The Story of Nata

The first thing I remember about meeting Nata is when our principal asked me if he could take World Cultures with me since he and his regular teacher, weren't getting along; (the reason for this is that, though not the ringleader, he was involved in stealing her car last year, joy riding with some of his friends and then abandoning it about a mile from campus). 

When he came into the room it was March or April. I had no idea what he could do academically so I asked him to look at Hispanics in American History (a workbook used at the junior high level in our district with reading and writing on each page) to see if he could read it. He said "yes," but when I went to check, much of what was done was wrong or incomplete. Also, his handwriting was very awkward, slanting in many different directions at once and a combination of print and cursive. 

I really didn't know what to make of him--he's a very handsome 16 year old from El Salvador with a beautiful smile, who seems to deal with mechanical things magically: he was able to hook up my telephone answering machine, set the time, make a message and check it quickly and efficiently. He seemed to be incredibly bright and really listens well. Whenever we talk, he remembers every little thing and reminds me saying, "I thought you said..."; he also asks a lot of really good questions. He's quite adept at using computers, and, as I was soon to find out, he's also very good with a video camera; he became our high school's "official" photographer and recorded the senior prom and graduation, and did a great job, too. I wondered why a young man of his age--16 going to be 17 in June--was in the 9th grade and failing most classes.

Once we became better acquainted I asked him if he would write down his school history, and he did, though very simplistically. He used a vocabulary that was devoid of any "big" words, and he used only very simple sentences. By reading his narrative I learned that he moved around a lot during his junior high years, changing schools mainly because of fights, and it was only because of a caring "padre" from a local church, that he was even in school today. It's sad that this man who made such an impact on him was transferred to Los Angeles.

Little by little, Nata became more and more a part of our Learning Center, (I am the high school's Resource Specialist and work with students labeled "Learning Disabled." I run a Learning Center, which is in the old school library. The shelves are lined with thousands of books I've purchased over the years, the tables have green tops and the chairs are made of oak--don't ask how I managed to find them!--and there are lots of computers for word processing which are available to anyone who needs to use them); pretty soon he stopped going to his other classes. In a sense, it didn't matter since he was failing most of them anyway--except for the one he attended--and began asking for assignments from me. Soon thereafter, he asked me how students got into my program and I tried to explain it to him.

This is hard to do because there's such a lot of humiliation involved for the "victims," but I said I'd try, and this is pretty much what I told him. 

What often happens is a fairly predictable sequence: 

*a child starts to fail and fall behind in school; this can goes on for many years; 

*frequently the child is told he (or she, though the vast majority of these cases are male) is lazy and just needs to try harder; 

*he becomes a behavior problem and may even start to cut classes, and get "F's" on his report card,

*then someone says something--a parent complains or a teacher brings up the student's name at a staff meeting, or the principal gets frustrated because the student gets too many referrals or may even do something that requires suspension--and

*then the Student Study Team is supposed to have a meeting and see what's going on. 

Because our school is so small (only 100 students), after a consultation with the teacher and parent and the principal, and a look at the CUM folder, which has all of that student's school records, a decision is often made to test the student to see if perhaps there's a learning disability.

Of course I have my own theory about the kind of behavior I've just described; I think it's what Herb Kohl describes in his book: I Won't Learn from You, and other ideas of creative maladjustment. I believe that children have few avenues open to them if they don't like the school they're in, and any action other than refusing to attend involves some form of civil disobedience. For most of us, schools are hard places to be; they are full of rules that we don't like to follow or enforce--the "we" excludes those administrators who love being in a position of authority. Sure, their trains run on time, but where are they taking the children?

The options for civil disobedience include not learning, not completing assignments, copying, lying, being disruptive, cutting class, etc. In addition to the general feeling of distaste for school that many of us have, children who are not part of the "mainstream"--i.e., not white middle class--have an additional burden. They are often invisible or demeaned and dismissed. Just look through any school book--not any book in a room, but those on the "approved" lists--and count how many women, gays and lesbians, Moslems, disabled, Native Americans, eyeglass wearers, people of color, young people, non-European immigrants or workers are featured, or even visible! We might as well advertise: "If you're on the above list, we don't want you, see you, value you or care about you!"

One way for me to contradict the inevitable feeling of hopelessness and impotence is to pay a lot of non-stop attention to my students. I call them at home, I go over to them at their seats, I am physical with them, and always put my hand on their shoulders when working with them, I call their parents and say wonderful things about them, I tear out any articles from newspapers which might have any bearing on their lives, I bring in books I've bought and people I've met, including celebrities, to hang out with them and show them that they ARE important. Inevitably, there's a change, but depending upon the amount of damage, how long it's been there, and what the student's current life looks like, this can take a long time. The trick though, is to outlast them, and I do. I can easily wait years and years, and they know it, because they stay in touch, even those who leave our school, come back to ask me for a recommendation to college. Now, back to Nata...

