Ally's academic failures have a lot to do with the fact that because her dad is in the military, her family has moved about once per year since she started school. Because of this, Ally has never had the opportunity to form connections with her teachers or school administrators who, given the time and the wherewithal, could've identified her dyslexia and helped her learn to read much earlier than sixth grade; instead, she's come to believe that teachers are out to get her and that she's not smart. Especially when contrasted with this initial worldview, the positive and trusting relationship that Ally later forms with Mr. Daniels illustrates that for all students, but especially those like Ally who struggle with learning disabilities, behavioral issues, or low self-esteem, teachers have an immense amount of power to either help their pupils learn or rob them of knowledge and opportunities.
Fish in a Tree makes the amount of power that teachers have over their students clear from the beginning: Ally shares with the reader that during a parent-teacher conference, her third grade teacher told Mom that Ally was slow. Though this teacher is the only to say such a thing outright, Ally receives similar messages from most of her other teachers over the years. Hearing this over and over again culminates in Ally's belief that she actually is slow or dumb, which she believes in part because these prominent authority figures in her life have been repeating it for the entirety of her school career. This illustrates the dark and potentially dangerous side of the relationship between teachers and students: teachers have the power to fundamentally influence how their students think about themselves, for better and for worse. In other words, what they say about their students matters a great deal, even if the students in question don't like or trust their teacher.
Ally begins to suspect that the teacher-student relationship doesn't have to be this way on her first day in Mr. Daniels's class. Mr. Daniels arrives a few months into the school year to take over for Mrs. Hall, who is going on maternity leave, and he brings an entirely different tenor to the classroom. Though Ally remains convinced for several more months that she's dumb, she notices that Mr. Daniels does what he can to not draw attention to his students with learning differences or disabilities. She catches on quickly to the fact that Mr. Daniels seems to have a secret signal set up with Oliver, a classmate who struggles with speaking out of turn, that allows him to correct Oliver without actually calling him out and embarrassing him. Mr. Daniels also tells Ally that he won't send her to the office when she "misbehaves," something that suggests that he believes building relationships with his students, and not outsourcing to the principal, Mrs. Silver, can be far more effective for managing his classroom.
In doing all of this, Mr. Daniels treats his students like people first, with unique needs that he believes it's his responsibility to acknowledge and attend to. This in turn helps students like Oliver and Ally, who previously found school a place where they needed to be on guard at all times, relax—they're able to trust that they won't be punished for being different. This comes into play especially when Mr. Daniels advocates for Ally to receive testing for dyslexia and then offers to tutor her after school. In his initial offer to work with her, Mr. Daniels insists that Ally isn't dumb and that she can learn to read with the proper tools. He also shakes hands with her to make it clear that learning to read is a journey they're setting off on together, not something she's being forced into because her teacher told her to. The way that Mr. Daniels interacts with his students helps Ally realize that teachers aren't just authority figures out to get her; they can be trustworthy mentors who have the power to help her succeed.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive relationship between Mr. Daniels and Ally, it's important to keep in mind that Ally has already been through seven years of school and seven different teachers before finally encountering a teacher willing and able to meet her where she is and develop this kind of relationship with her. Even worse, her older brother Travis, who also has dyslexia, is midway through high school and hasn't yet met a teacher able to identify his dyslexia and help him succeed. These sobering facts speak to the flaws in the American school system more broadly, as well as the unhelpful and potentially damaging ways in which teachers are trained to interact with differently-abled students. Mr. Daniels himself, however, offers an example of what a good teacher and mentor looks like: he instills confidence, treats his students with compassion and empathy, and empowers students by helping them find the tools that will help them learn best.
Teaching, Mentoring, and Trust ThemeTracker
Teaching, Mentoring, and Trust Quotes in Fish in a Tree
I stand tall, but everything inside shrinks. The thing is, I feel real bad. I mean, I felt terrible when the neighbor's dog died, never mind if a baby had died. I just didn't know it was a sad card like that. All I could see were beautiful yellow flowers. And all I could imagine was how happy I was going to make her.
I'm so tired of this conversation. We've had it a hundred times, even though my third-grade teacher told her that I might just be slow, that my mom shouldn't expect too much of me. My mom's eyes got all wide and shiny when she heard that, and I felt sad and embarrassed for her having to be my mom.
Mr. Daniels gives Oliver a thumbs-up, and I think how cool it is that they have the ear-pulling signal. That way he doesn't always have to tell Oliver that he's doing something wrong in front of everyone. I know what that feels like and I'm happy that Mr. Daniels cares so much. Most teachers seem to like their students to be all the same—perfect and quiet. Mr. Daniels actually seems to like that we're different.
But now, on top of all those other big wishes that I carry around, I have one more. I want to impress Mr. Daniels. With every tiny little piece of myself, I just want him to like me.
The next morning, I am trying to decide if I should turn in my paper, knowing Mr. Daniels will probably think I spit it out in two minutes. The truth is that it cost me my whole night and a headache that was so bad, it reminded me of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland always yelling, “Off with her head!” Just because I thought that would be a relief.
People act like the words “slow reader” tell them everything that's inside. Like I'm a can of soup and they can just read the list of ingredients and know everything about me. There's a lot of stuff about the soup inside that they can't put on the label, like how it smells and tastes and makes you feel warm when you eat it. There's got to be more to me than a kid who can't read well.
“Do you know what it means to think out of the box?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“It means that you are a creative thinker. You think differently than other people.”
Great. Just once, I want to be told I'm like everyone else.
“It's a good thing to be an out-of-the-box thinker. People like that are world-changers.”
It comes from a place so deep inside, it's like it's coming out of the ground. “I just... I just want to fit in for once. I mean, I really do. Just to be the same as everyone else.”
“You are smart, Ally. And you are going to learn to read.”
A chill runs through my whole body. I don't have any choice but to believe him, because I can't go another day thinking things will be like this forever.
I walk over to the garbage and drop it in. Watch it twist and spin as it falls. I look up and lock eyes with him and wish I had the words to tell him how grateful I am for his helping me. In this world of words, sometimes they just can't say everything.
And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand—sometimes for good, like how Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And how words can also be used for bad. To hurt.
Normally, I'd be giving him all kinds of reasons I can't do this. But the thing is, Mr. Daniels could hand me a book as heavy as a boulder and I'd try to read it.
Just because he asked me to.
I want you to know how sorry I am about the bumpy road we had for a while. I'm proud of all the strides you're making. All the hard work you're doing. We should have picked up on your learning differences before, but you were so bright... and, well, I hope you'll give me another chance to help.