Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Javon was the shortest kid in the class. It had been that way
since the 3rd grade. He was smaller than every boy and all of the girls too. Sometimes his friends couldn’t figure out how to hold their phones to fit him and everyone else in a selfie. He’d had to ask to get his gym locker changed so that he didn’t have to strain so much to reach it. For most kids, being short would be a problem. But Javon just let being short glide right off of him. Either he would grow or he wouldn’t -- there was nothing he could do about it, so why let it bother him?
That was Javon’s attitude about most things. He was a chill guy. He didn’t like to get all worked up about stuff, especially stuff he had no control over. He got his relaxed attitude, his Mom liked to say, from his Dad. Then she would roll her eyes, one hand on her hip.
The one exception was school work. When he’d been a little kid, he’d been real chill about his school work. But then, right before the first day of middle school, his dad had sat him down at the dining room table and made him take his hat off. In their house, that meant it was time for a serious talk.
They’d talked about college. Specifically, his dad had told him that college was expensive. College cost more money than a year’s rent on their apartment did. College cost more money than either his Dad or his Mom made in a year. College cost more money than what they would have spent if they had bought Javon every pair of sneakers AND every video game he’d ever wanted. Javon’s eyes had gone big when he heard the last comparison. He remembered thinking that he didn’t understand why anyone would want to go to college if it cost that much.
Then his dad explained; not everyone paid that much. Some people, his dad had told him, worked really hard and got good grades so that they could pay less to go to college. It was called a scholarship. Javon was in awe. That day, he promised his dad that he would work hard and try to get a scholarship.
And Javon had worked hard. By middle of seventh grade, Javon was one of the top kids in the seventh grade. He was still the shortest, but now he also got called one of the smartest. It felt good. He did all his work and still didn’t worry himself too much.
So, he hadn’t been too concerned when Mr. T announced they were starting a new unit in math about a month ago. The class started normally enough. Mr. T was writing on the projector, same as always. Kids were taking notes or doodling, same as always. But then...Mr. T threw a letter into his math problem. He paused and looked out at the class, smiling at them like using letters in math was a perfectly normal thing to do. Javon knew better.
For Javon, math used to be easy. He figured that since he had 10 fingers, he could do most of it. But he could not wrap his mind around using these letters. Mr. T had given them all sorts of rules for what to do when there were letters in your math problem. But Javon couldn’t remember what they all were and he didn’t think he even understood the rules he did remember. Whenever Mr. T tried to explain, it was like Javon was focused so hard on wanting to understand that he didn’t actually hear what Mr. T said. Before he knew it, he was hopelessly lost in math class.
Every night, Javon would get out his worksheet and his book, determined to study. But he’d end up staring at the problems in confusion, not sure where to even begin. Then he’d close the book, having done nothing, but determined that tomorrow he’d try even harder. He kept doing that right up until the day that tomorrow was the day of the chapter test.
The test was brutal. Javon was confused by the very first question. And then, somehow, the test got worse with each problem. He was nervous and kept losing track of what he was doing. His paper was covered with squiggles and cross-outs. When the class period ended, he hadn’t finished all of the problems. But at least the torture was over.
He tried to put the test out of his mind and wait to get his grade back. It didn’t work. The test kept popping back into his head while he was doing other things. Fun things too. He’d be playing video games with friends, having a great time, then suddenly he’d be worried about what grade he got. He tried to figure out for himself what grade he’d gotten on the test and whether he still had an A in math, but it was no use. No matter how much he tried not to worry about it, the whole week he was nervous. He could practically feel his scholarship slipping through his fingers.
When they did finally get their papers back, Mr. T had a student pass them around, face down. Javon took a deep breath before he flipped his test over. His knotted stomach dropped to the floor when he saw it.
D. 64%. Written on the corner in red ink.
He wanted to tell himself it was no big deal. He wanted to shake the test grade off. He knew that he couldn’t change it, so he tried to tell himself that there was no use being worried about it. But Javon didn’t really believe any of that. It felt like with this one test grade, he had absolutely ruined everything.
