was lit and humming it was my job to feed it with a steady supply of fuel, reading materials revolving around the same subject at graduated levels of difficulty until they became self-sustaining, developing readers. I used as kindling and logs for the literacy fire an individualized combination of the driver’s study guide, the newspaper, the literature and biographies of African American heroes, the funnies, TV Guide, menus of their favorite fast food restaurants, even store signs from their neighborhoods.
My students’ aversion to reading and bent toward driving vehicles without a license spurred me to create a program that combined drivers’ education with reading instruction that I called Read and Drive. Getting dragged into court and put in lock-up for Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle (UUV) and driving without a license is not the way to break out of the ghetto, I told them. Rather the best way is with the escapee driving his own car with his own driver’s license.
Nate Thomas, a streetwise kid unable to read on the first grade level, was the problem child par excellence who provoked the creation of Read and Drive program. This 16-year-old’s uncle challenged him with the promise of a brand new car if he could learn to read well enough to take the driver’s test.
Nate had well-documented learning disabilities that left him marooned at the kindergarten level; the world of print was a closed book for him. For 10 years he had haplessly struggled with dyslexia, a visual perceptual problem characterized by letter reversals. He could not tell a " b" from a “d,” a “p” from a “q”; he had a tendency to transpose letters so that “was” looked like “saw” and “bad” looked like “dab.” Street and store signs, newspapers, menus at restaurants were all written in strange and taunting hieroglyphics.
For six months he had balked at the reading materials I had tried with him, dismissing it all as “baby stuff.” He was hard to please. There was a paucity of literacy materials appropriate for urban youth in the early ’80s, but I haunted libraries and teacher stores on Saturdays looking for what were called high-interest, low-reading books. Though I had an ever growing stockpile of such reading material appealing to low literate youths and adults, Nate had politely and not so politely rejected it all.
“Richard, I want you to teach me how to read this,” he told me one morning, giving me a pink pamphlet containing the District’s Drivers’ Study Guide. It was music to my ears. At last I had something he wanted to read, something that did not bear the stigma of remedial reading in his mind. My excitement gave way to consternation. He could not handle words like “was” and “hat.” How could he master words like “liability” and “intersection,” words like “pedestrian” and “intoxicants”?
The challenge was to reduce this eighth-grade-level material to the bare first-grade level for Nate. The driver’s study guide had no illustrations, no diagrams of traffic situations, not even a single picture of a road sign or a road marking. Instead, it consisted of nearly 100 questions and multiple-choice answers. Even for a literate adult it was a challenge. For Nate the driver’s study was algebra, and he did not know addition. Yet he wanted to learn algebra; so I had to try to teach him how to add and subtract, multiply and divide while showing him how to solve algebraic equations.
With the prospect of getting behind the wheel of a car, he was now motivated. Could I deliver on my part? I enlisted the aid of an art therapist to create cartoon illustrations of each and every question. To teach him the reading mechanics, I devised board games using the format of tic-tac-toe, bingo and solitaire. It was going to be a long haul up literacy mountain so I injected some fun and games into his pursuit of literacy and his driver’s license. This recalcitrant student became a tireless one, motivated to cut through the hundreds of hours of drill to master the reading skills that had eluded him for 10 years. I had struck a motivational goldmine.
Nine month later the two of us returned from the Division of Motor Vehicles with the prize in hand, his learner’s permit. It convulsed the school.
“That Bama’s got his license!” became the exclamation that electrified the school. “Bama” as best as I could infer meant a simpleton, fool, a no-account. If he got his license, any of them could. They knew that Nate had been Mr. Slide and Glide, the master of giving the slip to his teachers and his classes. At the same time they were acknowledging that he had scored a real-world success. Any kind of achievement related to school was water in the desert, a rare and precious thing, for these students. This certifiable achievement incarnated in the learner’s permit, complete with his or her photo, was a rite of passage and personal victory wrapped up in one.
A couple years later he called me from Seattle, where he was living with his uncle, and related that he was in a “regular high school,” in the 11th grade and not taking special education classes. He was in the mainstream.
I ceased to be the reading teacher and became the driver’s education teacher as far as they were concerned. Nearly every student elected to take the Read and Drive class. But there was an overarching motivation I had not fully identified, a vein of motivational gold even more phenomenal than the driver’s license.
Shortly after the start of my fifth year in fall 1982, Isaac, the flashy drug dealer who had been a hardcore truant for three years, came back to school and to my class. I decided to start afresh with him. I gave him a survey designed to elicit his dreams as to what he would like to read if reading were not a problem. I was startled when Isaac said he wanted to read the Bible.
Going into my fifth year as the reading specialist, I began to include the Bible for the first time for pedagogical reasons. First, I included this book in my reading resource room because it more than any other was associated with the rise of literacy in the Western World, more central to the literature, law and culture of Western civilization than any other book. In examining the constitutionality of my inclusion of the Bible in my program, I learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled as late as 1980 in Stone v. Graham that “the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.”
My students needed a crash course in ethics if they were going to stay out of jail. For those on an accelerated course to violent ends on the streets of D.C. or incarceration at Lorton, the least I could do was offer them a set of brakes. I had read that those who overcome addictions usually succeed because they have a moral reason for doing so.
