“Argue for your limitations, and they are yours.” Richard Bach, Illusions
Helen Keller was a blind, deaf, mute little girl who acted like a wild thing at the table, and could do nothing to care for herself. Her parents hired Annie Sullivan to teach Helen to dress and feed herself properly. What if Annie Sullivan had followed Helen Keller’s parents’ instructions to the letter, and only taught her those two skills? If she could learn to eat properly at the table, and dress herself, well – wow! What an accomplishment!
But Annie Sullivan saw, behind the blind eyes, an active mind full of potential, and we know about Helen Keller today because Annie Sullivan did not see Helen’s limitations as insurmountable obstacles. She saw them as challenges that could be overcome to reach a goal far beyond dressing and eating. The saying “obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal” is appropriate here, because Annie didn’t look at the obstacles. She looked at the goal – to give Helen vision through learning, to broaden Helen’s life, so she would not live in empty darkness.
Christy Brown could not walk or talk. He had cerebral palsy; the only part of his body under his control was his left foot. Christy’s mother was always encouraging, but his father was not. However, when Christy was ten he used his foot and a piece of chalk to write the word “Mother” on the floor. Observing this, his father, too, became a strong supporter. Through one severe hardship after another, Christy and his family survived; when his mother finally saved enough to get him a wheelchair, Christy was able to go to a school for cerebral palsy patients. Christy had already begun to paint with his left foot, and Dr. Eileen Cole persuaded a friend to hold an exhibition of Christy’s paintings. Eventually Christy wrote a book: My Left Foot, in which he describes his life’s struggles and his art; the book became a film.
When Ruben Rios, a former student of mine, reconnected with me on Facebook, we had a couple of message exchanges. Another former student wrote to say, “Ask him about his paintings, Miss Rubin.” So I asked, and he sent me some pictures that were very impressive. I wanted to know if he was in any galleries, or showing anywhere. He wrote back, “I am a member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists.”
“Okay,” I wrote back, “time for e-mail and a longer explanation.”
Ruben and some friends were en route to a high school dance in his senior year when words were exchanged with men in another car at a stoplight. Ruben and a young man from the other car got out of the cars; the young man fired a shot. The bullet went through Ruben’s neck, severely damaging his spinal cord; he was paralyzed from the neck down. He spent months in rehab and recovery. He was taught to use a mouth stick, very much encouraged by his mother, and later began painting with a paintbrush. Ruben has been able to support himself through his art, and believes that “…everyone can share something they have learned to help someone else.” You can go to this web site: http://www.mfpausa.com/ and look up Ruben Rios to see his work. He is also associated with the Christopher Reeve Foundation, and has done art work for them. As I write this blog Ruben is very ill and in a coma. All of his friends are praying for him, and hoping that things turn out well for him.
The title of this blog is “I Can’t” – but from the examples I’ve used, it’s pretty obvious that I just don’t put a lot of stock in those words. There is no question that the three people mentioned above had every reason in the world to say, “I can’t.” But each of them, with the support of those who loved them and believed in them, showed that their limitations could be overcome.
Most of the limitations we believe about ourselves or others are simply untrue. Yet we manage somehow to trap ourselves, telling ourselves that we can’t do things. There are so many ways we manage to stifle potential – not just our own, but others’ as well. And it often seems that the people who have not succeeded themselves are frequently the ones who want to convince others that they won’t succeed either.
Now, before I go any further, let me be clear: I am a realist. I would not expect or encourage Christy Brown to head for stardom as a basketball player. But I also would not say that he should just sit in his chair and do nothing, because he was too handicapped. I believe in the power of spirit, and spirit trumps matter every time.
As a new teacher I was very conscious of the fact that a lot of people simply wrote off many of the students who were not successful academically. But there was an administrator in that school who was a shining example, because she believed that all the students could learn, and I believed it, too.
In my first year at Decatur Junior High School in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, I was assigned to classes 6-1, 6-2, 6-5, 6-6, and 6-8. The higher the number, the lower the academic achievement in that subject. I taught English, which was mostly reading and writing. 1
Class 6-8 was my biggest challenge, and I wanted to let them know from the beginning that they were not going to be doing a bunch of busy work, copying out stuff to put into an exercise book. And I wanted them to believe in themselves. So I talked to them about one of my favorite people in history – Helen Keller.
I told the class about her being deaf and blind, and why that meant that she was unable to speak. And, after talking to them about how difficult things would be for her, I told them about Annie Sullivan, her teacher, and a hero of mine. They learned that Helen Keller, in spite of all her inabilities, ended up writing, speaking, and being an example of how much could be accomplished if someone did not look at how hard something was, but instead focused on a goal.
I told them that in my class, they could say, “This is really hard,” or “I don’t understand this” or “I’m having a lot of trouble, Miss Rubin.” The only thing they could not say: “I can’t.”
