One boy, Nyson, was moon-faced and dull-eyed and never closed his mouth all the way, his slug of a tongue perpetually protruding. He arrived early to my classroom and lingered in a wistful, patient manner that begged response. He did not know what he wanted; that much was clear from the way he wandered the bookshelves for the four-thousandth time. Often, he stood beneath the “Holler at our Scholars!” work-board eyeing his perfect multiplication table—the tens-tables—the only assignment he’d done well enough on for me to justify putting up. It was ridiculous to celebrate the tens-table; if you could count to ten, you could multiply your way through by adding zeros after the digit. Nyson hadn’t actually passed the test—he’d scored ten out of eleven, but he demonstrated no understanding of what he was doing: when he reached ten, the double-digit number had thrown him, and he’d concluded that ten sets of ten equals ten, had written 010, unsure which side to favor. I’d decided to celebrate the small victory: he’d nearly passed, which was closer than he’d been on any other assignment. On the Scantron math diagnostic I started the year with, he’d somehow managed to miss every problem, had even marked D, none of the above, for several answers. D had not been an option on the test. He’d scored a true zero.
What was worse was the way he’d return, again and again, to gaze at the Scholar Board, slack-jawed, eyeing the smiley face I’d drawn on his test with my red pen, the “10/11! Great Job, Nyson!” scrawled at the top. If I paused behind him, he’d point with a rapturous finger, grin with white teeth, his slack tongue retreating for a moment, and I’d return the smile, clap him on the back and murmur something encouraging, to which he always replied quietly, “Yes, sir, Mr. Copperman.” I was not encouraged by his other work. This was Nyson’s first time through fourth grade, but he’d failed third grade too. Mrs. Burtonsen indicated that if I failed him, he’d eventually be resourced to an age-appropriate special-education classroom, according to Mississippi educational policy. “Two times through two grades has got to be enough,” she said when I asked. According to Nyson’s file, despite minimum test scores each year, he’d never been tested for learning disability or IQ. The children who were tested in Promise were the problem kids, the bad boys who presented behavioral challenges. Nyson was too polite and quiet to present a problem, so he’d been judged not to have one. When I requested testing, Mrs. Burtonsen had frowned, leaned back in her desk. “See what you can do with him in your classroom, Mr. Copperman,” she said. “If he had an issue, it would have been caught the last time he failed. Go on and take care of the rest of your children.”
I refused Mrs. Burtonsen’s mandate to wait and let the inevitable take its course—or at least, I had no intention of accepting it. I called on Nyson whenever I could, gave him the attention I could spare, and encouraged his negligible progress. I had all I could handle each day with so many children, their unending demands rendered in antics, shouts, actionable successes and failures. Nyson lingered at the margin, transfixed by his achievement, waiting for me to recognize it again and again, to confirm that he’d done good. It pained me, and despite better intentions, I sometimes skirted him in the morning and afternoons if I saw him near the board, a devotive figure at the altar of his inadequate success.
Talika Johnson, never one to allow vulnerability to go unremarked, would mock him if I didn’t watch her close: she’d stand behind him as he looked, let her face go slack, too, tongue lolling from her mouth and eyes large with affected wonder. The first time, I took her by the elbow, steered her away, and whispered an emphatic, “Don’t.”
She snorted. “Why? He don’t notice.”
I told Talika to stop being unkind, that it was unnecessary. Nyson did know the difference—he avoided Talika, and more than once I’d seen him retreat to the back of the lunch line or leave a prime reading spot when she neared. Yet, privately I agreed: Nyson was an unpleasant feature of the landscape, a net loss, a zero.
One cool winter morning Nyson and Talika arrived early, and Talika immediately began filing graded papers. It was a Friday, had been a long week of labor and bad behavior, the days lightless and slow, the grind of ritual unrelieved. The heater groaned and rattled through the cold room and gave an insufficient heat. Nyson wandered to his place by the Board. I started to go to him and stopped—the idea of congratulating him yet again seemed unendurable. Talika was watching me; she met my eye and grinned at my flinch. I looked away. “I’m going to the restroom,” I said, and stepped into the hall, the bulbs sputtering as they warmed. In the echoic boy’s room, the water was cold as I washed my hands. I was two steps from the classroom door when I heard the shriek, an animal fury, and ran in.
Talika held Nyson’s test over her head and appeared poised to rip it in two. Nyson was a different child, his hands clenched in fists, jaw tight, and eyes huge with desperation.
“What’s going on here?” I demanded. Nyson snatched for the paper, missed and screamed again. Talika backed away.
“Ten of eleven ain’t no passing grade for no times table,” Talika said, circling away from Nyson with the paper raised. “He get all crazy-angry, and I think he’s gone hit me, so I grab this up to keep him off. And he start hollering like that.”
“Nyson,” I said, lowering my voice. “It’s fine. She’ll put down the paper.”
He glanced at me and shook his head. “No,” he said, his voice loud and clear—present like I’d never heard it. His eyes met mine. “It true I ain’t did nothing right?”
“No, now, you did well,” I said soothingly, stepping toward him.
He lunged toward Talika and got a grip on the test. The sound was audible. He groaned, lifted the torn paper in a shaking hand, tears rolling down his cheek.
Talika hid behind me. “I didn’t mean to,” she said.
“Nyson, look,” I said. I took the other half of the test from Talika and held it out to him. “We’ll put it back together.”
He took the halves, face convulsing with grief. “It can’t be like it were,” he choked. He wiped his nose with a sleeve, looked at me with judging eyes. “You a liar, Mr. Copperman.” He offered the two halves of the test. When I didn’t take them, his eyes flashed. “Take it!”
I took it.
He examined the room with disgust, turned, and left, footsteps retreating down the hall. Talika and I went to the door and watched him walk the long hall. He did not look back.