But it was only with apprehension that I included in my reading program a book so fraught with controversy, a book scoffed at by my beloved gurus as rife with myths impeding the scientific mind, a book that was viewed by them as a powder keg giving rise to religious wars down through the centuries of Western history. Such a book only belonged in the classroom if students with First Amendment rights really wanted it as a matter of personal choice, I reasoned.
There was a group of students I was not reaching, the hardest cases, those most deeply involved in street crime, the ones who used the school simply to advance their street business. Students like Isaac were impervious to all my efforts. The one thing I had not done was address with my reading program the spiritual dimensions of my students’ lives, letting my preoccupation with their poverty, their material needs and educational shortcomings stemming from their low literacy override a consideration of this domain. This was a big oversight considering my students hailed from a people who had transmuted their suffering into an art genre and ethos known as “soul” and for whom the Bible was a centerpiece of their culture.
At a Christian bookstore I found a red paperback Bible with a controlled vocabulary of 1,000 words produced by an English publisher. I also began to acquire comic book versions of Bible stories and easy-reading illustrated Bibles of all kinds.
I offered Isaac one-on-one tutorial sessions during my lunch hour so he would not be embarrassed by my reading to him. How do you relate the story of Jesus to a young drug dealer headed for self-destruction, bound for a penitentiary if he even survives his deadly sport? I did not really know. We had been barely under way with this reading tutorial, hardly doing it for a week when he brought it to a climax, showing the depth of his spiritual hunger.
Just days after we had started I overheard Isaac describing what seemed like an impossible problem to the principal. It was the end of the school day and we were the last ones in the school building. I was in the principal’s outer office using the phone to order some readers from New York.
“Have you talked to your probation officer? . . . How about your case worker? . . . How about your lawyer?” Yes, this 16-year-old boy had a lawyer, probably a well paid one.
A few minutes later I was back in my classroom engaged for preparations for the next day. Isaac came in with a pained look on his face.
“Man, I need to talk to you,” he said.
Looking back at the open door, he shot, “Can you shut the door?” It was more of a demand, typical of these young men who had learned to survive economically on their own on the streets by getting their way using intimidation. And I said obligingly, “Isaac, for you anything. . . . What’s the matter?”
“Man, it’s these filthy thoughts.” His words momentarily stunned me. He had a filthy mouth and a drug dealer’s lifestyle. But his awareness, quite spontaneously uttered, of the inward condition of his heart, led me to grasp that a conversion of that heart also was underway.
He went on. “I can’t stop crying at night.” As he shared this with me, tears welled up in his eyes. I was overwhelmed by the depth and simplicity of the admission he had just made. I wheeled around to get a couple of metal folding chairs from the closet. By the time I turned around with the chairs in hand he had dropped to his knees. I dare say all of Washington, D.C., shook when this giant of a manchild hit the floor, penitent before God. His shoulders, always squared and thrown back in a swaggering pose, began to heave as he sobbed.
Dropping the chairs I went over to him, put my hands on his back and began to pray silently, letting what was happening inside him, this holy transaction between himself and God, run its course.
A few minutes later we were seated in the chairs. He was as peaceful and composed as an angel; the torment and the confusion that had been written on his face was gone.
“Man, is this for real?” he asked me. I looked in wonder at him, not comprehending what he was asking. Then I realized that his radiant, composed look reflected a newfound peace and joy that suffused his soul, his whole being. A verse of Scripture from the Gospel of John quoting Jesus came to mind: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you . . . let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
“It is for real,” I said, at last revealing the one responsible for my own recovery from a tortured, wayward adolescence, fraught with the potential for self-destruction.
It created a sensation when this formerly gun-packing drug dealer came into school packing a big red Bible that I gave him. Isaac was still 6-foot-2 and worked out a couple of hours a day pumping iron, so nobody made fun of him. In fact, other students wanted in on this good thing and began to ask for Bible literature in their reading program.
“Teach me how to read this” is what Isaac told his shocked primary teacher the next day, handing her his new, big, red paperback Bible. “He must mean business,” she marveled.
But what no case worker or probation officer, what no lawyer could do to convince him to lay down his gun, his drug dealing and drug using, he did of his own accord when the Bible was opened to him. What had been burning a big hole in his pocket, he stopped putting into his pocket. The drug dealer’s outlandish get-ups started to fade away as he began to dress like the other students. I am sure he oscillated between his old lifestyle and new during my final year at the school, but I kept seeing accumulating signs of a wondrous and divine transformation. And his newfound readiness to get down to learning to read made me quite hopeful.
By the end of my final year at this school the unveiling of the forgotten book with nearly all of my 40 students had resulted in nearly a dozen stunning turnabouts of formerly unreachable, unteachable students like Isaac. I do know that no one argued with the results when impossible cases became angels in the inner city. In opening the Bible I like to think I loosed angels, who, having escaped the bonds of hatred and racism, of ignorance and illiteracy, would forgive and transform the society that had ghettoized them. And on the wings of these angels this teacher was called into the ministry of this gospel of redemption.
The Read and Drive program, which Richard Shannon founded and still directs, became in 1992 a nonprofit organization that publishes and distributes the Read and Drive adult literacy program, provides workshops and teacher training, and develops comprehensive adult education and welfare-to-work programs.