His strengths were revealed under the hood

'Pop the hood, Mrs. Pickard. I'll check it out." Gary, one of the students in my special sixth-grade class, stood by my stalled car in the school parking lot.

Thinking it was futile, I nonetheless tugged on the hood cable. Gary, who had been held back in school twice, was a couple years older than the other kids. He could barely keep up with the lowest reading group. He raised his hand only to go to the bathroom. He lived for recess. He paid attention only when I read aloud to the class. What could he know about my car?

The hood yawned upward. Gary studied the engine. He unscrewed caps and eyeballed what was inside. He tugged at wires and cables.

"How do you know about engines?" I asked.

"My dad and brothers," he answered.

Gary tightened a bolt and then began tracing a twist of red-and-green wire from one point to another one behind the engine block.

"They fix cars?"

"We own the garage with the yellow sign." He pulled out a dipstick, wiped it on his jeans, inserted it again, and then pulling it out, held it up. He squinted at the lines.

"You work there?"

"Every day." He wiped debris off the battery. "After school."

He continued to work under the hood while I stood stunned. I thought: "It's like that NBA draft on TV where all the scouts and managers know everything about the draftees."

When one of the picks parades on stage, the coaches and announcers unfurl scads of information: "He can get the ball up and ahead for the players on the lane; excellent court vision; he's explosive; a shot-blocker; wears five pairs of socks; has overcome adversity; sleeps in his uniform; raised by his grandparents; reads poetry in the whirlpool."

The coaches talk about the strengths and habits that will help them individualize their coaching and fine-tune the young player's skills: They learn about him completely so they can teach him better.

It's a good gambit, I realized. Too bad I hadn't used it.

Gary rubbed his hands down the sides of his pants, removed the prop, eased the hood down, and turned to me. "That'll do it."

"All fixed?"

"Yeah. It'll start." And he was right.

I resolved to learn my players better.

Recently I saw Gary, now all grown up, in the grocery store with his son. He told me how the garage business was going, and we chuckled over the long-ago car incident.

Then he paused as he pulled his little boy from the shopping cart.

"I read to him all the time," he said. "He loves books."

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