Like You’: Living Successfully with Learning Disabilities
people like you flip burgers. Mark my words; that is what you
will end up doing.” This is how I started my high school
career. Little did I know that seven years later, in spite of
the fact that I did not learn to read until I was 12 years old,
I would be a published author and an Ivy League graduate.
As a kid, because I was hyperactive, I grew up with people shaming
me, yelling things like “What’s wrong with you?”
I spent a lot of time in the hallway with the janitor. If I
wasn’t in the hallway, I was in the slow reading group.
In fourth grade, I was diagnosed with dyslexia, labeled as “learning
disabled.” I grew up in the ‘blue bird group,’
which, in spite of its patronizing name, was obviously the “stupid”
group. I spent much of elementary school hiding in the bathroom
crying, terrified of reading out loud.
like you” has a long history as a euphemism for those
whom schools don’t like. It’s used as the rhetorical
equivalent of a racial slur; it’s been used to demarcate
the class boundaries in our society, and it’s been used
for people who don’t fit into any of those categories,
like myself, but find themselves to be outsiders. There are
at least 20 million individuals in this country who are learning
disabled and/or have ADD. Many of these students still suffer
in school. And yes, many creative and intelligent individuals,
despite the rapid expansion of physiological and learning diagnosis,
still grow up feeling alone, defective, “stupid,”
“crazy,” and “lazy.” But despite the
current trend of defining these students as pathological, there
is nothing wrong with these kids–there was nothing wrong
with me. While it is true that I can’t spell to save my
life (I once wrote an organic chemistry paper on orgasmic chemistry),
my problem was not dyslexia. I struggled at times with dys-teachia.
So am I, now, at age 25, flipping burgers? Although to
this day I still spell at a third grade level and have the attention
span of a gnat, I recently graduated from Brown University with
a 4.0 in English literature. I was a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship
and was awarded the Truman Scholarship for public service for
graduate studies in the field of creative writing and education.
In addition, as an undergraduate, I co-authored a book, Learning
Outside the Lines published by Simon & Schuster (September
2000). I guess I am not flipping burgers.
I get emails all the time from people wanting to know how I
found success, what pill did I take (and where can they get
some) when the reality is I am the same little red-headed punk
who was told he would flip burgers. What replaced “stupid,”
“crazy,” and “lazy” in our collective
vocabulary for educational outsiders has been a tide of pathology
and a professional colonization of these students’ identities.
One needs to look no further than the labels themselves and
the professional service industry that has arisen to fix these
kids’ “problems.” Fixing, and seeing myself
as broken or pathological, had nothing to do with my success.
In my work with students, teachers, and parents, fixing is in
fact counter-productive. In my life, I was empowered by
a mom, with a voice like Mickey Mouse and a mouth like a truck
driver, who fought for me every day. I was taught the difference
between schooling and education by my beautiful third grade
teacher, Mr. R, who accommodated my weaknesses, told me “screw”
spelling, to define myself by what I could do, and, at all costs,
to follow my passion.
So how do we help those kids like me? The road to changing the
brutal marginalization of labeled students lies in empowered
teachers, students, parents, and communities whose voice is
respected in the educational process, not silenced by the political
din calling for standardization. But I truly believe that things
won’t change for students like me, no matter how many
dollars we throw at this issue, or how many books are written
about different learning, until we answer a new question. The
question is not one of whether or not kids learn differently;
we all know they do and have known that since the beginning
of time. The question is why have we, as a culture, been engaged
in a cyclical debate about individualizing education since the
days of John Dewey, then Howard Gardner, now Mel Levine, and
nothing has changed? Every day, kids are told that they are
special, individual snowflakes, then told to sit down in a uniform
line of desks, told what to think, how to think, and when they
can go to the bathroom and when they can eat, waiting for some
factory bell to dismiss them. What is it about our institution,
or society, that deeply distrusts the individual?
I worry sometimes that our institutions need educational outsiders,
regardless of their labels. That these failures serve as some
systemic example to make everyone stay in their right place.
But while that is a sobering reality, I will never forget Mr.
R., because it is not institutions that matter, but people.
And while we should never stop working to have just institutions,
a fight I am committed to along with the vast majority of educators
I have met in my work, we have more control over how we treat
others and what kind of people we become ourselves. About a
year ago, after giving a lecture I met a 92 year old man, an
educational outsider, and all he could talk about was his second
grade teacher who made him feel like a person. And that made
all the difference.#
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