In the Doghouse

Last week Victor was in the doghouse. I learned about his punishment from the office manager as soon as I signed in to the shelter: ten days of no electronic games.

“My mom took away my DS,” he announced when we met.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I was bad at school.”

“What happened?”

“I didn’t do my homework.” He cast me a simmering stare. “For five days.”

I took this as direct challenge. The previous week he had received a note from his teacher citing him for not writing complete sentences, paying attention in class or finishing his homework. This resulted in his mom, Victor and I having a little meeting about play and work schedules, which I thought had gone well — really well. Obviously I was wrong.

Victor showed me his color coded note. The LAUSD has a homeland security-like alert system for kids. Yellow is the color for a warning; orange signifies something worse and red results in a visit to the principal’s office, parent-teacher meetings, and time-outs.

The note was only yellow. I read his crime, which he had to write out himself on the yellow slip. There was no mention of unfinished homework. His mother must have had additional reasons for confiscating his DS. He received the yellow slip for “lafing” and “sillying around” with his friend Gabo in class.

“You know what bothers me most of all?” I said, regarding the note, “First of all that’s not how you spell “laughing” and “sillying” isn’t a word.

He grinned. “I’m just kidding. Of course I did my homework.”

I reviewed his notebooks. Indeed, the imp had done his homework.

Reading time came and I brought out a book called Unlovable (by Dan Yaccarino.) It’s a picture book about a pug dog that gets picked on by the other dogs and pets. They call him unlovable and he believes them.

I set the timer on my iPhone. I use it to ensure that we do at least 15 minutes of reading time; Victor uses it to ensure that he doesn’t have to read one second more than is required. Unlovable is one of many books given to me by my friend Leslie. From time to time I’ve offered to let Victor keep these books, but he has never wanted to, so I take them home after each session.

We open the book. His mother interrupts to say that Victor is going to a Clippers game and needs to leave early. I say we’ll read until the bus comes to pick him up.

We begin to read. Knowing that I’m competing with the Clippers and that at any moment Victor will be running out the door, I decide to enliven things by dramatizing the story. (I was inspired by They Call Me Mister Fry, a one-man show I had just seen by a master teacher who dramatizes material for his students.) Victor and I then engaged in a combination of learning and fun that can best be described as… the word “sillying” comes to mind.

Victor really identified with the little pug. The pug meets a dog he can’t see because there’s a fence between them. The pug is so relieved to have one friend and so afraid this one friend will think he’s unlovable, that he lies to this dog and says he’s a golden retriever.

Victor needed to know what was going to happen next. He flipped through the pages of the book, but couldn’t get the answer without reading the words. So he read – eagerly, urgently and in a way I had never seen him do before. I was thrilled. We were interrupted again by two adults and some kids who needed to know about schedules.

“Go away,” I wanted to say, “You’re spoiling the climax of Victor’s breakthrough book!”

But Victor kept reading as I spoke to the adults. His attention did not waver. He asked me for the words he didn’t know so he could keep going. The adults left and we reached the climax. The new dog was also a pug, who thought our dog was very, very lovable.

“Look,” Victor cried, pointing to the pictures, “They’re like brothers.”

Our time was up. The bus for the Clippers game was here.

“That was fun,” I said, “Let’s read that again next week.”

“Can I borrow this book?” he asked, “Can I keep it until next week? I’ll give it back. I don’t have nice books like you do.”

I recognized his need to possess the book that had just possessed him. “It’s yours.”

“Thank you for tutoring me,” Victor said, as he put the book in his backpack, “and I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” I asked.

“For saying I didn’t do my homework.”