From the beginning of my career as an English teacher, I dreamed of inspiring young minds to appreciate the beauty and the art of great literature. I never gave much thought to those young minds for whom that inspiration would take a little longer: those with learning disabilities or special needs.
Even in college, no professor ever talked about how to adjust assignments and change expectations for slow learners. I knew those students would always be taken care of--in a different room with a special teacher who knew how to make the lessons meaningful for them. With the advent of mainstreaming, however, it was I who became the slow and reluctant learner as more and more learning-disabled students were assigned to my classroom each year.
Whenever I tried to modify an assignment or discover the learning style of one of these special students, I tried to remember how I first learned that concept. The more I began to analyze my own learning style, the more I began to think about how slow learners were taught when I was a student in rural Oklahoma during the 1950s. That’s when I began to think a lot about Junior Tull.
Junior was the biggest kid in the 4th grade at Jennings Grade School. I don’t know how long he had been held back in the 4th grade, but I remember that he had been in that room since I began going to school. Junior was the oldest son of the man who farmed just south of where my family lived. His younger sister, Barbara, was my age and was also in the 4th grade. Everyone knew that Junior was dumb. He didn’t even read or write, but he still rode the bus with us to school each day.
Junior was tall and thin and wore oversized, faded overalls, which he never bothered to snap on the sides. They frequently gaped open, and everyone could see his underwear. His dark brown hair always needed combing and often needed washing. In the summer, he never wore shoes. Clouds of red dust followed him wherever he trotted on his toes down the country roads.
Early in November of that year, Junior stopped coming to school. No one really missed him, and I never even asked Barbara why her brother was absent. One day, the school bus dropped my sister, Kathy, and me at the section line north of the farm. As we began walking south, I heard Junior calling to me from behind.
“Hey, Sandy!” he yelled as he came over the hill and headed toward us, again creating those clouds of red dust as he ran.
I turned and said, “Hey, Junior! Where have you been? Are you sick?”
“Mom says that I don’t have to go to school anymore,” he replied.
''Why not?” I asked.
“She says I’m too old to go to school,” he answered as he lowered his head and began to draw circles in the dirt with his bare right foot. “I’m going to help Dad with the milk cows and take money from people who want to fish in the creek.”
Junior turned and began to shuffle on down the road. As sort of an afterthought, he turned and said, “Tell the kids I said hi!”
Just then, Dad came over the hill driving the old green farm truck and stopped to give us a ride. He headed north toward Jennings to get some feed. As I slid across the seat, I asked, ''Why did Junior get to quit school?”
Dad was on the school board and was a big supporter of whatever the teachers requested.
“Junior’s a grown man now,” he said, “and he makes the new teacher nervous. So we decided that he would be better off staying on the farm every day.”
“But he likes to go to school,” I protested.
“It’s not right for a man to still be in the 4th grade,” he said as he pulled his left arm inside the truck window and placed both hands on the steering wheel. As we crossed the cattle guard at the top of the hill, I saw Junior still shuffling along with his right hand inside his overalls.
“Daddy, it’s Junior! Give him a ride,” I suggested. Dad stopped the truck long enough for Junior to hop on the running board next to him. As Junior crooked his right arm into the cab of the truck, Daddy said, “Junior, sing us a song.”
Junior started to sing “The Wabash Cannonball,” and he didn’t stop until he’d sung all the verses.
As I think of this now, I know that Junior could learn. He knew all the words to the song. He only needed special attention to help him learn. Special attention that teachers did not give to slow learners at that time.
I think about Junior a lot. Mom said he died a couple of years ago and is buried in the Jennings Cemetery. I have never gone to visit his grave. I don’t need to go because Junior is with me each day as I work with one of the special students who has been mainstreamed into my classroom. I always hear Junior’s voice:
Listen to the jingle, the rumble, and the roar. As she glides along the woodland, through the hills and by the shore ...
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Slow Learner