Reading trouble

Frank Pettis Profile

I heard an ad on a hip-hop radio station that said fatherless children are five times more likely to drop out of school.

It is acceptable, almost natural, to feel sympathy for children who grow up in single parent households. I was raised by only my mother, and for a long time I never understood why others felt bad for kids like me.

It was in the sixth grade that I started to understand the fallout of my father’s absence. It was in the seventh grade when I came close to being just another fatherless statistic.

My seventh grade literature class was taught by Ms. P., an angry, red-headed woman known for miserable moods and the bad grades she seemed to relish dishing out. She was the type of teacher the older kids warned you about. “You get her, you’re screwed,” they said. I learned to hate her on the first day of school. Smirking from behind her desk, she told our class that we were going to do a lot of one thing that I despised more than anything else: reading out loud.

We read sections from “Lord of The Flies” on the second day of class. Ms. P. randomly called out who she wanted to read. I desperately tried to follow along in my text, nervousness building with each new reader she called on. Ms. P. clearly scorned those who struggled to read. More than a decade later, when I think about her class, anxiety washes over me:

The whole class is listening. My heart starts to beat rapidly, uncontrollably. My worn Reeboks thump against the leg of my chair. I can’t stop it. A lump forms in my throat. I can’t swallow. She calls my name. I open my mouth. I can barely breathe. I stutter my way through one line of text, butchering every word I read. She stops me. “Jesus!” she screams. “You need work!” The class snickers. I keep my head down, afraid to look up. I feel sick to my stomach.

The terror continued for weeks. I stressed over Ms. P.’s class the entire school day. My panic attacks occured daily as I struggled through texts. I left school each day feeling desperate and defeated.

The truth is, I had always struggled to read. Until Ms. P’s class, it was something I could avoid. I began to hate school. I began to hate life.

“It was in the sixth grade that I started to understand the fallout of my father’s absence. It was in the seventh grade when I came close to being just another fatherless statistic.”

One day a friend asked if I wanted to skip school. He was going to smoke. I had never skipped school before, and I didn’t smoke, but I had lit class with Ms. P. next period. I don’t remember ever leaving school so fast. This began a slow, steady slide in both my grades and attendance.

On the brink of failing school, my mom confronted me. I told her everything—my daily panic attacks, the way my friends laughed at me and how I had always struggled to read.

My mom helped me to improve my reading. She made me sit with her every night and read out loud. She encouraged me. She bought me books I was interested in.

“The more you struggle to read, the more the struggle will go away,” she said.

She also enrolled me in a summer reading program. It took time, but I did improve my reading. And my anxiety attacks went away. It was a process that took patience.

“The more you struggle to read, the more the struggle will go away.”

I understand now that the loss of a father means the loss of another lap to read on, the loss of attention and the loss of income. Single-parent kids like me often don’t get quality daycare. Our toddler days aren’t filled with reading and learning. Instead, we go to a babysitter who sits us in front of a TV.

Frank Pettis
Frank Pettis (BA, ’15) (pictured wearing a black baseball hat) mentored teens during Roosevelt’s Black Male Leadership Academy this summer.

Now in my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to mentor 19 high school students in the Black Male Leadership Academy. Like me, many of them were raised by single mothers. One of them, a young man who was raised by his grandmother, sat next to me one day in class. He volunteered to read through the academy syllabus. He took a deep breath and began to read slowly. When he struggled with a word, we helped him. He seemed nervous, but no one laughed. No one heaped scorns. As we left the classroom, I patted him on his back.

“I know the struggle bro, just keep reading,” I told him. “The more you struggle, the more it will go away.”

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