Do you know anyone with the following issues?
• A high school student who is curious about the world but who bombs standardized tests?
• A middle school kid who is bright and yet fails her classes?
• An elementary school child who loves to hear stories but won’t pick up a book to read and writes in indecipherable chicken scratches?
If you checked three boxes then you also know a modern-day version of me as a child.
Getting through school was one of the major challenges of my life. In elementary school, my parents were so desperate to get me to read that they offered to pay me a dollar per finished book. In third grade my teacher had a policy of putting the best students in the front of the class and the others in the last row. There I sat, back by the coatroom with the rest of the frustrated kids. By spring, my self-worth had plummeted to the point that my parents took me to self-esteem building classes at Washburn Child Guidance Center. Although this has become a long-standing family joke, each day I was instructed to say 10 things that I liked about myself. This exercise caused me to endure unhelpful suggestions from my siblings such as “I like that I get to live with such a cool sister.” But I still have an “I Like Myself” pencil framed in my back hall to remind me of those old struggles.
Eventually I was diagnosed with dyslexia (the catch-all for learning disabilities in those days.) If diagnosed today, I would likely also have some short-term memory issues and ADHD. This would explain why, after two years in my job, I am still unable to memorize my work phone number. My brain works in unusual ways. But through my struggles I’ve developed some useful coping skills such as not freaking out by what I don’t understand, bouncing back from failure and relying on humor as a survival mechanism. Most people think I married my husband Glenn because he is charming, kind and smart. Actually, I married him for his handsome spelling skills. Not a day goes by when I don’t call out to him, “Glenn, how do you spell …?” (Holistic is an up-to-the-minute example.)
By fourth grade, I had landed in a school that had a holistic approach to child development. Academically, I continued to struggle. I had in-school tutors, after-school tutors, and testing accommodations. If all these academic challenges had been my only focus, I probably would have just given up. Luckily, my school had the view that all children need to develop in all areas. I had a robust education in theater, music and public speaking. The school also felt that athletics were crucial for mind/body development. I loved the “enrichment” courses and because of them I endured my academic offerings. I was able to slowly gain back my self-esteem and develop healthy relationships with peers and adults in the school. My grades started improving by 11th grade and I found a college that fit me because it had an alternative learning system in place.
I tell my story because I’m concerned that the mounting pressures on our schools are forcing administrators to put kids in rigid boxes. Many schools have strict policies in place that students with less than C averages or D’s on their report cards cannot partake in school sports, class trips and school dances. And yet, I know for an absolute fact that no kid wants to fail in school.
Kids who are getting bad grades are not lazy but are likely coping with learning disabilities, troubles at home, emotional problems or maybe even the simple fact that they don’t get enough exercise and their left brain is having trouble talking to the right brain. For me, academics were a bummer but I stuck with school because I was so jazzed by all the other stuff happening during the day, such as the upcoming school trip or the sports competition that night. Eventually, I learned to outsmart the quirks of my brain and managed to find my place in the world.
In a time when we are concerned about school dropout and graduation rates, we should look for ways to expand our struggling students’ involvement in school activities rather than restrict access to only the achieving children who are already on the path to success.
Jocelyn Hale is executive director of The Loft Literary Center. She shares this column with her husband Glenn Miller.