Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tornado Children: Reflection, Perspective, Introspection,. and Everything Else Accompanying Enforced Rest

Note: The term tornado children originated from an observation made about me by a classmate while our first-grade class was  reading together through the Weekly Reader.  On the cover of the particular edition of Weekly Reader was a picture of a tornado, along with a caption explaining the devastation typically accompanying  a tornado. The classmate, most likely with no malice intended and merely paraphrasing  what she had heard teachers and paraprofessionals say about me, commented, "The tornado is kind of like Alexis. It's really skinny and looks unraveled (she probably meant disheveled, but the word was not yet in her vocabulary), and everything around it is a mess." I recall the teacher trying to suppress a grin. I doubt the child has any memory of having made the remark, but I remember. I'll probably never forget it.

At the moment I have too much time on my hands. I can only read, as in a paper-with-print-on-it book or magazine, for two hours each day. Even my computer time is limited, and, other than skyping my classes, school work is  not what I am allowed to do while using my computer.  Thank the God of Liberal Arts that my major and most of my minor university course assignments have been completed and are in the bag.

The end result of forced convalescence is that I have entirely too much time on my hands and on my mind.  If idle hands are the work of the devil, an idle mind must be so to an even greater degree. After all, in the absence of a semi-automatic weapon or two or the ingredients required to assemble explosive devices, how much damage can two mere hands accomplish? The capacity of a truly deviate mind, however, is virtually limitless.  In the instance of my particular mind, though, it is not particularly deviate. I'm willing to create a bit of discomfiture or annoyance  for a person or group of people who, in my opinion, are truly deserving of such treatment, but on a grand scale, I would not or could not cause any sort of catastrophe or do anything that would result in genuine heartache for anyone. Hence the devil will need to find another idle  mind and set of idle hands to do his work. My present inability to be productive will instead  take the form of  critique of my education, and I'll try hard to avoid indulging in excessive self-pity.

Let me begin by stating unequivocally that I do not consider myself to be my decade's female version of Albert Einstein. Neither am I the younger non-criminal counterpart to any of the Texas inmates who were executed in spite of IQs considered too low by some to face such a fate. If I wish to be technical and perhaps a bit boastful, I can say with reasonable surety  that my intelligence quotient is much closer to that estimated to have been possessed by Einstein (who never actually took an IQ test) than those of the sub-normal Texas criminal element (my second SAT attempt resulted in a perfect score), but it's all neither really here nor there. An intelligence quotient is merely a number -- a person's mental age divided by his chronological age, then multiplied by one hundred -- and any number in isolation means little or nothing. What a person does with his or her supposed intellectual ability is the significance of the matter.  I'd rather be a supposed cretin by IQ standards who accomplished something productive in the world than be a member of MENSA who did nothing but to rest on his laurels and boast of his high IQ while devising brain-teasers designed to make the rest of the world look and feel inferior.

Were it not for my parents, I would have spent the first six years of my educational career believing that I was somewhere between sub-average and stupid.  My handwriting was barely legible, much less beautiful. If I worked extremely slowly and carefully, I could color inside the lines, but the end result still was not what any teacher would call "pretty." The "smart" children were the ones whose printing and later cursive looked as though it was suitable to be engraved on copper plate. Their drawings were neat and carefully done. Their coloring was not just inside the lines, but all  strokes of the crayon or colored pencil were parallel.  They cut precisely on the lines, where my incisions may have been a good quarter of an inch from the target markings.

No teacher ever actually told me in so many words that I was stupid, but the words "sloppy" and "messy"  were used to and about me freely, almost as though they were part of my name, and practically as epithets.  "You're sloppy, Alexis," I recall one teacher's aide saying to me as she looked over the long division paper I had completed and handed to her in third grade. She said it with a tone more appropriately reserved for a message such as,  "You just fed my dog a chicken bone and killed him, Alexis!" (I had scratched out an answer rather than erased it because the prior number had been illegible, and I couldn't have erased the original number because I had chewed the eraser off my only pencil.) It didn't matter to this teacher's aide that I was the only third grader in the class doing long division, or that, for that matter, that I hadn't needed to work the problem in written form to arrive at the answer in the first place; I could simply have looked at the problem and told her the answer or could have written just the answer without writing out all the calculations leading up to it. What mattered was that my work, and, by extension, I,  was sloppy.

