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One teacher turned page on hard life

By the time James Davis made it to seventh grade, he was pretty good at hiding his lack of reading skills.

He’d slump down, hoping teachers didn’t call his name. Or he’d raise hell just to avoid giving up his secret.

By his own account, Davis was a bad kid, among the worst in his class at Buffalo’s BUILD Academy. A kid from a broken home, father in prison, mother who didn’t care if he went to school.

“It was kind of just rough, you know, going day by day,” said Davis, now 31, “not knowing what I’m going to eat or how I’m going to get food.”

He was lost in a system that kept pushing him up through the grades even as he fell more and more behind. By seventh grade, he should have been well into chapter books, but he remembers knowing how to read only short words like “cat” and “dog.”

“I just wanted to be like everybody else,” Davis said. He didn’t believe that was possible. He didn’t believe he could learn – until the year he came to BUILD and met Ms. Oakley.

Petite with trim brown hair, Iris Oakley wasn’t much taller than the students she taught. But she was tough, and she was unwilling to let Davis’ lousy home life become an excuse.

What Davis remembers is that she believed in him. She convinced him he could learn to read. She taught him where to look for help when there were words he didn’t understand.

Oakley retired six years ago, but the best day of her career came last week when Davis wrapped her in a hug, gave her flowers and explained how she had changed his life.

“You never know how you affect your students,” Oakley said. “You just never know how powerful your words are.”

Some success stories are so obvious they fly into the public eye. Others, more nuanced, are more difficult to measure.

Life got busy for Davis, but he still thought about Ms. Oakley. A recent visit with the family services coordinator at his son’s school, Pinnacle Charter, brought the memories back.

Pinnacle administrators helped reunite the two. They hoped the story could be a lesson for their teachers.

Oakley hasn’t let go of the urge to teach. She had a message for teachers at Pinnacle: Don’t excuse kids from learning just because they’ve got it tough at home. It is why they come to school.

“Be persistent, consistently persistent,” Oakley said, “and you will get your kids to learn.”

Life wasn’t rosy for Davis after he left Ms. Oakley and BUILD Academy. His grandmother, who adopted him, died when he was in high school. His brother was killed. He made bad choices, left high school, did what he could to survive on his own.

But he is certain about one thing: Life would have been a whole lot worse had he not landed in Ms. Oakley’s reading resource room. “If I would have never met Ms. Oakley, I think I would have either been dead or in jail,” Davis said. “That’s the truth.”

Davis, now married with four children, is focused on his family. He got his GED, works temp jobs and hopes to go back to school to become an electrician.

Oakley could have been just another teacher who took a pass on a wiry kid who disrupted class. Instead, she changed the course of one boy’s life.

His story is not the type that would stand out in school statistics, but it’s the kind that illustrates just how much impact one teacher can have on a child’s life. How do you measure that?