Next to him, Tyler groaned slightly. Javon looked to his left. Tyler was a nice guy, but right now he looked totally miserable. Javon didn’t mean to peek, but he couldn’t help but see the big, red 72% on Tyler’s paper.
“Hey man,” Javon said, “that’s not so bad.”
“Nah, it could be worse,” Tyler agreed. “But I studied really hard. I’m trying to get my grades up enough to play again. And with Language Arts….I don’t think this will do it.” Tyler bit his lip, looking worried. “How’d you do?” Tyler asked Javon.
Javon made a face. He didn’t really want to talk about his terrible grade or about how it had ruined his life or what a failure he felt like. But he’d started the conversation, so he handed his paper over to Tyler. Tyler whistled through his teeth.
“Man, what happened? You’re like one of the smartest kids in class!”
Javon glared at him.
“Sorry,” said Tyler, “That’s probably not what you need to hear right now. But seriously, what happened?” Tyler gave the test back and they both started packing up to go.
“It’s all these letters!” Javon burst out as they walked out the door. “Letters don’t belong in math class! If you don’t know all the numbers, why would you try to solve the problem? I just don’t get it!”
Javon was surprised at the forcefulness in his own voice, but Tyler nodded enthusiastically.
“Me either, man! I told Mr. T right after I finished that I was sure half the class didn’t get these letters.” Javon nodded in agreement, and then stopped.
“Wait,” Javon said, “how could you have talked to Mr. right after you finished your test? We had a sub that day.”
“Oh, it was when I went back at lunch. He was only gone in the morning that day.”
“Why’d you get to go back at lunch?” Javon was, again, surprised by the forcefulness in his voice. Tyler didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah, I get extra time on tests. Because of my-- ” Tyler said.
“You got extra time?!” Javon yelled, interrupting Tyler’s sentence. “No wonder you did so much better than I did! That makes so much more sense!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tyler said, stopping dead in his tracks and glaring at Javon.
“You said it yourself, I’m one of the smartest kids in class.” Javon said. He let what he said hang in the air, but by the way that Tyler’s eyebrows furrowed together, it was obvious he understood what Javon was implying. Tyler looked angry and took a step toward Javon. Javon threw his books down, his blood hot. Other students were stopping to look at the two of them now.
Suddenly, Mr. T appeared in the hallway.
“Do we have a problem here scholars?” Mr. T asked.
“No,” said Javon, anger in his voice.
“No problem here,” said Tyler, sounding furious.
“Riiiiight,” said Mr. T, pulling out the word so that it was clear that he didn’t believe them. “Let’s all three just step into my classroom anyway, okay?”
There wasn’t really a choice. Begrudgingly, Javon grabbed his books and followed Mr. T into his classroom. Realizing that nothing interesting was going to happen, the rest of the students moved on to their next period.
“So, what seems to be the issue?” Mr. T asked, turning around to look at the pair of them.
Both boys stood silent and stony faced. Mr. T looked from one to the other.
“Alright then... Tyler, what happened after my class today?” he asked.
“How come Tyler gets extra time on tests?!” Javon burst out, even though Mr. T hadn’t asked him. “It’s not fair! I didn’t even get to finish! I would have done so much better on that test if I had been able to come back and just do all of the problems. I bet a lot of students would have! So why didn’t everyone get to come and finish?” As he spoke, Javon could almost see the red D flashing in front of his eyes. Mr. T looked surprised at Javon’s outburst. He glanced at Tyler.
"Well,” Mr. T said, “sometimes students need different things. And as an educator it’s my job, both morally and, well, legally, to give students what they need.”
“But it’s not fair.” Javon said flatly.
“Well,” said Mr. T again. But before he could finish what he was saying, Tyler interrupted him.
“Javon, do you know what dyslexia is?” he asked, sounding annoyed.
“What?” Javon said, “I don’t know, maybe?”
