A tear glistened in the corner of his eye.
I looked away for a moment and he wiped under his glasses, erasing the physical evidence of an emotional history that just won’t go away.
“I might have had a hard time reading, but I could do so much,” he told me.
“They just decided I wouldn’t amount to anything so I was de-celerated. They thought my friend was good in math, so he was ac-celerated. I mean – that’s that. They just decided then and there that he was going to be something and I wasn’t.”
He hasn’t been in elementary school for at least forty years, but here he is giving a detailed recounting of a young boy in school and all going terribly wrong.
“I mean, I am really good at so many things. I build engines. I work really well with people. I am a dedicated worker. One-hundred ten percent. That’s what they say about me – no matter what it is, I give one hundred and ten percent.”
He talks about his yard at home today, the careful manicuring of it, the careful planting of flowers, the pruning of bushes and trees, the miniature fish pond.
“Even my work at home – I give one hundred and ten percent. They had no right to say I was dumb.”
You’re right, I said, I consider that abuse.
“The truth is they should have accelerated me. If teachers think someone is struggling, that child should not be put in a slower class, they should be put in a class that speeds up their learning. Accelerate them.”
I just listened.
Always moved by the insight people have about institutions, specifically schools, and why they go so wrong.
Always wondering how and why they’re able to point to gaping holes and blatant problems when people on the inside can’t often see them.
“Guys like me aren’t bad. We aren’t stupid. We are smart, we’re just smart at different things. Good at different things. And I can read, I read all the time. Give me any book or manual about work or engines and I know exactly what it’s saying.”
I agree, I said. School should be the place where everyone can be good and everyone can be smart. Schools can change to make sure the conditions are right for everyone to be perceived as good and smart – at different things.
“You agree with me then?” he asked.
For the first time I realized that he had been preparing for a debate, preparing to convince me that he was right and that schools (including educators like me) were wrong. He sort of knew me as a family friend, knew I was a college professor in another state, knew I was friendly enough but assumed I was like every other teacher he had come across in his life – in line with the school way of categorizing and labeling and accelerating and decelerating and only caring about how fast someone learns to read and how well they do on tests.
Yes I agree with you.
“Is it changing then? I mean, are schools changing now and not doing those things?” he asked.
Unfortunately not most schools – but a lot of people are trying to make changes, I said.
“Are you teaching the new teachers to be different?” he asked.
I am trying. One thing I do is have my students read chapters and books about motorcycle repair, waitressing, plumbing, and carpentry.
The first hint of a smile spreads across his face, “You do?”
Yeah. Most teachers don’t understand the intelligence and creativity it takes to work on cars, build things, work in service industries. I hope that if they understand more about intelligence and creativity in these ways they might recognize every student’s amazing potential.
We smile silently for awhile and I look away unable to stare at the deep emotional scars this man has carried with him for all these years.
“The other day I was cleaning out my garage and found a sign my mom gave me when I was younger. It says, “God don’t make junk,” and it has a picture of a little boy on it. She gave that to me. She knew the teachers thought I was stupid and she didn’t want me to think I was stupid. That’s tough.”
More silence and a wave of guilt and shame washes over me. Why do I choose to be a part of an institution that inflicts just as much pain and damage as it does joy and optimism?
I often tell my undergraduates, “Just please don’t be the teacher that sends the forty-year-old to therapy.” It’s kind of a joke and kind of not – it’s a reminder that what we do and say to people today impacts their lives in ways that we will never fully understand, and at the very least, we should aim to do no damage.
But guys like him don’t go to therapists.
They’re tough guys. Working guys. Family guys. Hanging out with the buddies and a beer guys. Mowing the lawn on Saturday morning guys.
Guys like him don’t talk about a second grade teacher and a middle school teacher and everyone in between and how those school years damaged them in irreparable ways and about a poster their mother gave them in elementary school to combat the teachers at school and how that poster just happens to still be in the garage when they’re middle-aged guys.
Until they do.
Until he does.
Then a tear glistens and escapes and a strange specimen of a woman asks, “Can I write your story?” and he agrees, if I think it will help someone.
He nods his head, “Just one person, you know. If you can just help one person know that he is smart and can do anything he puts his mind to. Or just help one teacher who can then make a difference to so many people. Then that’s worth it.”
I sat there recalling the stories told by Native Americans who experienced the Indian Boarding Schools and how they cried, sobbed, and revealed so much pain and anxiety because of their experiences in those educational institutions.
I imagined what we might learn from a 2-hour special of guys like him looking straight into the camera and telling educators how they had them wrong all those years – had it all wrong – and how teachers’ perceptions drilled holes through their dignity and confidence and courage and potential.
Perhaps I’ll work on a bigger project sometime soon, but for now, maybe a glimpse of one guy’s story might just get someone’s attention.