Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Other Woodsen

the other woodson

Even though so many people think my sister and I
are twins,
I am the other Woodson, following behind her each year
into the same classroom she had the year before. Each
teacher smiles when they call my name. Woodson, they
say. You must be Odella's sister. Then they nod
slowly, over and over again, call me Odella. Say,
I'm sorry! You look so much like her and she is SO brilliant!
then wait for my brilliance to light up
the classroom. Wait for my arm to fly
into the air with every answer. Wait for my pencil
to move quickly through the too-easy math problems
on the mimeographed sheet. Wait for me to stand
before class, easily reading words even high school
students stumble over. And they keep waiting.
And waiting
and waiting
and waiting

until one day, they walk into the classroom,
almost call me Odel-then stop

remember that I am the other Woodson

and begin searching for brilliance

at another desk.

~ Jacqueline Woodson

Earlier this spring, Hallie had to analyze this poem as part of an English assignment. When I first read it, I couldn't stop the tears - though I tried to hide them from Hallie - that sprang to my eyes from spilling over onto my cheeks. 

Because this poem could have been written about Hallie - or by Hallie - if her life had taken a different turn. She is exceptionally bright, and does extremely well academically. But she is following closely - just two years - behind an Odella, who past teachers and administrators loved because his brilliance lit up the classroom, his arm flew into the air with every answer, his pencil moved quickly through too-easy math problems, and he read words that older students stumbled over.

First day of second grade and kindergarten.

I have adored most of Will's teachers, and at first I wanted Hallie to have those same teachers because I already knew how to interact with them and how they taught. But after a couple of bumps in first grade - she had the same kindergarten and first grade teachers as Will - she started being placed with different teachers. Teachers who had never taught or even met Will. And what a gift that fresh start was for my girl. To begin each year with a clean slate, rather than a slate on which Will had already written and then erased.

I share all this - this poem but also the academic and learning comparison between my two kids - because it deeply impacted me, and because I suspect it might also impact and provide some valuable food for thought for others as well. This poem invited me to reflect on the academic tracks each of my children have taken thus far, and to really think about what has gone well and what hasn't. It refueled my commitment to, whenever possible, allow Hallie to chart her own course and avoid comparing her to Will. And it reminded me to appreciate the principals, counselors, and teachers who each year devote countless hours over the summer months to placing each student with/in/on the best teachers, classrooms, teams, and tracks for them as individuals. 

We certainly haven't done everything right when it comes to our kids' education. But we've done enough right that when Hallie read this poem, she didn't see herself - or her relationship with her brother - in it. She is Hallie Ferris, NOT the other Ferris. 

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