My final words in my little speech – which I used again and again over the years in many classes – were these: If a girl who can’t see, can’t hear and can’t speak can graduate first in her class at the top woman’s college in America, there is nothing I will ask you to do in this class that you cannot do. And the most important thing was, I believed it.
Now, over the years I have seen a bazillion ways in which we give children excuses for why they cannot learn. The alphabetical “ailments” abound. “ADD” is just the beginning. There are many challenges young people might face, but the biggest challenge to them – and their teachers – is to overcome the enabling that happens when we label them with all sorts of disabilities. While the school districts get money for these “disabled” students, the students themselves are robbed of the belief that they can succeed. They become crippled by an “ailment” which becomes fostered by the very people who are there to teach, to encourage, to demand of them their very best. Their “ailment” might be a reason why things could be more difficult for them, but it should not excuse them – or the schools – from doing their best.
What is also sad is that frequently the “disability” is used to explain why they’re not learning, and the attitude of many educators is the equivalent of accepting Annie Sullivan’s teaching Helen Keller to dress and feed herself, and nothing more. After all, if you can teach them just a little you’ve done a great job. And I say poppycock!
Difficulties are not an excuse. They do not excuse you from doing the best you can, or from excusing your students from producing their best. The moment I give a child a grade just for putting his name on the paper, what I am saying is: “I know you can’t do any better than this.” Which essentially says he’s a loser who can’t accomplish anything. And that is wrong, wrong, wrong.
When I began teaching drama, the same rule applied: “Do Not Say ‘Can’t’ “. One of my students had a brain tumor; she went to St. Jude’s every three months to have it drained. Another student in another class, another year, had just wakened from six months in an unexplainable coma. She woke, and was re-learning how to walk, talk, use her lungs. Both of these young ladies did the work, learned lines, and did the best they could – which was actually quite good. But the most important thing is that they walked out of the class knowing that they could hold their own, and were not pitied for their difficulties, but encouraged to rise above them. So they really knew, when they finished, that they had truly accomplished something. (Think about how you might have felt as a child when you beat someone in a game, and then overheard the person telling someone else that they let you win. There goes your sense of accomplishment, and maybe even your belief in yourself.)
I think the trend towards giving young people excuses for why they can’t accomplish things has been dangerous and demoralizing. In effect, it’s telling them they can’t, even before they start. They might seem at first to feel pretty cool about getting out of work, or not being too challenged, but I believe with all my heart that behind all the attempts to avoid work are children who want to be challenged, to meet the mark, and say, “I did it!” This, and not trophies or grades, is what helps them to earn self-esteem and believe in their potential for future success.
Parents as well as teachers need to take heed, and not accept the idea that a child cannot succeed. I actually once heard someone say, about her teenage daughter, “This is who she is. She’s ADD.” Notice – the child no longer was even described as having ADD. The child was ADD. Which then also became the excuse for her outrageous obesity, also encouraged by mother, who liked to eat.
It isn’t just the schools who are responsible; parents have to encourage, and help their child to see their abilities. This takes love, caring, patience, attention and belief in the child. It takes kindness, compassion, and a steel-like intention to help a child succeed. Not easy, but do-able.
Our educational system is severely out of whack. We need to focus on abilities at all levels, high and low, and make sure all students can succeed to the best of their ability. But that means not short-changing them by dropping expectations when someone labels them with an alphabetical mishmash. Back to my original point – do we just want to teach Helen how to dress and eat, or do we want to open her mind to the world?
1. A note here. This was a time, in the 1960′s, when classes (at least in NYC) were all grouped according to ability. This is called “tracking.” At some point it was decided that this arrangement hurt students’ self-esteem, because they felt bad being in the slow (“dummy”) classes. So then we came to heterogenous grouping, where high-, middle- and low-achieving students were all in the same class. How exciting. Imagine how much “self-esteem” a child will have when most of the students know the answers, and he sits there confused and embarrassed. And imagine how challenging it is for a teacher to have to teach to several different learning styles and three or more ability levels. At least in homogeneous grouping all the students are at about the same level, and a good teacher can bring them all along together, and raise their abilities, which, incidentally, – surprise, surprise – raises their self-esteem. And note – a GOOD teacher means someone who believes the students can learn, and who knows how to teach.
I loved my “slower” classes, because when they learned something they lit up. They were so impressed with what they learned, and they came to realize that the more they learned, the more they could learn. Some of them weren’t slow at all, they were just behind a bit, maybe due to illness, parental neglect, or simply poor eyesight. When they got to a certain point in their learning, where they were starting to accelerate at a fairly good clip, they could transfer into a higher class. I was so full of joy for them I could hardly contain it. Okay, this was supposed to be a note, and it’s getting to be another blog. Enough!