“Right,” said Tyler “Alright look -- imagine if when you were trying to read, the letters got all mixed up. The b’s turned into d’s and the l’s turned into t’s. But, like, randomly and all over the place and all the time. And you just have to kind of….look closely and check twice and try to guess what letters would make sense there.”
“Javon, what do you think that would be like?” Mr. T asked. Javon shrugged, thinking about it.
“That...sounds like it would be really annoying.” Javon finally said.
“Yeah. It’s not great. But that’s what it's like when I read. I’m dyslexic.” Tyler explained. Javon looked at him. Tyler shrugged a little bit at him.
“I mean….that sucks man,” Javon said, “It sounds like it would be really annoying. But, no offense, what does that have to do with our math test? It’s all numbers.”
“Ah,” said Mr. T, “but, do you think it would take you a longer time or a shorter time to read if you were dyslexic?”
“Right. So think about that math test again….there are numbers, but there are also instructions that tell you what to do and word problems. If it took you, let’s say, twice as long to read the instructions, do you think you’d still have plenty of time to do the math?”
“No…..” said Javon, thinking.
“Man, it takes me forever to read word problems. Stuff jumps around and I have to go slow and read it twice.” “But….I mean….it's still not fair. Plenty of people didn’t finish. I didn’t get to finish!”
“It’s not about finishing or not finishing the test Javon,” Mr. T said, “when students have a disability, and dyslexia is just one type of disability, they’re still entitled to get a public education. So, as educators it’s our duty, both morally and legally, to make sure that all students get what they need to be able to get their education.”
“But...yeah...even with all that, I still think students should all get the same time on tests. Everyone gets the same thing. It’s only equal.”
“Look -- “ Tyler said, “if I got the same time as you did on every test, I wouldn’t finish a single one. I’d only get halfway through.”
“It’s not about being equal and everyone getting the same thing,” Mr. T said, “it’s about being fair, so students can get what they need.” He thought for a moment. “Can you think of a time when you got something different than everyone else because you needed it?”
Javon thought for a minute.
“Yeah…” he said finally, “I mean, this isn’t the exact same thing, but I was the only one that Ms. Haygood let change gym lockers.”
“And why was that?” Mr. T asked.
“Because he’s short” Tyler interjected.
“Tyler,” Mr. T admonished. “For the most part, you don’t really need to tell people things that you’ve noticed about their bodies or their abilities. It’s okay that you noticed, but I promise that in the whole time they’ve been in that body, they’ve noticed too. You don’t have to tell them.”
“Yeah, though, it is because I’m short. I couldn’t reach the locker she gave me originally.” Javon said.
“What do you think would have happened if she told you that because everyone didn’t get to switch, you didn’t either?”
“I mean -- I wouldn’t be able to reach my gym locker. And everyone else would be fine because they didn’t need to switch.”
“Right.” said Tyler, “so if I didn’t get extra time on tests, I wouldn’t be able to pass any of them. And everyone else would be fine because they’re not dyslexic.” Javon nodded.
“That makes sense. But I still didn’t finish. I still didn’t pass the test.” said Javon, his voice catching in his throat.
“How did you feel about the material in this unit Javon?” Mr T asked with a smile.
“It was really confusing. I don’t understand the letters at all.” Javon admitted.
“Why didn’t you come to me and ask for help?”
“I….don’t know,” Javon said, “I’ve never had to do that before. I just kept thinking that if I tried harder than eventually I would figure it out.”
“Javon, it’s my job as a teacher to give every student what they need. That’s my job no matter what. But it’s much easier to get each student what they need when students tell me what they need. You asked for a different locker when you needed it. You should do the same thing if you’re confused in class. Trust me, I’ve been teaching for eight years. There’s something that every student needs a little extra help with.”
Javon and Tyler nodded. Then they looked at each other.
“Mr. T?” Javon said, “Neither one of us gets these letters at all.”
“And we both aren’t happy with our grades on this test,” Tyler added.
“What can we do?” Javon finished, grinning at Tyler. Both Tyler and Mr. T smiled back at him.