I learned to read at an early age, however I couldn’t read out loud, I was too nervous, and the words came out in the wrong order. In first grade I was relegated to the dumb circle, with slow readers still sounding out words.
Back in those days we sat in three circles. First was the smart circle where they read big books, had special projects and all had very short pencils, presumably from sharpening them so much, and virtually unused erasers, still flat on top like the day they were made. The next circle was the biggest, it had the regular kids. They read regular books, had medium length pencils with slightly used erasers, rounded on the top, but plenty of rubber left. The last circle was the dummy circle, where we read very short books, and did flash cards, our pencils the longest with the shortest erasers, some scrubbed down to the metal.
Still not progressing and because of a slight speech impediment, minor dyslexia and an intense shyness I was tagged a slow learner and sent to a different class. You would see those kids at lunch at their own table. There was one kid who had hydro encephalitis with a giant watermelon sized head, some mean looking kids with close set eyes and a kid with short arms. The rest were normal looking, but apparently slow learners, like me.
In those days special education was in its infancy and it was mostly just a separate classroom where you sat around drawing a lot, segregated from the rest if school, you were expected to be dumb. the school had only one expectation, just keep them occupied.
When my mother found out where I spent my days she rushed down to the school and had it out with the principal.
Reluctantly they let me back in the regular class, I guess you could say I was cured, but the stigma of being in special ed followed.
Later in life I learned of the Pygmalion effect, where people want to be able to predict outcomes when they interact with people, so they make early assumptions then twist reality until you fit their expectation, sometimes that’s a positive thing like in ‘my fair lady,’ mostly it’s not.
My teachers, being professional educators, wanted to be able to quickly predict; the smart kids, who will be easy and make them look smart by association, the normal kids, where most of their effort will be, and the dumb ones who would take all the time if you let them, and still never get it.
Teaching is a zero sum game, there is only so many hours in the day, so many days in the school year. It was best to predict the dumb kids who weren’t worth the effort, so they pointed out early so as to not have it reflect badly on their teaching skill, when you put in minimal effort.
Once decided, teachers wanted each kid to behave as they predicted. If a child didn’t match their early prediction it attacked their self worth, eroded their self confidence. If a predicted ‘good’ kid slipped, they showed some extra care to pull them up to expectation, but they could easily let them slide to the average group where they spent most of their time, all was good.
But if they predicted you to be dumb, then you better stay dumb because they said so. If you weren’t dumb, that meant they were wrong, and if they were wrong about you, then they may have been wrong about every kid in the dumb group.
It goes deeper than that, it can even call into question the teachers ability to shape young kids minds. If a dumb kid miraculously got smart without their help, why were they even there?
Teachers don’t like to be proven wrong by their students, so they do what’s needed to be right.
…to this day I get a thrill when I defy expectation, a little dig back at those small minded teachers who saw me as less than…
Still in the dumb circle, still unable to read aloud, I watched as the smart circle read actual books and got praise when they confidently read long passages aloud. I watched when the dumb circle struggled with short sentences and words, watched as the other kids, following the master plan to impose order, snickered and elbowed each other self righteously, watched as the teacher frowned not at the other kids, but at the struggling reader. It worked, dumb stayed dumb, smart stayed smart, all as expected, anything to keep order.
When we had quiet time we were allowed to read any book from the class, I discovered there were more books than dumb ‘Dick and Jane,’ books that took me to the moon, to the jungles of dark Africa, to middle earth. While the other kids napped I explored.
One day I discovered the teachers editions. Those were the books with all the answers written in red. Funny, I thought they knew it all, yet there it was a view behind the curtain, a sham. I realized right then that teachers didn’t know it all, and adversarial relationship with all teachers began at that moment of realization. Knowing they were just reading the answers out of the teachers book, I no longer believed they were the smartest in class
It didn’t take long before I figured that if they were just reading the answers, why did they know anything at all, I could read the answers. How could they put me in the dumb class? I could read as good as the smart kids, as good as the teachers. Just because I couldn’t read a dumb three sentence book out loud? The sentences didn’t even make sense. ‘Run, spot run!?!?’
It took many years but I eventually worked my way out of the dumb class, junior high helped, that’s when we stopped having just one teacher, instead rotating between classes. Many teachers meant that they all had many students, many students meant being less vested in predicting the potential of one individual student, and they didn’t even try. The former dumb student could disappear in plain sight, becoming just answers on a page.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but those early days in special ed and the dumb circle were all just a part of the beginning of me being Mr Perfect.
©The Autobiography of Mr. Perfect, 2013, written entirely on my iPhone.