A boy named Raven

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I didn't always know I wanted to be a teacher; in fact, it was a rather large bird that set me straight—a Raven. Four years had passed since I had to leave a good job as a Technical and Programs Writing Advisor at the Institute for Computing, Information, and Cognitive Systems (ICICS), a research institute at UBC. I had developed a persistent soft tissue injury called tenosynovitis in my hands, wrists, and arms. Effectively this meant leaving my livelihood, dear colleagues, assistant, web team and my office-with-a-window. Sure, that window looked onto a brick wall, but I was always grateful for the sunlight. Looking back, perhaps it was time to move on from the late-night production deadlines. Maybe the mind-body theorists are right, and my body just said ‘no’ to get me out of a too-comfy position that had become stagnant I did need a push. My wise and gentle doctor turned his impressive eyebrows into a V one day, and shot a fatal arrow right into the heart of my “muddle-through-attitude.” He sternly advised that I had re-injured myself once too often and to avoid permanent damage I had to stop work immediately for an indefinite period. Ominous.

I left my home in Kitsilano to housesit over on a quiet, green Gulf Island. I enjoyed the peace and silence, and it turned out to be a good place to convalesce. As time passed, I undertook vocational rehabilitation. It became clear that I was not going to be able to compete in the busy office environment I had come from, leaving me wondering what I might do for a living.

Among many other healing efforts, I began taking classes at a local Qi Gong studio; I loved it. There I was befriended by the youngest member of the student body, an eleven-year-old boy named Raven, who had a serious: he was illiterate. Although he smart as a whip and clearly keen to learn, he was on the brink of becoming a juvenile delinquent. He had been homeschooled, and due to sad and difficult circumstances, the boy had never learned to read, write, do math or speak French. Raven had started disappearing on his skateboard and staying away overnight, coming home exhausted, fighting with his Mother. Oblivious to all this, I had an instant connection with him—he sat beside me at a potluck one night and slipped his little hand into mine, showing there was still enough child in him to reach out to a stranger for love. When Raven’s mom found out I have an MA in English, she immediately asked me for help. Spontaneously, I agreed to do my best to get him reading and writing, and urged her to enroll him in school at the beginning of the next school term. She said yes!

Now what? I had to live up to the responsibility! I called on a cousin who has been teaching middle school for 20 years and asked her for guidance. She suggested How To Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons, a book that would bring him up to a grade 2 reading level. I immersed myself in the instructional component of the book, and soon began teaching Raven for half an hour a day. True to his namesake, Raven was a keen and agile learner. Although his mother still couldn't get him to come home some nights, when he showed up for his tutoring, he came to work: he paid close attention and did his best. He was thrilled at his own rich capacity for skill acquisition, and I was dumbfounded at the strength of the teaching resource in my hands. Transformed!

After his lesson, I would read aloud to him from any book he chose. We were soon deep into The Outsiders. Raven’s mother followed through on her promise and sought enrolment for him at a Phoenix School (and enrolled his five year old brother in kindergarten). I continued tutoring him on his lunch hours, in cooperation with his new teachers. They complained that although he was attentive one-on-one with a teacher, in class he was a disruptive bully. It was clear to me that he didn’t want the others to find out he was a “dummy.” 

Still, I couldn’t convince him not to push his weight around—I just kept building his self-esteem and any chance that naturally arose I would discuss “good,” e.g. honourable, behaviour with him. He honestly did not know how to be civil when under stress, but he practiced speaking gently in the safety of my kitchen. One of his favourite habits of mine was to ask him if he had eaten. He usually hadn’t, so I began to teach him how to make simple meals like cheese quesadillas, paired with cut up vegetables or heated soup, and so forth. Eventually he confided that his favourite part of every meal was that he could have as much milk to drink as he wanted. Raven never wanted the food to take up too much of the lunch hour though; he just wanted the fuel. He soon realized I could get lost in teaching him to cook, so he played the time keeper and told me when we needed to get down to the main event.

Perhaps fortunately, perhaps unfortunately, Raven’s father decided to move off the island. We were sorry to say good-bye, but he was overjoyed to be wanted by his father. From what I heard, their returned-father did take the boys to the Interior where he had more family, and enrolled them in school immediately—he’d been impressed by Raven’s progress with me. And though I didn't get to finish all 100 Easy Lessons with Raven, I helped him gain a sense of his ability to learn, and that helped him catch up to his peers within three years. He and his younger brother are now involved in various activities such as swimming, which they richly deserve.

Stepping back from it, I see how simply feeding his desire to learn strengthened Raven’s chances at fitting into a better version of his life. And I felt useful in a way I never had at ICICS.

The Christmas before last, I saw Raven’s mother. She proudly told me that he is now getting A’s and B’s in all subjects, and that he’s getting along with his dad.

Meanwhile, my hands gradually improved, and I started to contemplate a new career goal.

Something about Raven, such a tough little boy, so hungry to learn, bit into my mind and heart. That is how, in the relative quiet of Salt Spring Island, I heard the call.

Kirsty Barclay
PDP 2009

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