The Girl Who Played With an Imaginary Rope

There once was a girl who played with an imaginary rope. Her first grade teachers thought it odd and did not know what to do. The girl had been singled out the year before, in kindergarten, when she was sent first for testing. The tests involved pictures and mazes. The girl would always remember the feeling of being singled out, the look in her teacher's eyes and the meaningful way the teacher said SHE must go first, the feeling that she had done something wrong because there was something wrong with her. The reason she now played with an imaginary rope was actually quite simple. She was practicing jump rope, but no one knew her secret, that she was determined to play as well as everyone else, that she needed to be as good as they were. The teachers could not understand why the girl had to work harder than everyone else or why she seemed so frustrated. The girl felt "stupid" and became focused on fixing all the things she was bad at. She never realized she might be "good at" anything until one day she wrote a poem and won a contest. Then, a few years later, in seventh grade, she came in second place in the class spelling bee. An administrator encouraged her to write. It was then that she realized she might not be "all dumb" after all.

Dr. Ernst VanBergeijk picks up on the first ring. He is the Associate Dean and Executive Director at NYIT and he has conducted extensive research on learning disabilities. He also heads NYIT's Vocational Independence Program (VIP), which enables students with significant learning disabilities to maximize their potential for independence. I want to find out what happened in the 1970s and 1980s, I explain to Dr. V., were children more rampantly termed "Learning Disabled" during that time period? Was there a need to identify -- to label -- students who were slower learners? Were there many that were misunderstood and misdiagnosed? Later that evening, my friends meet me for sushi and they want to know why I'm fixated on the '70s and '80s. My mind goes to my medical records, to the neurological tests that were given to determined why I had "attention lapses," especially when faced with complicated subject matter. I also recall a discussion I had with my seventh grade math tutor "Lots of kids were mislabeled and misdiagnosed as learning disabled in the '70s and '80s," she had said, "You can't be sure you really have a 'learning disability.' But I was the girl who played with the imaginary rope.

Dr. VanBergeijk is one of several experts I will speak with as I trudge down a twisty and thorny "memory lane." In examining the history of labeling students, I am examining my own. I was born only one year before Public Law 94-142 was passed and with any law, it takes a while for adherents and those implementing the law to perfect it. I think of myself as having been part of the Guinea Pig Generation.

PL 94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), was established to aid states in protecting the rights and meeting the needs of children with disabilities. This law gave rise to "special education" and children previously deemed "unteachable" could no longer be denied a free education. While this was a major step for those in need of special ed, the question became: which students qualified for it? In order to place a child in a special education class, there needed to be a diagnosis. As VanBergeijk explains it, you can't just put students in special classes without special reasoning. So, I ask him if this led to an influx of kids being "diagnosed" in the late '70s and '80s, kids who would be in regular classrooms today with support from a resource room or tutors to supplement "regular" classroom instruction.

I share a bit of my story: I took "regular" classes in a Jewish day school and was placed in lower tracks. I received some resource room aid and tutoring, having been diagnosed at 5 with an "attention focusing problem." (Today, we call this ADD minus the H). I would later become accustomed to hyper-focusing, perfecting admirable study skills. I would go on to receive stellar grades in high school and college. However, I would never forget the more formative years of my education.

I tell Dr. V. how I started really feeling "smart" as opposed to "dumb" in 4th grade, but I always had to work extra hard, studying over weekends and late at night. It seemed back then that I was pigeonholed despite my progress and "stuck" in the lowest track until I went to high school. There, I suddenly found myself in the more advanced classes. In elementary school, my math grades had pulled me down so much that none of the teachers recognized my progress in other areas. While I enjoyed creative writing, my sixth grade Language Arts teacher crushed a few dreams for me when she split us up into writing groups, having peers review each other's writing. Because I was not among the popular set, I didn't fare well in that group. The teacher told me to toughen my skin and learn to handle critiques without explanations from my popular peers (i.e. "Your story sucked.").

VanBergeijk says he can not stress enough how educators need to "teach to the strength" of the student. Teachers need to empower students with confidence rather than creating an environment of "learned helplessness" by placing the majority of the emphasis on "weaknesses" and "fixing problems." When I speak to numerous individuals who had elementary school experiences like my own, we remember how teachers honed in on our weakness rather than on our strengths, how they looked the other way when we expressed frustration or observed us wryly on the recess playgrounds. We all have a few things in common: We became fixated on fixing what was "wrong" with us. The majority of us discovered our hidden talents in our teens -- or 20s!

"There was one teacher who really believed in me and stated that she expected more from me when I was feeling turned off to school because of all I'd been through," Donna says, "Until that point, I had never heard those words from a teacher and it motivated me to succeed because I knew it was true."

I too had that one teacher who believed in me. Yes, she knew about my earlier psychological and intelligence tests and she wasn't going to let the diagnoses of "attention focusing problems" and "cognitive deficits in visual-spatial orientation" get in the way of talent, depth, introspection and possibility...

When PL 94-142 was passed a year after my birth, 1975, there was a greater need to classify students than ever before, a "scramble" as Dr. Barry Birnbaum of Walden University, puts it to qualify students for special education. VanBergeijk believes this may have led to over-labeling and mislabeling. Another reality of this time: We still had all different types of teachers in "regular" classrooms across the country, some with old- fashioned notions about students with learning difficulties. While many were opening their minds to a new way of teaching and dealing with their students, others were comfortably set in a more rigorous approach, trying to "fix" wrongs rather than -- as VanBergeijk words it -- "teaching to the strengths" of the child. While some would undergo sensitivity training in the 1980s, I don't have to tell you that sensitivity was not a prerequisite for teaching in numerous schools at the time.

"When the kids ask me what reading group they're in, 'Am I in the highest? Am I in the lowest?' I tell them 'You're in a group that's right for you,'" said my son's second grade teacher. I decided she is among the best in the world. "No one knows what level they're in and they stop asking." I won't tell you which reading group my son was in, but I will say that he was confident in his reading abilities. He was also extremely happy in her class. Knowing that elementary school memories can stay with you for life, I'm hopeful that his experience can be repeated.

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