The Story of Bruce Part 1 by Rob Gulya

I’m going to use the next few posts to write in depth about a student who, over my 1st five years in the classroom, has taught me more than anyone else. Each post will take on a different aspect of my relationship with him and what I learned from the experience. This post will focus on a few of the emotional challenges I faced with Bruce.

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I went into teaching through the New York City Teaching Fellows, which means I had very little formal high school teaching experience prior to entering the classroom. The program had faith that my intelligence and drive would allow me to overcome challenges and learn on the fly. As a result, although I’d read books on teaching inner-city students, I didn’t really know how hard it could be.

In my first year teaching, I had one of the most difficult students I’ve ever had to educate– Bruce. Bruce lives alone with his mother, who has a drinking problem, and Bruce has a severe learning disability. Probably visual in nature, He couldn’t read at all. He didn’t have any grasp of phonics; he struggled to visually see letters, which seemed to all look the same to him; he didn’t hold his pen properly, making it difficult for him to write. Yet, somehow, he wound up in my ninth grade English class with little to no support (I was told it was too late for him to be assessed for necessary services like Speech Therapy or Occupational Therapy).

Bruce’s home and academic life fostered in him a difficult emotional side as well. At first, he put up a shield, hiding his struggles at all cost. He refused the support he desperately needed. He became defiant when teachers asked him to do things he couldn’t, like read independently. His self-defense was to put up walls and push away those who wanted to help. To challenge and see who he could really trust to stick around when the going got rough.

When Bruce would get, inevitably, frustrated, he would curse me out or tell me that he was “retarded.” He would put his head down for days at a time and would tell me to “Go away” when I came to try to coax him into following along in the reading or taking notes. These were his walls. Perhaps, he put his head down to see who would notice. He said Go away! to see who would come back.

I think Bruce was waiting for me to give up on him. To let him sit in the back of the room and not do anything, like so many teachers had done before. I’m not sure what made him trust me, but I remember one day, when the class was reading a graphic novel version of Fahrenheit 451, Bruce sticking up for me. His classmates were cursing at each other and arguing, so the lesson could not continue, and Bruce said, “Just shut up. I’m here to learn because I need an education. If you don’t need an education then just go. But I’m here trying to listen to this young man read this story.”

The room got silent. I’d outlasted Bruce’s walls. All those times he told me to go away, to leave him alone, to give up on him because he couldn’t learn. I remember, as we were nearing the end of Fahrenheit 451, Bruce came up to me and told me he’d never read an entire book from cover to cover. A smile drifted across my face. Bruce was beginning to open up; he was beginning to realize his potential.

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This year, I found Bruce once again sitting in my classroom, this time for senior English. Bruce now has the support of a paraprofessional in all of his academic subjects to help him keep up with the work and support him emotionally when he needs it. Bruce’s sister, who is now in college, has also moved back home, which has been a hugely positive influence for him. Bruce has grown so much, no longer hiding from his disability, but embracing the perspective and the hardship that comes with it.

I always begin my senior year English class on writing college essays. It’s an important essay students have to write, but it looks nothing like anything they’ve ever been asked to write. Bruce joined my class about 2 weeks into school, so we were already working on the second draft of the essay.

Once again, Bruce put up his walls. He told me, defiantly, “I do not want to go to college. I am not going to go to college.”

I told him that was fine, he could write a letter to a possible employer about why he should be hired.

Bruce came to class late and would disrupt the lesson. He would refuse to write for entire class periods. When I or his paraprofessional offered support, he refused to take it. He wrote an essay about why college was “stupid” and why he was choosing not to go. Bruce was testing me, again.

This time, though, the test was much easier to pass. I didn’t get frustrated when he was difficult; I didn’t tell him he had to go to college; I didn’t ignore him when he refused to work; I noticed when he was absent. Soon enough, Bruce felt comfortable with me again.

Last week, he asked me if I remember him his freshman year. I smiled and told him of course I did. He laughed and said, “I was one tough kid.”

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