September 23rd, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Homework Wars: The Inevitable Sequel

A week ago, in response to an article about the lack of any evidence that grade school students derive any benefit from homework, I told the story of "Brad and the Homework Wars." My parents had dug in their heals and refused to give in to the school's demand that they nag me about my homework until I'd been tested. The resulting test ended up showing the school that the "profoundly retarded" kid sitting in the back of the 2nd grade classroom who couldn't read from the board, couldn't speak a coherent sentence, and who had not successfully completed a single homework assignment in his whole two years of school had, through reading two daily newspapers every day for more than two years, picked up the equivalent of a complete high school education. (A better education than anybody ever got from that district, at that.) When I told the story, I related it in the context of the "pass" on homework that I got from those tests for the next several years. fluffydragon, though, wanted to know how the school reacted, and if I got to skip any grades.

I didn't ignore you, Fluffydragon. It's just that the answer is more interesting than you might have guessed, and warranted its own journal entry. And in fact, in hindsight, I'm astonished that I haven't already told this part of the story. It's an essential part of my life story; nearly all of my in-person friends know it.

See, here's the deal: what may seem to you like the obvious solution simply wasn't available. In 1967, the Hazelwood School District did not have a Gifted Education program. Nor did they want one, and not for the (inappropriate and inadequate) race-related reasons that are most often given today. No, in 1967 the administration of the Hazelwood School District believed very much in an educational theory that held that children learn best if they form, in early childhood, a bond with each other, if each class thinks of itself as a team. To that end, they flatly refused to flunk any student and hold them back. Well, that's not true ... in my whole 6 years in Twillman Elementary, they held back one student ... for levels of violence that frankly should have had him sent rather permanently to jail. (Not only is he the one who's responsible for my false front teeth, he also assaulted several teachers. With weapons. At age 8. I tend to reserve the phrase "bad kid" for kids as bad as he was; I learned high standards for the phrase "bad kid" in Hazelwood.) They also did everything the courts would let them get away with to eliminate full-day Special Education; it basically took a court order to get a kid into any program other than a morning-only program intended to somehow mainstream the kids back into their age-peers' classroom the same day that they were admitted. And if that's the provision they made for special needs kids, what do you think they offered the gifted kids? Answer: they attempted to cure them. The educational theory prevailing at the time held that being ahead of your fellow students was a form of learning disability. It marked you as an "overachiever," and it was perceived to be the goal of the school to teach you to function at the same level as your normal peers.

So no, while it's probably the first thing those of you younger than me thought of, the option of putting me into a gifted education program was not on the table. Nor was it within the reach of my family's budget to move me to a private school with a gifted program or even a more challenging regular program; Beth and I didn't even get winter coats some years. Nor, with my grades and disciplinary record, was a scholarship to such a school ever going to be in the offing. No, there really were only two choices on the table: advance me as fast as humanly possible to the grade indicated by those achievement tests, or keep me with the other kids my own age. To be precise, the only alternative other than the regular program that was offered to my parents was this: I would finish out my 2nd year with the 6th graders. I would then skip 7th and go straight to 8th grade. I would then skip 9th, and go straight to 10th grade, the grade indicated by my weakest (math) scores. I would enter high school (assuming I kept up) at (if I'm doing the arithmetic right here) age 10 and graduate at age 12. This raised several potential serious problems, the least of which is, "and then do what?" What college was going to admit a 12 year old? What job could legally hire one? What was I going to do after that, sit in my bedroom and read until I became eligible for college 5 or 6 years later? But more importantly, my parents asked the school district officials what exactly they could offer in the way of a guarantee that a 10 year old with emotional and communication problems, no matter how gifted, would be physically safe in a crowded school full of "normal" high school students? (The actual answer is, "safer than I ended up being when I was their age; the monthly riots didn't start until the year after I would have graduated. But no one could have known that yet.)

For the first time in my life my parents made a major decision regarding my future without consulting me. For one thing, they didn't have to ask my opinion to know what I would pick, and they were right. When I found out the choice had been offered, I wanted to have skipped the six years of school; anything to get out of that bureaucratic hell on earth and away from my uniformly malevolently awful classmates. They simply decided that no 7 year old, however smart and well read, was equipped to analyze the risk factors involved. But, the Man of Concrete told me, they ultimately decided that even the physical risk wasn't the most relevant factor in the decision. As he told the school after making his decision (and later told me), "He has to learn to get along with people stupider than him sooner or later. Better to start now, when the stakes are lower."

And to this day, I honestly can not tell you if he, if they, made the right decision or not. I can, however, dispose of two of their primary reasons. In 1967, the name "Asperger" was known only to a handful of people who'd studied the history of autism, and Dr. Asperger's theory that there were many different degrees of autism had long been dismissed as medically impossible, as quack science; the evidence to the contrary didn't receive widespread acceptance for more than 15 years after that. It would never have occurred to my parents or to the school that I was physiologically incapable of understanding what it would take for me to get along with the other kids. They all assumed that I knew how normal people act, and that eventually the twin incentives of ending the harassment from teachers and ending the daily beatings from my classmates would be sufficient to cure me of my disinclination to act normal. And whatever threats I would have faced as a 10 year old high school student, my behavior would have been judged by a different standard. Prodigies of that level are expected to be weird. Nor was Hazelwood Central anywhere near the dangerous place, in 1970, that Kirby Junior High became in 1972. Whatever threats I faced, I at the very least would have faced one less gang murder attempt in my life if they'd advanced me. But that leaves the hard question for last: what, in 1972, could possibly have become of a 12 year old high school graduate? I can't see any happy ending to that story.
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