I tell Nata there are three kinds of tests that are used to determine if a student has a "learning disability": 

*first, the psychologist will test you just to be sure that your intelligence is intact--that you think well, which you know you do; and 

* then, I will give you some tests to see how well you do in school subjects like reading, writing, spelling and math. Of course, if you're being referred to this program, you won't do well on whichever of these tests give you problems; and 

*finally, the psychologist and I will give you some tests to see how you process information, so we can find out where there is a problem. (processing means what your brain does with what it sees and hears before it responds.)

Assuming your intelligence to be as good as mine or anyone else who's walking around the streets--and we know yours is--schools think you should be able to do the work you're assigned, and move from grade to grade, passing all of your classes; however, if you can't, and if we can show that the reason seems to be that you have difficulty processing information--taking the information in and thinking about it and then responding--then we'd say you had a "learning disability" and you would qualify for the program. We would then modify your assignments so you could do well in school because the law says it's not fair to penalize you for your disability. It's kind of like allowing a blind person to use a tape recorder or Braille. We don't punish them or say, "Because you're blind we won't help you." The opposite--we do everything we can to help you access information and get out your thinking so that others can respond to it.

If you look at the students in the Learning Center, you have seen that each of them is very smart, but you also have noticed that each of them has some challenge--some area that's a struggle for them--and you probably also notice that I push them, that I encourage them to struggle, and that eventually, when they believe what I tell them, when they "get it" that they're really brilliant, then they need me less and less. So, Nata, that's how these students got to be in my program ...someone noticed that they were smart but that they weren't doing well in school and suggested that they be tested.

That's when he said he wanted to see if he had a "Learning Disability." I was somewhat surprised because I thought his "problems" had more to do with one of several other things:

* his language--he's from El Salvador and Spanish is his first language; in fact, I often use Spanish to be sure he understands me--

* his attendance--he was absent more often that he was present, and

* his attitude--he hung out with a group of students who were considered troublemakers by the rest of the staff. (Being in a room somewhat away from the rest of the campus has a side benefit: I often haven't heard the "gossip" about all of the students who are causing their teachers problems, and so have no reason to be prejudiced against them).

I explained that his mom would have to sign some papers giving me permission to test him. He asked me to talk with her and I did that very night. She came in the next day and, after hearing about the program, requested that he be tested.

The funny thing about this label is that it's invisible, so it's impossible to tell when someone has this "condition." Of course, in my humble opinion, there's really no such thing as a "learning disability" anyway, just a situation where some people have internalized the notion that they aren't smart, or that they can't learn math or a foreign language, or whatever. In fact, the more that teachers believe that they can't do something, (like learning to swim or dance or sing or use a computer), the more readily they are willing to accept that some of their students can't learn something either. Luckily, though I was unintentionally "harmed" by my parents, it wasn't in the area of my intelligence; they never gave me any hint that I wasn't smart, so I've never doubted my intellect nor that of my so called "special ed" kids.

Of course if schools would just help the students who needed help--and don't get me started on what I think the schools SHOULD be doing--whatever that entailed, there'd be no need for special education, no reason for students to first become humiliated and defeated before they were allowed to get some extra time on a test. What craziness! Did anyone ever snatch your morning paper before you were done? or turn off the shower in mid-stream, or tell you that you were spending too much time playing with your kids or with the dog? Then why tell school children that if they don't finish something in time they'll fail? Why do we need a system of winners and losers? and why is it that the winners are always related to the rulers? 

In fact, if the schools would just have more people who just wanted to support the kids, there'd be less money and paperwork--oh! the trees they use!--and less time wasted, and we could just spend our time being supportive and the kids could just spend their time learning.

Why do I say this? Because, after teaching labeled students for more than 30 years, in New York, California and Israel, I can tell you that far too many of these "LD" kids go on to complete college and have good lives for me to believe that test scores mean anything more than how much money their father makes. In fact, these "LD" students are totally indistinguishable from their peers, except that maybe, after years of being told they are brilliant and capable, and future leaders, they just may have more confidence than their peers.

Getting back to was a 16 year 10 month old immigrant youth with poor attendance and low academic skills who had dropped out of school in junior high, now asking me to see if perhaps the reason for all of his difficulties might not simply be that he had a processing problem. It seemed reasonable to me, so after his mom signed the papers, I contacted the psychologist and we began the assessment process. I also asked his mom to take him for a bilingual assessment at the district office. 

I alerted the teachers that we'd need to have Nata with us for testing; his English and Math teachers had already agreed that he could stay with me, I was teaching him World Cultures, and his first period teacher always complained that he was late and never did any work anyway, so he effectively moved into my room. By now it was May.

His work improved somewhat and I began to try giving him books to read. He discovered Gary Soto, a local author who is very popular and writes about growing up as a Latino--or is it Hispanic? I can't keep track of which term is more "pc" or who it is that I may be offending. I asked Nata to write what it was that he liked about these books, and he really did a good job; he wrote how the author described some people listening to the same music that his parents listened to. Now he was also doing some math in my room and I even got him to complete and turn in an assignment for his Science teacher, which pleased her because it was the first time he'd ever done that.

