Tenderly Kala nursed her little waif, wondering silently why it did not gain strength and agility as did the little apes of other mothers. It was nearly a year from the time the little fellow came into her possession before he would walk alone, and as for climbing—my but how stupid he was!
Kala sometimes talked with the older females about her young hopeful, but none of them could understand how a child could be so slow and backward in learning to care for itself. Why, it could not even find food alone, and more than twelve moons had passed since Kala had come upon it…
Tublat, Kala’s husband, was sorely vexed, and but for the females’ careful watching would have put the child out of the way.
“He will never be a great ape,” he argued. “Always will you have to carry him and protect him. What good will he be to the tribe? None; only a burden.”
“Let us leave him quietly sleeping among the tall grasses, that you may bear other and stronger apes to guard us in our old age.”
Replace Kala in the paragraphs above with “Loving mothers everywhere.” Replace “Tublat” with “Just about every wrong-headed oaf who has had anything to say about how to educate children with learning differences.”
As it happens, Kala’s “developmentally delayed” child has different abilities than those of his fellows. He is the one—as it turns out—who can build fires, use a knife, communicate with other species. He also can make sense of, in Edgar Rice Burrows’ wonderful phrase, the “little bugs” on the pages of his father’s diaries.
But in the troop of apes where the SAT measures only leaping and fighting, Tarzan is almost left in the tall grass to die.
Present mirth hath present laughter.
Throwing away kids who learn differently or develop at a different pace is an old idea. But minions of kids suffer to this day. What about other populations? Who else has been deemed uneducatable? Dr. Johnson wrote: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Number of women in Johnson’s classes at Pembroke College in Oxford, early 18th century: Zero. Year in which women were allowed to vote in the United States of American: 1920. Year in which there are more women than men in medical school in this country: today.
Let’s make it personal: I flunked math in high school. My algebra teacher told me that he would pass me for the course—my grade was an F but he could use his discretion to make it a D—if I promised never to take math again.
Perhaps this is a better story if the reader knows that I went on to get an undergraduate degree in math, took endless courses in statistics in graduate school, and taught math for 30 years before devoting myself full time to admissions counseling and working with special needs students.
But enough about me.
How many of your students have been labeled “smart but lazy”? How many of your children have been dismissed with “Mickey chooses not to turn in homework”? How many of our young people have been thrown away because they couldn’t sit still, learn their letters by a certain age, make eye contact, hold a pencil correctly, pay attention, color within the lines?
“Smart but lazy” should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.
Is it just hyperbole to suggest that we are leaving good kids to die in the tall grass? Without a modicum of insight and support, kids who learn differently are at significant risk. Consider the following paragraph from Dr. Edward Clarke’s Sex and Education, 1873: a woman going to college cannot “retain uninjured health, and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system.”
Are we denying education to kids with learning differences to save them from uterine disease? Are we throwing away students with attentional issues so that we may bear stronger apes to guard us in our old age?
The list of productive people with learning differences or attentional issues continues to grow. It’s a list to which I am pleased to add my own name.