“Part of the problem with the word ‘disabilities’ is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment , or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.” — Fred Rogers,
Working with children who have learning challenges has often resulted in my learning more about myself and my teaching. I don’t like labeling students, but I don’t mind it if it brings clarity to an issue. If a student has Autism, there can be value in telling a teacher or principal that a student has Autism. Autism is, not a reason to expect less but it is a reason to expect something different. Fear of labels often hinders the support and understanding that should be given. I call them learning challenges; disabilities, to me, overshadow the student’s abilities.
I was a child in speech and reading support, so I have my personal perspective, including my own experiences in biases. Every child is different, and it is hard to accept that at times. My son is dyslexic; his challenges were different from my own. That is where the problems of labels come in; we expect the child to match the label, and that is not always true.
I have shared this story to parents over the years as an illustration of what a student can do and not want they cannot do. Where do I begin? This tall, athletic, loud blond girl walked into my room. I had heard about her, but I don’t remember if I had met her or not. As the saying goes “she was a force to be reckoned with.” She was brilliant. She was obnoxious. She was loud and annoyed me and others. She took risks others were too scared to try. She was all of these things, and I loved it. On more than one occasion she stumped me with her questions. She interrupted my lesson to do it too! She was funny, intelligent, creative, did I mention she was loud?
Megan was finding herself and becoming an individual. She would not conform to others’ viewpoints. Megan had a fantastic memory for what she had learned. I am not sure if it was a long-term memory gift because her short-term memory did not always have the same ability. If she heard something once it stuck and other times she was completely forgetful. It is incredible how one student can tell you everything you said but forget her books in your classroom. That was Megan.
One day Megan turned in an essay which I read during my prep period. I cried when I read it. I laughed and I cried. Megan stopped in to see me and asked how she did. I asked her to sit down so I could read it to her. She was embarrassed and asked, “what’s wrong with it?” She tried to grab it from me. “Megan, it’s okay. Just sit and listen”. I proceed to read the essay to her out loud. “The north vitamins have attacked the south vitamins in order to spread communism.” I know you think you just read a typo; however, Megan spelled Vietnamese wrong.
She went on to explain the VC support the north vitamins and would set traps to capture and kill the south vitamins and US soldiers stationed there. She described how the US did not understand the Chinese and Vietnamese relationship. The essay explained the political impact of the war and the misconceptions of Vietnam by the US.
Megan at first laughed, then got a little embarrassed then laughed again. This time we cried and laughed together. I assured her it was a fantastic essay. She had a clear understanding of the Vietnam War. She understood its political impact and the politics of the time. Unfortunately, this was a clear case of spell check not working for a student. Megan wanted to rip it up. Again, I told her it was an excellent essay and asked how she had learned so much about the Vietnam War? She gave her usual answer of “I don’t know.” She said she watched documentaries, heard stories, and read. It was one of the best essays from a high school student on the Vietnam War I had ever read. I was a bit taken back. I, too, was embarrassed. I sold Megan short. I had not expected her to write an essay with such depth and content.
If I set the misspelled words aside, the piece had a thesis and was well supported by evidence and sources. I made assumptions about Megan. I knew she was bright. I knew she could debate. I did not expect her to write such an intelligent essay. I was wrong. My bias came out, and I am rather ashamed by it. My “Why” for becoming a teacher was to support the kid whom adults did not believe in; kids just like me who struggled in school. I was a teacher because I believed all students could learn, and I loved proving people wrong when they stereotyped a student as not high achieving, or a pain. I love the “Underdog.” That day I was reminded by Megan of this simple truth.
Megan, for all of her boisterous and loud behavior, reminded me that she was why I became a teacher. Even if her viewpoint was different than mine on most occasions, her voice, and her education were why I became a teacher. I had forgotten that, or maybe I had just not applied it to her. Where is the equity in that?
I read her essay to a few other students. I changed Vitamins to Vietnam so they would not miss her message and brilliance. Megan’s credibility grew that day. My arrogance was put in to check. The following year when Megan was in my economics class, she did a presentation on Roth IRA’s that blew anyone’s presentation away in economics. I still regret not taking her advice on a Roth IRA’s!
Megan is incredibly successful today. Breaking barriers wherever she goes. She has been a firefighter and a journalist. Graduated from Mills College with a BA in Political, Legal and Economic Analysis. She has traveled the world. She was a guest lecturer at Columbia University and held an internship at National Geographic Television. She is an award-winning film producer today, both teaching film and creating documentaries. Boxadora is one of her award-winning documentaries. This is just a short summary of Megan’s extensive resume!
Never underestimate a student, let them raise. Open the doors of education and get out of the way, or, better yet, escort them safely through the doors and let them take hold of what is inside. I limited Megan by believing her dyslexia defined her; I was wrong. Thankfully she did not restrict herself by my beliefs but instead rose above them. I was honored to be her teacher. She always pushes the envelope, she opens her doors for herself and closes doors on any who want to hold her back. I expected her to struggle. Instead, I should’ve expected her to learn differently. Maybe you know a Megan, or perhaps you are just like her. Keep opening doors and push through them if you have too. You are a reminder to the rest of us that we should not be closing doors on you.
I will leave you with this quote from Megan – “The human element is the most compelling thing that changes us and connects us,” —Meg
With something to think about….
Your friend, Chris