Once upon a time, the educational system in this country included conformity in writing skills. On desks, wide-ruled paper was taped at angles suited for right-handed students. For left-handed first-graders, showing signs of “neurological insult or physical malfunction,” (ridiculous thinking), fitting into the right-hand column meant turning a hand inward, soldiering on with the majority.
“Lefties,” who had to be “broken of their natural tendencies,” were stuck with a norm embracing their right-handed classmates.
My mother was a shy first-grader, who, when called on to read aloud, stuttered from fear. Her teacher, patrolling the room with a ruler to slap palms of idle hands, was strict and had no patience for timid children.
The embarrassment of being singled out and criticized when reading aloud lingers. So, when my school experience as a left-handed 6-year-old began, my mother took up the cause, met with my teacher and made it clear I was not to write on paper taped to my desk because I was not right-handed.
Luckily, the teacher agreed. The philosophy of looking kindly on students who were not a cookie-cutter assembly was gaining traction because disciplinarians and rote learning in my mother’s day had driven off students, experiencing school as just one more chore.
Yet, I was in college before I realized a professor asking my opinion actually wanted to know what I thought. My earlier classes had not encouraged free thinking and I had no idea how to speak up without being labeled a “smart aleck.”
We’ve come a long way from student punishment in the form of blackboard mea culpas, when “I will not copy Janie’s homework” was written a hundred times. But where are we today when an entire nation of parents worries about medicating their children for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, termed ADHD?
Eleven percent of school-age children receive this diagnosis and 6.4 million students take the drugs prescribed. Are we exposing our children to too much sensory stimulation or is it over-reaching to ask teachers to prepare children for standardized testing, explain pre-algebra, worry about job security and encourage individuality in a classroom?
If we believe childhood is a time of discovery, of putting together the pieces of a healthy self-image, can we buy into “self-regulation,” (students monitoring their own behavior) as emotional learning?
An article in The New Republic magazine, “In Defense of the Wild Child,” lays bare the furrowed brows in schools, dealing with nonconformist children.
Consider this quote: “Many non-conforming children have grown up strapped into five-point harnesses of strollers and car seats, planted in front of TV screens, put to sleep at night flat on their backs. They crave action, sensation and attention when they’re finally let loose.”
“Let loose” in classrooms is a duel between restlessness and attention paid to instruction. How best to give border-line school performances new foundations, those working for good students, primed as future citizens, with the discipline needed for a good life?
One river to cross is fostering authority respect, but not fear. I remember my son’s third-grade teacher calling to tell me he was having small seizures, “petit mal,” she whispered. When she asked him to read, he stared, but did not respond.
I took him to his pediatrician before the sun set. No petit mal. So I called a friend, testing students in graduate school. “He’s fine,” she laughed.
Finally, I asked my 8-year-old why he wouldn’t read.
“I don’t like her,” he said of his teacher. “She’s cranky and she has wiggly arms.”
Sigh! Another day in parenting when a child’s self-worth hinges on not losing faith in his small life and when: “Not finished yet!” is both a diagnosis and a prayer.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.