“Lady,” the man said to the children’s mother, “would you mind calling the children to sit down with you? Children make me nervous.”
—“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor
I've known my best friend, Dwayne, since we were both 9th grade nerds, pencil-necked geeks, weenie-armed squids, droolers, wide receivers, punt returners, pud wads, fart wads, morons, rednecks, flamers, dweebs, hairballs, French horn players, screamers, third basemen, fish heads, butt heads, center fielders, debate team members, space cadets, spaz wads, lead-off batters, chorale singers, talent show winners, freaks, gimps, and advanced placement students.
I’ll tell him a snippet of a modern-day story from my schoolhouse.
The graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in Industrial Engineering will munch on that for a moment and then he’ll proclaim, “They’re just being lazy. That's gotta be it. They're lazy." Then he’ll tell me about his day. He had to drive to Birmingham, Alabama and back.
I believe he drives to other southern cities, too. Charlotte. Columbus. I know he goes to Macon from time to time. My best friend sells huge and expensive software systems to huge and expensive banks.
I can always tell he’s wondering why I have that dumb look on my face when he just solved the mystery of what a learning disability really is. Of course, he knows I think driving to Birmingham and back to make sales pitches to information technology decision makers seems pretty mysterious to me.
We’re talking in his nice kitchen with his wife, Azize, who’s Turkish-American, and a caring hostess. She asks if we boys would like an Irish whisky or a glass of wine while we chat.
I tell Azize to mix the two together and give it to me intravenously. But just because I’ve had a tough day at the ol’ office doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good day. Know what I mean?
My best friend’s an educated fellow, and he knows the power of information and how it can change decision maker’s minds. So one day he finally asked me what the kids actually had.
I told him they all have a diagnosis. That’s what he’s after. A real diagnosis from either a psychologist, a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, or a behaviorist, or maybe even a psychometrist. I told Dwayne we even have a full-time psychometrist on staff, up in the main office. I also told him some of kids really are lazy, just like anybody else. Just like you and me. In our own ways. We procrastinate. We brood and ponder until something gets done … or not.
He doesn’t argue the fact.
Then I answered Dwayne's question. I told him the kids might have bipolar disorder; dyslexia; attention deficit disorder; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; Tourette syndrome; dyscalculia; dysgraphia; dyspraxia; dysphasia; dyssemia in all of its forms; aphasia; auditory processing disorder; visual processing disorder; hyperactivity; over stimulation; low, or slow, functioning; eating disorders; self-injury disorders; fetal alcohol syndrome; obsessive-compulsive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; social anxiety disorder; Asperger’s disorder, school refusal; articulation disorders; receptive and expressive language disorders; nonverbal learning disability; disruptive behavior disorders, which include oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder; fragile X syndrome; Rett’s syndrome; and selective mutism. I told him it’s possible I could have a left a few more off of the list. I asked him did he know that bipolar disorder is now called in children … temper dysregulation with dysphoria?
My best friend did not know that bipolar disorder is now called in children temper dysregulation with dysphoria … and he’s a little amazed at the list, and amazed I know the list so well. I had to take a couple of breaths while reciting it, I admit. I make sure he knows these are good kids and they’re trying hard despite what their mind is telling them to do, over and over, and all day. Hyperactivity, I explain, ain’t a physical malady … it’s a biochemical malady that expresses itself mentally and physically. I tell him how Tourette syndrome expresses itself … that it involves more tics and twitches than shouting out cuss words and racial slurs. Bipolar disorder … and how it can rock your teacher’s world. Dyslexia. How it rocks the student’s life. The soul-deep mystery of selective mutism.
He says with me as a teacher he’s a whole lot more worried about them than me.
I don’t disagree. Then I tell him you’ve also got just plain old teenage defiance, learning disabilities or not. And I’d have to say my kids have developed bickering into a new and mesmerizing verbal art form of apocalyptic dimensions and possibilities.
My best friend says all that’s fascinating … but what’s it really like, after all the crazy jobs you’ve had in your life, to end up, at your old age, teaching kids with learning disabilities every day? He gives me an odd look and asks, Is it fun?