My handwriting, even at its very best, was never careful enough. Even if the letter formation and spacing were acceptable, the end product was too faint to be read with ease. My desk was always too cluttered. My maps, while containing all the essential physical and political and geographical features, were always either lettered in too messy a manner or colored far too haphazardly. My cutting was, in the immortal word of my second grade teacher, "atrocious."

While everything said by each of my teachers in grades kindergarten through five may have been absolutely on the mark, there were, at the same time, things I was doing right, about which they might occasionally have found cause to mention, but didn't. I read both orally and with comprehension many years above my chronological grade placement, and my math skills were commensurate with my reading skills. I missed exactly one word on a spelling test in my entire life. On the very first spelling test in first grade, I spelled the word girl  g-r-i-l. Missing this word so mortified me that I made it a point never again to make such an error.  My overall point here is that there were obvious positives on which to dwell, and my teachers would not have needed to scrape the barrel very deeply to have found something nice to have said about or to me on occasion. It was easier, apparently, to complain about the disastrous state of my written work and the abominable state of my desk and my backpack.  I was a tiny human tornado in the form of an elementary school girl.

All this time, my mom and dad were telling me I was intelligent, but I wasn't sure whether or not to believe them, or if that was just something all parents were required to tell their offspring.  I knew that the more struggling students in our grade level were still working on the most basic concepts of reading, which I had mastered before preschool, and in fifth grade some students were still haggling with the more rudimentary concepts of addition and subtraction, while even my brother Matthew, who was not quite Sir Isaac Newton, had mastered multiplication facts years earlier. Still, I wasn't quite convinced that my delayed fine motor skill development didn't place me, overall, in the sub-average cognitive range.

Then came sixth grade and Mr. Thatcher. Mr. Thatcher's idea of acceptable handwriting was anything he could read.  He did, on occasion, compliment someone for pretty handwriting, particularly  if the handwriting was from  a child for whom praise wasn't likely to come in  another curricular area. The maps and graphs that looked the nicest, and that had the technical elements in place as well,  were those that were posted on the bulletin board, along with the essays well-written in thought and technical accuracy (though not necessarily in penmanship) and exams receiving the highest scores, though it may have taken the practiced eyes of Mr. Thatcher to decipher those correct answers.

Where in previous years' Open House Nights, my parents typically moved from wall to wall looking in vain for even a single piece of my work, During Open House Night the year I was in Mr. Thatcher's class, my best work was featured at least as prominently as was the work of any other child in the class.  For once, my parents did not have to leave the room in shame, all the while trying to console me that things were better than they seemed and that my teachers'
disregard for my work was not personal, nor was it, as they knew, due to carelessness or a lack of effort of my part,  Mr. Thatcher praised innovative  ideas and not just papers in which all the coloring strokes were parallel. Even where artistic skills were involved, he placed greater recognition on unique drawings or other works of art than on a student's ability to color within the lines of someone else's artistic creation. Furthermore, he introduced a keyboarding program to us, and gave extra computer time to those whose handwriting skills were such that we would benefit the most from the ability to express our ideas in print as opposed to having to rely on the handwriting that our mediocre-at-best fine motor skills would allow us to produce. Under Mr Thatcher's gentle means of sculpting souls*, I began to believe that my cognitive abilities might not necessarily range between sub-average and stupid.  And, even more important,  my performance in school and my confidence in mastering all things academic  improved with each succeeding year.  All it took for me was a single teacher who could see beyond letter-perfect penmanship and the ability to color within the lines to bring about the transformation.

Joe Wright, an online semi-acquaintance of mine whose blog I read and with whom I have occasionally corresponded through comments, writes A Different Kind of Beautiful: Reflections of a School Band Director, in which he thoughtfully addresses many aspects of directing school bands. A parent himself, Mr. Wright recently wrote about how, in general, being a parent greatly altered his perspective as a band director and how, in particular, as his own child approaches the ages of the band students he teaches and directs, this is all the more so. In a comment that hit especially close to home for me, he wrote of a little girl who plays the saxophone, who comes in late almost daily because it takes her longer than most to change from her P. E. clothing back into her school clothing, and who needs to be reminded before almost every song to look at the key signature, is someone's child and is the the light of that parent's or of those parents' lives. (Although I may not have needed to be reminded of  key signatures, in every other respect that child is practically  the same little tornado of a girl as I had been.)   The child deserves to have her teachers remember this each day into which they come into contact with her, and she deserves  to be treated as the precious child she is. This is not to say that the child should never be reprimanded, but rather that the child as a whole, the potential fragility of the child's emotional state, and the importance she holds [or should hold] in the life of at least one adult should be considered at all times.

