Published Online: February 6, 2008

First Person

Beyond Measure

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When I began tutoring Tim, I thought I knew all there was to know about teaching. I was a brand new Ph.D.in psychology and education, proud of my accumulated knowledge, and full of myself. Despite my self-importance, the 1972 job market was in a horrific slump. Ph.D.’s were lucky to be driving taxis. For my husband’s career, we had moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan, a center of intellectual and cultural activity, to a southern town so small it didn’t even have a taxi.

I needed a job. I phoned the nearest university, community college, high school, and hospital. I called the special ed department of the local school district. “Stop over at the BRAT Program,” the receptionist said. “They always need help.” I should have realized a good program doesn’t usually have openings, but I ignored the warning. I dressed in my professional suit and high heels and found the “BRAT Program” in a secluded section of an elementary school.

Clearly, I was overdressed. The program teachers wore slacks. The attending mothers wore housedresses. It was the first time I’d seen anyone sip coke at 8 a.m. or wear a housedress past the front porch.

Struggling to be professional and trying to maintain my composure, I hoped to understand the focus of what looked like pure chaos. I asked the mothers, “What does BRAT mean?” The mothers gave me how-stupid-are-you looks. “BRAT,” one mother said. “ ‘Brat…’ That’s what the school people call our kids.” It wasn’t an acronym for Behavioral…Remediation …Anything.

I bit my lip, smiled weakly, and sank into a chair. The mothers must have sensed my discomfort; someone offered me a coke or coffee. I prefer tea, but I accepted the coffee with lots of cream and sugar and held the paper cup for dear life.

I observed the classroom. One boy caught my eye. He wobbled, flopped, grunted, struck out, and laughed. I was fascinated by his energy and his strange ways. Seeing me stare, his mother introduced herself. She whispered her frustration that Tim was eight and had learned nothing in this half-day program. She wanted an afternoon tutor.

Confident I could perform brilliantly, I agreed to tutor Tim. I saw this as a great opportunity: I could use the newest techniques of behavioral reinforcement and multi-sensory stimulation to teach Tim. Then I would write an article or even a book on my achievement. I’d dreamt of one day having my own school; this would give me the credentials. I’d already accumulated all sorts of learning devices—sandpaper letters, Cuisenaire rods, a balance beam. I arranged a child-size table and two chairs in our finished basement and created an inviting “learning space.” I was ready and willing to begin my major project: The Teaching of Tim.

Arrogance vs. Confidence

I liked Tim right away and he must have felt that. I could never have worked with him so intensely, otherwise. I liked his smile, liked the way he studied me without making eye contact, liked that he called me “Bobo” during our first session.

Right away I set about assessing Tim’s general academic knowledge. I realized I couldn’t. Tim’s attention span was too short to be measured with a standardized test. His behavior was too erratic to record with any accuracy. I could find no baseline data. My academic brain went numb.

The second session was worse. Tim arrived grumpy. With no warning, he ran out the back door, lifted a heavy wooden balance beam over his head, and, looking like Goliath, ran toward me ready to lunge and knock me over. I’m a little person. I was terrified.

“Put it down,” I said with more conviction than I felt. “Put it down and run around the yard. Then come back in.” A three step order. I knew I’d given him two too many steps. I gulped and prayed. Panting and much calmer, he returned to the table. After that, we both trusted me more.

But trust didn’t lead to learning. I analyzed. I planned. I created clever materials. I offered Tim everything I’d ever used before. On good days, Tim showed interest in everything; on bad days, nothing.

Although I analyzed and planned, what became clear was how little I knew. I felt like a fraud. Desperate for a job, I’d confused arrogance with confidence. The latter springs from experience; the former springs from grandiosity. I had worked with many challenging children, but I had no experience teaching anyone like Tim.

I wanted to give up, but I needed a job. Tim’s mother sensed my discouragement. “Whatever he learns is more than he knows now,” she told me. I tried to remember her words.

Letting Go

Every once in awhile, Tim surprised me. He excelled, though not from any lesson I planned. The bathroom door in my basement needed a new doorknob. Tim rummaged through the toolbox, found a screwdriver, removed the old knob, and put the new one in effortlessly and without directions (which he wouldn’t have been able to read, anyway). I was astounded. He grinned for an hour. When his mother arrived, he took her by the hand to show her his accomplishment. While I clung to the esoteric, Tim worked best with real-life practical projects. After that his mother and I searched for broken machines for him to repair.

Even when we got along best, I couldn’t understand Tim’s garbled speech. And I couldn’t create a way to get him to articulate consistently. One day, by chance, my son left his hand puppets in the basement. Tim fell in love with Bluebird. He wouldn’t look directly at me or speak to me, but Tim worked hard to get Bluebird to understand him. I don’t know if Tim thought Bluebird was real. I didn’t really care. What I did know was that Tim became an excited teacher, explaining tasks to Bluebird, so the puppet (and I) could understand. With Bluebird, Tim turned work into play. I’m not sure who was happier—he or I.

As he progressed, I searched for opportunities for Tim and me to play together. Friday field trips were fun for both of us. Tim’s favorite was visiting the nearby Coca-Cola Bottling Company. He would stand entranced, watching the machines fill and cap the bottles. We visited often.

Tim also loved playing with my four-year-old. An early dismissal at my son’s preschool and a scheduled field trip with Tim left me little choice. I would have to bring my son with us. I was apprehensive. With me, Tim frequently lashed out in frustration. To my surprise and relief, Tim was gentle with my young son. He behaved like a protective big brother. His language improved as he pointed out details, especially when we took my son with us to visit the bottling plant.

With Tim, I had tried old fashioned approaches—phonics, reading aloud to him, flashcards—and the most modern techniques—sandpaper letters, Cuisinaire rods. Nothing worked. Gradually, I had to let go of my analytical, intellectual approach. I taught Tim best on his terms, seizing the opportunities he enjoyed and encouraging him to be practical, playful, and protective.

Although I’d wanted to give up on Tim many times out of personal frustration, I felt truly sad when I had to say goodbye to him. I had no data, no article, no book to publish. Tim could pay attention longer, express himself better, and manage his frustration more often. But his gains were infinitesimal, impossible to measure. I felt like a total failure.

Tim’s mother and I became friends and to her I confessed my defeat. She saw the situation differently. “He looks forward to seeing you. He smiles,” she said. “With you he’s not a ‘brat.’ These are gifts beyond measure.”

As we said goodbye, Tim hugged me. His mother laughed out loud. “That’s a first, and probably not listed on any test.”

Thirty-five years later when I think of Tim, I still get that punched-in-the-stomach feeling. We, in the helping professions, failed him. He was never accurately diagnosed, never successfully treated. He lives to this day in his child-like world in a residential facility.

When I met Tim I thought I knew it all. It’s ironic that in spite of his limitations, Tim became my most effective teacher. From him I learned how to watch students carefully and trust my intuition to be flexible and spontaneous. But even more important to my personal growth, I learned to confront my grandiosity. My strong desire to help children like Tim can blind me to my lack of skill. Like Tim, I have my limitations. Like Tim’s, mine cannot be measured by a standardized test.

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