Why Shakir Can't Read

I was talking to a friend the other day who teaches at an elementary school and has a student whom I shall name Shakir. Shakir is ten, and he's barely literate. My friend's class is not a large one; she has five to eight students. She also has a teaching assistant, and between them, the kids receive a lot of personal, one-to-one attention. Nevertheless, Shakir still can't read.

The why of this phenomenon is quite important; you see, there are lots of Shakirs in the black community. For he is one of many kids flunking his way through the educational system, even as he advances through it. I think there are many causal factors for Shakir's non-performance in school; amongst them are Shakir himself and his priorities; the instability of his family; his community culture; and, the school system itself.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I am not going to point the finger first at the school. After all, Shakir is not a receptacle whose lid can be raised so that some teacher can stuff in the knowledge he needs. Education is a participative process, you see. The school and teachers have their part, and the kid and his family have their role to play.

A large part of the problem is that Shakir refuses to do his bit to educate himself. Given classwork in school, Shakir engages in a series of acts of avoidance. He will disrupt, pick fights with his classmates, curse, destroy objects in his environment, sleep, declare that he will do nothing, or take the entire day simply to write his name. No amount of cajoling, promises, or behavioral modification methods can change Shakir's mind. For him to work for a little bit, there must be some immediate object or event that he finds desirable to attain or participate in. Even then, when the gain is weighed against the effort required to work, Shakir may well determine that the work is not worth doing to obtain the prospective reward.

At the root of all his disruptive behavior is Shakir's acknowledgment that he cannot read, his frustration with his illiteracy, and his stated unwillingness to use the kindergarten level materials that will help him to read. Shakir will neither let his teacher nor her aide help him --that requires him to work; plus, he has to represent before his peers -- nor will he go to the kindergarten or the reading teachers both of whom have offered assistance.  Given homework that will help him to solve his problem, Shakir either refuses to take it home or, if he does, does not return it. Compounding the problem, Shakir cannot get help at home.

Shakir's family situation is a significant part of his problem. He is one of four children to a twenty-something mother who has three other children by three different men, and she might well be pregnant again by her current boyfriend. Shakir's mother is unemployed and on welfare. She and her current boyfriend tend to have loud fights which can become physical, and often her boyfriend, who can be a positive influence on Shakir, will disappear for weeks at a time to avoid doing violence to her. Shakir's father is currently in prison, scheduled to be released some time later this year; his current stint in prison is not his first, and I fear it is not likely to be his last.

The uncertainty of the shifting relationships in the boy's life is compounded by the constant housing moves to which his mother subjects the family. On welfare and a recipient of a Section Eight housing grant, Shakir's family experiences a regular housing cycle from apartment in a tough neighborhood to government-sponsored motel/hotel and back before the cycle repeats all over again. What determines the move from apartment in a tough neighborhood to a motel/hotel is his mother. Given an apartment found by the proper authorities, Shakir's mother will not pay rent, even though she receives money to do so. 

Eventually, the family will have to move to a motel, and his mother will acquire a new cell phone number along with a new address. Shakir is deeply ashamed that his family lives in a motel/hotel, even temporarily, and he avoids telling his classmates anything about where he resides. If his teachers tell him they know how to contact his mom when he misbehaves, Shakir will flare up and curse because he believes that his teachers are putting his business on the street.

The instability in his home life, characterized by the constant moves and the stress under which the child lives because of his shame and fear, means that, for Shakir, education is not a priority. He has no stable home with books, magazines, or trips to the library. His mother is either a high school dropout or limped her way to graduation with a poor academic record herself. She does not check his book-bag, makes no effort to ensure that he does his homework, nor does she provide any assistance with his reading.

What she will do, when school authorities call her to complain about her son's behavior, is come to the school ready to curse and fight his teachers. No matter how badly Shakir acts in school, his mother will, in front of him, blame his teachers. Often, she will add to the lack of stability in the boy's life by changing his school because she thinks his teachers are out to get him. Thus, Shakir has been to several schools in his district and has even gone to schools in a neighboring state. Nevertheless, Shakir still can't read.

Community plays an important role in the behavior and priorities of individuals. For instance, if a child belongs to a community in which education is prized, then he will have an external force compelling him to achieve in some way because he does not wish to be out of step with his peers. Regrettably, in low income communities like Shakir's, the external force compels kids away from educational achievement, in spite of the efforts of some to turn things around. For many of Shakir's peers, educational achievement is a mark of whiteness; thus, the high achieving black kid has to deal with issues of authenticity. 

If he does not sound ghetto, he experiences a loss of black identity. More than that, he will be preyed upon by the gang-bangers and thugs who will consider him easy prey. So, he has to be tough, and educational achievement is not part of the toughness.

Shakir's peers are not focused on education. Instead, their everyday talk is of gang-related activities, shooting with B-B guns, fighting, or engaging in illicit activity. For instance, Shakir and his friends are already gang members. That is the way of the community in which he lives, when he lives there. Since his neighborhood is high crime, with assorted toughs standing on the street corners, there is always some sort of violence on a daily basis. Somebody gets shot, robbed, beaten up. The neighborhood is not for the faint-hearted; big dogs in their teens and twenties prey on the little dogs who are excited by prospective gang membership. This is the life they know. For them, there is excitement in talking about who got shot or assaulted. Some of Shakir's peers express their disdain for quieter and more residential communities because there is no action in them-meaning no gun play and such.

Thus, neither Shakir himself, his family such as it is, nor his community seem to have much interested in his education, in him learning to read. So, then, what about the school system?

In the school system, Shakir, whatever enthusiasm he might have started out his school career with, by the age of ten has none. He has spent the years since kindergarten fighting, cursing, and distracting away from his reading problems. Each teacher he has encountered has made an active effort to help him. Each has been beaten by the combination of forces outside of the school system and by the child himself. Tired of his behavior, of his resistance and refusal, even when he is held back, his teachers have passed him on to the next grade where he is ill-prepared to do that grade's work because he never mastered the content matter of the previous grades.

All across America, schools are confronted with Shakirs who either do not show up for school or who attend school but hang out in the hallways, bathrooms, and other hideaways. Even in well disciplined schools, there are Shakirs who go to class and put their heads on the desk. They refuse to work; the same way, their parents refuse to attend parent-teacher meetings. They sleep, they disrupt, curse, fight, and do no work. Many of those who do work, do it indifferently; they go through the motions expecting to achieve high marks for minimal effort. Moreover, even when these Shakirs have done no work at all, they expect to graduate.

What can the schools do, confronted with thousands of Shakirs all across America? Many schools are just passing the kids through, just biding time until the kids are no longer the responsibility of the school. Why Shakir can't read is the same reason many black kids in America can't read: the kid's own lack of interest in education, his unstable home life with a single parent who doesn't care, a community that regards education as being destructive of black authenticity, and school systems which are burnt out with the stress of dealing with such kids.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the school cannot do it all; for, education is essentially reciprocal. Therefore, the first three must change before school systems can produce Shakirs who can read.