When I walked into Room 204* for the first time, I noticed a small boy with his head down on his desk. As I went around and introduced myself to everyone, he remained motionless as I approached his area. Little did he know we were going to be spending a lot of time together, since he was identified as needing my support in math and was reading below grade level.

Day after day of unanswered “good mornings,” empty high fives, and  “tomorrow’s going to be a better day,” I’d go home frustrated and constantly rethink my strategy for getting him to talk to me. I finally found our connection point when he saw my red foam ball. At the time I didn’t know it, but he had endless things to say about his favorite sports and athletes. We started conversations on his favorite topic by throwing the ball back and forth. My strategy then became to have him squeeze the foam ball while he read. During the time he read out loud with the ball, I was stunned. This quiet fifth grader could read better than my other students I tutored individually. The ball would be our key for math as he sunk basket after basket solving multiplication facts. His active engagement was off the charts. At times, he would even have us doing push-ups for addition. Despite encouraging his strengths, I kept hitting walls when working with him. He was quick to shut down during the lesson and revert back to the way I saw him that very first day in Room 204. I found that the more encouragement I poured on him with “you can do this,” and “I care about you,” the deeper our relationship became.

I realized that I was fighting deep habits formed from years of distrusting adults. From October to February, I learned so much more about him, his struggles and his talents; the sadness he held for a family member’s death and his passion for art.  His shutdowns were shorter but still apparent.

In January, we had Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service at his school, Bethune Elementary. City Year was looking for 40 trustworthy Bethune students in grades 6-8 to participate in painting their school. He asked me constantly if he could do it. I said, “I’m going to try but I can’t make any promises.” The final decision was that he could attend the event, but only if I agreed to supervise him for the day. My stomach sank. I would have 35 volunteers to manage and it takes ALL my energy to handle him at times. It was the last day to get permission slips in and it was 4 o’clock. He saw me walking up to him in his after-school program with a slip in my hand. I told him, “I need this tomorrow, no exceptions.” He hugged me as hard he could, paused and looked up at me. After a moment, he put his head back on my side and with another tight squeeze said quietly “thank you.” My heart heard what his eyes said, “Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for believing in me.” A signed permission slip was in his hand the next day.

To my surprise, during MLK day, he was the all-star of my group. He was the first to pick up a brush and asked others if they needed more paint. He conversed with the other volunteers with ease. Not a single shutdown happened that day. He stood next to me during our final circle and as I was about to hand out event surveys, he tugged on my shirt and whispered, “Can I lead Joys and Ripples the way you do it?” I said, “Of course you can and be sure to explain it to everyone in case they don’t know what it is.” He began by saying that everyone will be given the opportunity to share something good, or an appreciation from the day. As he took over my circle and led, I become overwhelmed with pride as I saw the same student, the boy with his head on his desk and silent in September, regain his voice. He continues to build his voice. He is now reading on grade level and was a recent writing contest winner with an original rap about family members who’ve died from gun violence.

To read more about MLK Day at the Bethune School, click here.

As a City Year Corps member, sometimes we are the voice for students until they find their own. My name is Anthony Rodriguez. I am the voice for those who have given up, those who are at risk to be left behind. I serve so that Philadelphia students recognize their fullest potential to be the next generation of leaders.

To read another student achievement story, click here.

The work of the City Year Philadelphia Team at Mary McLeod Bethune School is made possible by Program Sponsor, Ballard Spahr.

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