By now the testing was almost done, and the psychologist and I compared notes as we always do, so that our paperwork would match--(gotta keep those bureaucrats happy). I went to her and showed her my results and they were about what you'd expect: low academic scores across the board and the evidence of a processing problem. The way this was determined was fairly straightforward: he was give basically the same "test" four times: 

*first, a word or phrase is either said or held up on a card, then

*he was told to look at the card or listen to the word(s), wait, and

*after a few seconds, he was either find the word on the line among five options if he were being tested solely for auditory or visual memory, or asked to write it down on the page if he were being tested for auditory or visual memory combined with writing. 

It was no surprise to me that he got 100% correct on the tests of auditory and visual memory yet only about half right when asked to write down what he remembered. These results, combined with an "average" IQ and low academic scores would make him a shoo-in for the program, but the psychologist's results did not bode well for Nata: she found him to be "borderline," a euphemism for retarded, and nothing I could say would make her change her mind. Being "borderline" would not qualify him for the program, since there was no "discrepancy" between his achievement and his supposed "ability." 

I tried explaining that the district's own bilingual tests showed that he was more comfortable and knowledgeable in Spanish, so perhaps that explained his low scores, and I suggested that we use the district's Spanish assessor, but she disagreed, saying that he was so old, nearly 17, that he was a "lost cause," and that her results were probably true anyway. I also offered to use a procedure that I often use in private practice called the LPAD, an assessment of Learning Potential, so she could see that he clearly was NOT retarded, but she didn't agree to that either. I really was adamant that Nata was far from slow, and finally convinced her to look at her results again.

She finally found something--some sub-test--that allowed us to qualify him, but by this time much damage was done. Some of the staff at school had heard us disagreeing and two teachers said to me in anger that I had made the psychologist falsify scores just so I could get Nata into the program, and one even wrote a scathing attack on my professionalism. Even the principal, who really likes Nata and respects me, was totally confounded by the process, and didn't understand what we were arguing about and how he qualified for special education services. 

Actually, it is my strong belief that psychologists would do a lot more good in our district if they spent more time listening to our youngsters than testing them. It's obvious that the students are all bright, and should be treated accordingly. I can't tell you the number of times a student of mine with an IQ in the low 60's or with the words 'retarded' or 'borderline' in their files went on to graduate go on to college and have a great life. How dare we assume that these tests reveal any more than they do, which is simply how a frightened child performs on a "white middle class test" usually with a "white middle class" psychologist, who isn't interested in finding out how the child learns by actually trying to work with them, as in a DYNAMIC assessment; rather they are interested in a snapshot--rather than a video--of this young person, which could affect him or her for the rest of their lives!

Now back to Nata. OK, so we had the IEP meeting, all the while the psychologist worrying that the district could reverse the process because of his scores. Only one teacher came to the meeting, and that was his former English teacher who had given him an "F" for the year. 

We took him into the program and now he was "mine," so I proceeded to do as I always do. I told him to "come to school on time, take home books to read, watch PBS, do your homework, eat healthy foods, brush and floss your teeth, etc., etc." He actually did manage to pass my class and the other one that he liked, but failed the rest. Our school counselor arranged for him to take some Independent Study Summer School classes so that he'd start to accumulate credits and have a fighting chance to graduate before the age of 50. He went, along with three of my other Resource Specialist students. We thought this would be a better alternative than sending them to regular summer school where they'd be in a class of 20 or 30 with one teacher who probably wouldn't know how to help "special ed" kids. Here, all they had to do was the assignments we'd agreed upon and show them to the teacher once a week. 

I am proud to say that all four of them got "C" grades for REGULAR English and an "A's" in Citizenship--the teacher, who was really wonderful, told me that they were very well behaved. I was impressed. Nata got a "C" in the same regular English that he'd just failed! I was out of town, but he called the day I returned to share the good news with me, and told me that he was planning to get straight A's once we went back to school.

Since then, I've seen him a few times this summer, and I must say that he seems like a different person: he has a job in the city which he enjoys immensely, in a wonderful place that's very high tech and designed for young people; I think he's taking visitors on tours and explaining how cameras and computers work. But the biggest news, for me, is that he's now reading--and enjoying!!!--a book of mine, actually one of my favorites, The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano--not what anyone would have expected from a "borderline" teenager who failed most of his classes! I am so pleased. How dare the psychologist and those teachers think I manipulated the scores! If he's "borderline," (a euphemism for retarded) then so am I!

Update: January, 2000

Nata and another student of mine just finished (and passed) a class in "American Labor History" at our local Community College, and both have signed up for more classes this semester; two more Learning Disabled students are joining them. This is significant, because they are the only students at our school who are taking advantage of the concurrent enrollment policy. Nata is still reading Galeano and just recently showed me a poem in a book by Luis Rodriguez which is dedicated to Galeano. (He found it in a book he'd requested from our local library when he was looking for another book to read by Rodriguez who'd written Always Running/La Vida Loco). I'd say that this young man is on his way, and no thanks to standardized IQ tests!


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