Opinion
Special Education Commentary

Brain-Dead in School

By Thomas J. Cottle — September 22, 1999 9 min read

The fact is that special education has made enormous strides both in diagnosing children’s learning problems and treating these disabilities. For many children and their parents, the mere act of diagnosis, the mere presence of a label for a problem like dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, brings instant relief; at last someone knows what the child struggles with and how to help him or her. Best of all in so many circumstances, parents learn that their child’s problem was not caused by them or something problematic in the family.

The diagnosis of a learning disability or some associated disorder represents the first, albeit painful, step toward productive school work and most likely a concomitant rise in self-esteem.

As I say, the actual moment of the diagnosis may bring instant relief to family members, but to a child, the diagnosis can evoke a host of other feelings as well. No one, after all, knows what the experience of a learning disability is like better than the child struggling with it. No one knows better what it is like to feel that one is stupid. “Face it,” an 8th grader told me once, “some people are just born dumb! You wouldn’t understand this because you went to college!” In response, the parents of the child with the learning disability find themselves beginning every sentence with “He is very intelligent, but ... " or, “I know she is extremely smart, it’s just that ... “

So while relief may come to anguished parents, the child now newly tested, interviewed, and diagnosed may feel something very different. He may feel that this new label imposed on him confirms once and for all that he is either permanently brain-damaged or, even worse, stupid and uneducable. How else might he understand the words, “The boy learns differently,” “It just takes her longer,” “It doesn’t work with him as it does with others,” “You have to understand there is a wide range of what might be called normal,” “She will have to be taken out of some classes and tutored,” “We have wonderful facilities for children needing special education.”

In the end, the diagnosis of a learning disability or some associated disorder represents the first, albeit painful, step toward productive school work and most likely a concomitant rise in self-esteem. But there is a moment, a significant one at that, when the child learns of the nature of his own mind, his own brain, his capacity to think, reason, learn.

We know a bit of that moment when a child is told he or she suffers with a particular illness like diabetes or cancer. We know because we frequently ask children about their feelings and reactions. In the world of psychology, however, we don’t always ask, so we don’t always know what the child may be thinking. And how ironic it is that we ask the child to tell us what he or she is thinking after the child has learned, or believes he or she has learned, that there is something woefully wrong about the way he or she thinks.

What follows is an account of a 14-year-old boy from an urban school having just been told, literally minutes before, of the results of a series of psychological testing yielding the diagnosis of a severe learning disability.


I tell you something. I am all alone in that school. They can have every single damn one of those meetings and class discussions they want and I am still sitting there in the middle of them, and I am all alone. There ain’t no one else in that school for me. I can be there, go to the classes, buy the books, obey all their rules, show them I respect them, which I don’t always, but I am alone. There isn’t one teacher understands what I’m about. There isn’t one teacher in that whole place has the slightest feeling for what I go through every day of my life now. Not one.

I go through the faculty list too, man, I read their names out loud to myself. One after the other. What a laugh. There’s people in that school think they got the inside track on me. They don’t know how damn foolish they sound. They put their arm around me, they tell me all this stuff about how I’m making progress, they don’t know anything. If they did, they’d keep their mouths shut. I don’t need no friends out of that place. I don’t need more parents out of that place. Man, if they could just take one look at themselves for a minute in a mirror they’d get the surprise of their life. They’d see what I see every day, and they’d shut up for a couple of weeks at least.

Who the hell those people think they are trying to tell me about the way I operate? Now, you just stop for one minute and think about what I say. You think about how you got to lead your life to come to the point where you can sit in judgment of someone and tell him: ‘Now you, you’re smart. But you, young man, you’re not smart. Fact is, you are one of the dumbest people on the face of this earth.’ You heard your mother tell you, son, you are the smartest little boy in the whole wide world. Fact is, you heard that a whole lot growing up, you know what I’m saying? All the time, she gives you that big wide grin of hers and she tells you, you are the smartest young person on the face of this earth. But not those folks in the school. No sir. No, they can’t do that. They got a whole different set of rules they going to be playing by. They got rules you never heard of. ...

You watched them, you sat there, big people telling me how I was dumb, how I don’t think right, the way I’m supposed to, tell me I need to go to school on top of school just to fix my brain, but don’t worry--you remember them telling me this? Don’t worry about nothing, it ain’t your fault. It ain’t nothin’ you’ve gone and done. You can’t blame yourself for this. It ain’t your fault. Ain’t got nothing to do with fault. You remember all that? You picture this group of murderers telling me this. That’s all they are, you know? Murderers!