I was one of the lucky little tornado children. In spite of my somewhat discouraging early childhood education, I made it through high school and will likewise get thought university and the post-graduate program of my choice. Unfortunately, not all students are so lucky. Not every child has parents telling the child that he or she is intelligent. While I might have been skeptical, still it was nice to hear, and was far better than had my parents echoed what my early childhood teachers were telling me at school each day. And further in my parents' defense, I'm not at all sure they had any idea of the negativity I faced on a daily basis at school. I never thought to mention it because, in my immature mind, I thought they might be angry and blame me.

Our schools need more Mr. Thatchers and Mr. Joe Wrights filling the available teaching slots. Teachers who understand that there is more to intelligence than coloring within lines and forming all letters perfectly with perfectly angled slants are entirely too rare.  Likewise, teachers of music and other subjects who recognize and celebrate  the whole child while teaching that child just one subject are teachers our system cannot afford to lose.

*Thanks for the words, Mr. Dan Fogelberg, and rest in peace.


  1. You may not know how lucky you are in having your parents. When I brought home my first high school honor roll report card my Dad wondered aloud how long I would keep that up. Unfortunately, I interpreted that as a mandate not to do so. I suspect I have never since used my intelligence to its full capacity. Although many people over the years have thanked me for sharing my insights with them, at age 65 I still have trouble believing I have anything of value to share with the world. So I encourage you to lap up your parents' praise and go right on doing well.

  2. *please let people understand and encourage my baby please please please*
    I love your parents.

  3. Thank you for the kind mention. It is heartwarming to read it! All the best.


  4. Linda, my parents and I have had our moments over the years, but I know how lucky I am to have been raised by them. Educationally speaking, and in most other respects as well, I know I could not have done better as far as parents are concerned. I'm so sorry for your experiences in this regard. No child deserves to be treated in such a manner. I'm glad you're slowly overcoming this totally unnecessary deficit.

    Amelia, there are many good teachers out there. If you have the luxury of sending G to a school where there is more than one class per grade level and you're as vigilant as I know you will be, the odds are greatly in her favor. And . . . I'm adding this knowing I'll anger many people among my three or so regular readers . . . avoid Catholic schools if only for the small number of classes per grade level and for the administration's inflexibility in placing children in classrooms according to parents' wishes. While Catholic schools have a remarkable record of producing a quality education for a child on a shoestring budget, diversity (other than in an ethnic sense; they have a track record of handling ethic diversity decently) is not something they readily accept. Part of their success is their cookie-cutter model of education. Homogeneity of the group is what allows them to move along at a steady pace without worrying a great deal about individual children's needs. Additionally, in terms of the quality of teaching in Catholic schools, they may not have the very worst of teachers because they can fire teachers at will without going through the due process to which public schools are bound. They may have a very few teachers who are legitimately talented at what they do and are caring individuals as well who choose to teach in a Catholic school system either out of religious devotion or because they're tired of the hoops through which public school teachers are forced to jump. The vast majority of Catholic school teachers, however, are there because they would find it difficult to impossible to be hired by their local public school distrocts. (These teachers may say otherwise, and that their religious devotion is what keeps them in the parochial system, but just watch what happens when class size reduction or a similar phenomenon resulting in a shortage of teachers and a demand for new hires hits the local public school systems. Those "dedicated" Catholic school teachers update their resumes and get the hell out of their former Catholic schools much as rats desert sinking ships. This is, of course a generalization, but is one that, like most generalizations, is generally true, hence the term "generalization."

    Be as vigilant and involved as I know you will be and your child will be treated well and educated well.

    Iknow I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but I still like saying it because it is something about which I feel most strongly.

    Mr. Wright, I'm not quite sure how "Wilson" got stuck in my brain as your surname, but I think I have it straight now. I agree that Wilson is a good name, but so is Wright.

    P.S. In addition to being a piano major in conjunction with pre-law and pre-med (the piano major is to pad my med school application, but I thoroughly enjoy every minute of it), I'm a low brass player and damned proud of it.

  5. Every conversation any teacher initiates with a parent should start with a positive and vice versa. Again a beautiful writing and a wealth of maturity in acknowledging your parents advocating for you. Thanks for sending it to me and I just may pass it along to some of my listeners, both educators and parents, who need to be reminded of the importance of speaking the language of positives.