Don’t Let Billy Sit at the Back (or Lessons from Billy)

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Last summer I was lucky enough or I should say old enough to attend my 40th class reunion. Having grown up in the small town of Meeker, Colorado, 22 of the 47 souls that I had attended kindergarten through twelfth grade with got together to reminisce. It was such a joy to see many of my classmates. One stood out in particular-Billy Chambers.

My memories of Billy on the playground were of a fun loving and rowdy youth; however, my memories from the classroom were of a different sort. I remembered him sitting in the back row, getting the answers wrong on the rare occasion he was called on, and seeming to be a constant source of irritation to the teachers. This caused me and as I learned this summer, others to believe that Billy was not bright; children are strongly influenced by their teacher’s opinions.

Therefore it was quite a shock when Billy stood up and asked if he could share a piece he had written for our class. The crinkled pages shook as he haltingly began to read,

“Forty years? Has it been that long? Some days it seems like a lifetime and a world away. Kingdoms, Empires and Countries have risen and fallen in that amount of time. In 1957 and 58 a group of kids were born. Was there anything special or unique about them? I say without a doubt, yes!”

I scooted my chair closer as did the rest of us as a hush fell over the group. Billy read on,

“….we also witnessed some great American achievements. The first man on the moon, the first space shuttle mission. Many of us watched the British invasion as the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. We watched as Elvis became the King of Rock & Roll, Jonny Cash-the King of Country, and Aretha Franklin-the Queen of Soul. We cheered John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in the movies. We saw Billie Jean King show that women were men’s equal…”

I could not get close enough; yet again, I scooted my chair up. In his hands trembled three battered pages of writing that looked typical of the struggling middle school students I had cherished during my teaching career. I had learned from them that poor handwriting has very little correlation to the quality of words on a page.

Billy read on,

“…I have memories of late October evenings…the smell of wood and coal smoke, new snow, sage and popcorn at late season football games…Each of us had our way of seeing things, but I went away from the class of ’76 with the convictions of what a true American with the spirit of ’76 thought, breathed, slept and lived in our daily lives. The belief that we could become anything we wanted if we put the muscle, sweat and effort into it. That no matter white, black, rich or poor, we could achieve and become our desire. You are all a part of that…From the class of ’76 I learned to strive and do my best. To my family, friends, God, and Country and not last, to Meeker High School Class of 1976: I celebrate you! I thank you! I salute you!” 

We all rushed up to thank Billy, but I got there first. In my over eager manner I rudely blurted, “Why Billy, we thought you were ______.” Realizing what I was going to say, I shushed to the agreeing nods of my classmates. Billy proudly said, “Guys, the army tested me years ago; my I.Q. is 129!”

Billy had spent thirteen years being treated as if he were not smart. It took an Intelligence Quotient test from the U.S. Army to prove to him otherwise.

It is fall. School has begun. We all most likely have a Billy or two in our class. So how do we engage them and honor the brilliance that might not be showing just yet due to language issues, poverty, dyslexia, poor parenting, hyperactivity, or the many other differences that our students bring with them each and every day?

Sit Billy at the front, assign him a turn and share partner, call on him, honor the answers he gives, and treat him like the brilliant person he may become or most likely already is. And please, my dear colleagues, don’t let Billy sit in the back.

 (Note, Bily’s entire piece was over 800 words long; I have omitted sections that only pertain to our small town of Meeker, CO and others to fit the scope of this blog.)