No, it ain’t my fault. It’s the government’s fault. They go and decide, we’re going to wreck a few kids’ brains today, so let’s see, why don’t we just start in Hartford, Connecticut. No, make that Providence, Rhode Island. No, make that Warwick, Rhode Island. And let’s see now, how about that kid there with the black hat. He looks like a good choice. What’d they do, put something in the cereal? Stick some poison in my hat? What’d they mean, it ain’t my fault?

Ain’t your fault, it’s the genes.

Sure it’s my fault. And that’s what they ought to tell me too. ‘It’s your fault, man. You got bad genes. I mean, we’re talking bad genes. You might be able to sing, man, you might be able to run, man, you might be able do this or that, but where it really counts, you got bad genes. We’re talking defective city here, man. Ain’t your fault.’ My ass, ain’t my fault. No it’s Santa Claus’ fault.

I got no one now, man. They’re all going to be looking at me now, feeling bad, feeling low,

feeling sad, looking at the pathetic little kid with the word dumb stapled to his forehead. Sorry for you, man. We’ll do what we can. We’ll read a lot slower for you, and talk a lot slower for you, and answer all the questions a lot slower for you, you slow down man. Ain’t your fault, it’s the genes.

I’m not going to cry about this, man. I am not going to fall apart over this. They can tell me all they want about kids like me getting help, kids like me doing well, kids like me doing just as good as anybody else. Well, they can kiss my ass, ‘cause it’s all a bunch of bullshit, man. My life is over and they know it. That’s what that meeting in there was all about. It’s going to be all over this school, everybody’s going to know about me. I can’t come back here. I can’t show my face in this place no more. You can’t just walk around in a school knowing what I know and what they know about me. Ain’t they got no sense of shame?

My mother, she can’t even tell my grandmother what happened. She knows it’s all over. She knows. Every dream she ever had, it’s all gone. I can’t make it no more. And she counted on this, too. I know that for a fact. She can’t tell my grandmother. It’s going to be the first secret those two ladies ever had together. What’s she going to say to my grandmother? ‘Ain’t his fault. It’s just a case of bad genes.’ Well, let’s put it on the table, like they did upstairs. It’s my fault.

I got no dreams no more. They went right through that table, right through the floor underneath. They’re floating away in the sewer now. Five fouls, baby, and you’re gone. You’re gone. You can cry all you want to the ref, but you are gone. You are one gone man! And I don’t even have no coach standing up there fighting for me. I’ll be sitting down there at the end of the bench for the rest of my life.

You think that’s wrong? You think I’m exaggerating this thing? My brain don’t work, man. There is nothing you can say can make that right. I am dead in school. I am dead in school. You hear what I’m saying? I am dead in school, and I can’t make it right and neither can anyone else. And I wanted it. I wanted it, man. I don’t care what happened before. I don’t care what I said to you before, or anyone else. I wanted it. I wanted it all the time. I wanted it.

I prayed I could make it in school. I ain’t never told nobody this. I would get down on my knees next to my bed and I would pray that God could help me make it ‘cause I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. That’s how much I wanted it, man. And now it’s all been taken away, ‘cause there is something wrong with my brain. Bad genes. Why didn’t somebody tell me that when your genes come out the bad way that you can’t dream no more. That you ain’t entitled to dream. Why didn’t somebody spare me all this and tell me when I was a little boy, ‘Face up to it, little man. You can act all you want and you can show ‘em that smile, and you can show ‘em all that respect you learned from your mama, but you’re dead in school, little man, and don’t you forget it. You are one brain-dead boy in every school you walk into. You hear me? On the streets, you better go live it up, ‘cause in the school you are dead! Brain-dead, body-dead, dead.’


While clearly this account is painfully disturbing, a very fine special education program in this boy’s school--which, properly translated, means skilled, knowledgeable, though not particularly highly paid people--has helped him become a productive, competent student, although someone, not surprisingly, who continues to perform rather poorly on standardized tests, no matter how much extra time is offered him.

And something else, something that would hardly be expected after hearing his words: A year after his diagnosis, he seems happy.


Thomas J. Cottle, a clinical psychologist and sociologist, is a professor of education at Boston University. His books include Children’s Secrets, Barred From School, Children in Jail, The Voices of School, and the forthcoming Hardest Times: Portraits of Long Term Unemployed Men.

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