My car’s engine did not whir, or click, or do any of the other things an engine is supposed to do when the key is turned. I didn’t panic, as I learned years ago that panicking does not help an auto-related emergency. I walked back to my office at the residential school where I work part-time. There were people around I could ask for help: my manager, the receptionist, as well as several staff members. However, I chose not to bother them and handled the situation myself—with some assistance. My wife had told me many times to bypass the insurance company’s roadside assistance hotline and call the local tow company directly. I dialed the number and explained the problem with language a 1st grader might use. “When I turn the key, nothing happens. Well, I guess the speedometer goes up to 80 miles an hour even though I’m not moving. And I don’t hear the radio.”
Here is the issue: I know nothing about cars and am fully embarrassed by this. I can’t replace an air filter, an oil filter, or a windshield washer blade. I don’t know the size of my engine or even my gas tank. This is all information I should know, but I don’t. Thankfully, our family has an ethical mechanic who does not make me feel stupid about my lack of car knowledge. He explains how important the timing belt is and is honest with me when there is a delay in finishing a repair. Honesty and respect. It works.
As I stood in the shade of small maple tree, waiting for the tow truck, I started to realize how uncomfortable school can be for a student with learning difficulties. This is especially true in a mixed-ability classroom, where IQs and GPAs vary by two or more standard deviations. One student may have read Crime and Punishment in 7th grade, while the student sitting next to him has never read a novel in his life. With regard to writing, some students are turning in extra-credit essays about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and others are too embarrassed to place their three-sentence essay on democracy in the “to be passed in” pile. This level of discomfort does not sit well with any human being.
Those of us who teach in special education or remedial programs know the scoop: Phrases like “below average,” “well-below average,” or “extremely low” are common in our students’ permanent records. Yet we expect these same kids, when they come out of class confused, to be motivated by these kinds of questions:
“Did you raise your hand?”
“Did you ask the kid sitting next to you?”
“What about asking the teacher?”
“What do you plan to do about this?”
Similarly, someone could have asked me, given my predicament:
“Did you try jumper cables?” No, I don’t have any.
“Did you ask to borrow jumper cables?” No, I was too embarrassed and I didn’t want to bother anyone.
“What about the alternator?” The what?
“Did you flood the engine?” No, Hurricane Irene ended weeks ago.
The red flatbed pulled into the parking lot of this very rural, very remote school, with its orange lights flashing and its loud engine revving. My ineptness was highlighted visually and audibly. How embarrassing, I thought. Teachers and students gawked through the windows of the classrooms, wondering what the heck was going on. I wanted to say, “Just go back to your studies. Minor auto glitch. Nothing to see here, folks.” We forget, as adults, that getting extra help from the teacher during class time can be just as humiliating, embarrassing, and socially penalizing. An “F” or a “46 percent” or a page full of “X’s” can be the equivalent of those flashing lights, indicating that someone is in need of help.
The driver, Danny, emerged from the vehicle and greeted me. Now that the man who could save the day had arrived, I was self-conscious about the fact that I hadn’t made any attempt to solve the engine problem myself. I quickly admitted to Danny, “I haven’t tried using jumper cables yet.” This wouldn’t have helped anyway it turns out; my engine was deader than a doornail.
“Looks like your battery is pretty old. It’s probably the original that came with the car,” offered Danny.
Wow. How did he know that? Very impressive, Danny.
But really, Danny was simply using his background knowledge of cars and car batteries. He runs a towing company and an auto repair shop. Automotive technology is his livelihood. He could probably take a junker of a car and turn it into Greased Lightning, just like the T-Birds did in “Grease.”
We teachers live in the academic world, most of us by choice. Our students, especially those with learning disabilities, may only exist in the academic world for seven hours a day. If we teach social studies, we may relish teaching a unit on Russia. Politics, history, economics—all these are topics we know about and appreciate. To those students with learning disabilities, though, learning the most basic tenet of a nation’s history can be as complicated as jump-starting a car is for me.
If we want our students with learning disabilities to learn more history, literature, mathematics, and science in mixed-ability classes, let us all take the time to understand a few things. Hands may not go up when there is confusion. One-on-discussions with the teacher may be avoided. The very verbal world of high school will intimidate a certain percentage of students because someone has laughed at their question, or peered over their shoulder to see that grade of “F” on the latest quiz. I remember when I read a passage from the textbook in 10th grade social studies class and someone laughed at me because I mispronounced the word “colonel.” (Where’s the r, anyway?) It wasn’t an encouraging moment.
Learning and schooling are not “safe” activities for all students and we need to remember that. To help alleviate this problem, we need to have private, one-on-one conversations with all our students so that we can better understand where they’re starting from. If this takes away from class time or after-school time, so be it. Because if students have a tow-truck experience every day of the school year, they are certain to eventually give up.