Education Commentary

On the Invisible Needs of Special Students

By Suzanne Barchers — September 18, 1991 4 min read

My son came home from school in tears today. It wasn’t because a classmate tried to pick a fight or because he had been forgotten in a holiday gift exchange. He cried because his grades weren’t good enough for the honor roll. Most 7th graders are delighted with 3 Bs, 1 B +, and 2 As, but not Josh he wanted to make the honor roll.

Two years after having a homemade son, we were delighted with the adoption of our perfect 2-month-old son, Josh. He was bright and verbal, always curious about words. Books were a favorite diversion; when he was cranky he would say, “Mom, let’s just read a book.” Though he occasionally said words inside out, such as melon for lemon, we considered such mistakes simply a rather cute quirk and assumed he would do well in school.

Instead, the verbal problem translated into a true learning problem when he began school. Josh would read the middle of a word first--reading patting for tapping. In spite of advanced degrees in reading, I was baffled by his apparent disability. Like most middle-class parents, we did everything possible, including extensive testing, special glasses, and private schools. Tests only confirmed what we knew: He had an above-average intelligence and below-average achievement in reading and spelling. There was no prescription.

At the end of 3rd grade we requested that Josh be retained. He had a late-summer birthday so although our timing was unusual, he had many peers of the same age after the retention. The trauma was minimized because he was in a small private school where everyone had individual programs and grade levels were rarely mentioned. He learned to compensate for his reading and spoiling problems by using a variety of coping mechanisms, such as careful listening, rehearsing text at home, and charming teachers with his smile, good humor, and perseverance. He spent grades 5 and 6 in the public school, and when standardized test scores came in we rejoiced at the average bands. Josh was closing the gap, moving into the top reading group by 6th grade.

We knew that 7th grade would be challenging. For the first time he would earn letter grades, and he would have to cope with six different teachers who would not necessarily be sensitive to the struggles faced by a disabled reader and speller. We faced the new school year with dread.

The first nine weeks were arduous for all of us. We coached him through two to three hours of homework Monday through Thursday nights and occasionally on weekends. Science, with its unfamiliar vocabulary and tedious assignments, was particularly difficult. At the first conferences we used our five minutes per teacher to explain how far he had come and how hard he had to work on routine lessons. The response was always one of surprise--after all, he seemed bright, articulate, and likable. Furthermore, he had 2 As and 4 Bs on his mid-semester report--a quite acceptable achievement.

But, although not one teacher mentioned it, Josh also had the not atypical second-child challenge: following a brother three years older who had received all As.

The second half of the semester Josh redoubled his efforts. In addition to practicing the piano each night (winning an honorable mention in a piano competition), doing his laundry, and walking the dog, Josh struggled with his schoolwork.

Three nights before the semester’s end, Josh quietly wept through dinner because his older brother was going on an outing and Josh had to study for a 50-word spelling test--a grueling task. He didn’t complain, but silent tears tracked down his face. It was that night that he told us how desperately he wanted to make the honor roll. We had been slowly withdrawing our nightly assistance so that he would assume more responsibility for his work, but his father spent many hours coaching him during that last week, hoping that one of those Bs would become an A. But it wasn’t enough, even though his grades were certainly beyond our expectations.

As a parent of Josh and as a former teacher of 15 years, I wonder how many kids in my classrooms had spent many unrecognized and under appreciated hours on their school work. I wonder how in my busy teaching days with too many students and too little time I could have modified expectations or assignments without patronizing the children who struggled. Certainly teachers must maintain appropriate expectations, but could I somehow have found a way to discover and reward those kids whose efforts went beyond reasonable expectations?

We try to help Josh realize that the honor roll isn’t that important, but all around him there is evidence to the contrary. His brother continues to make As; his parents have advanced degrees; and his friends are honor students who earn their As with little effort. We tell him that in the adult world, there are few tests such as those he takes now, but that the real tests require all the traits he demonstrates daily: dedication, a great personality, determination, and perseverance. As we walk the dog together, we talk about how I cried over math when I studied for the Graduate Record Exams--and he says he appreciates our support.

One teacher wrote “great person” in the comments section of his report card. We agree. He is a great person.

But it doesn’t matter to him. He didn’t make the honor roll.

A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 1991 edition of Education Week as On the Invisible Needs of Special Students