Blueberries, Batman, and Special Education

A former student of mine is now working on an education degree, and asked me to respond to some questions about students with disabilities and special education. With typical egoism, I thought perhaps my response would be of interest to others, so here it is. (A PDF version is also available.)

“Special education” classification is a tool. Like any tool, it is not inherently positive or negative — the moral value comes from how it’s used. (Some tools, like land mines, are almost never positive, while others, like breath mints, are almost never negative.)

I put special education in quote marks because it is, in some ways, an arbitrary distinction based on highly subjective factors. To wit: Its definition from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” If we removed the last three words here, no parent in the world would refuse the same for their own child. Every person is unique, and every child has unique needs. Unfortunately, the incredible demands on our school systems require less individual attention than students really need. Therefore not all children can receive “specially designed instruction [...] to meet [their] unique needs”. (Imagine if doctors had to help patients 30 at a time, the way teachers have to help students.)

As a result, our society believes that the best way to maximize the potential of our limited resources is to provide special attention (smaller classes, more one-on-one time, different facilities) for those students with disabilities. This makes sense, although — again — I wish to insist that such adjustments to the “standard” educational structure, in an ideal world, would be considered for every student in the building.

With regard to physical disabilities, there is little to discuss. Obviously a student who is unable to walk should have an altered physical education curriculum. Cognitive disabilities are more tricky. In part this is due to the labyrinthian nature of the human brain. Only in the last 50 years have we begun to scratch the surface of understanding this infinite organism inside our heads. Consequently, educational policy has constantly reinvented itself to match our understanding of developmental research.

The biggest challenge I see is the schism between short-term and long-term assistance for the disabled child. Leaving aside for the moment the question of diagnosis (to which I shall return, fear you not), we have to understand that what’s helpful for a student in the short term is often diametrically opposed to that student’s best interests in the long term. This is a paradox at the very heart of compulsory education itself: The kid is tired, the kid wants to sleep. But we have to force them into school so they’ll have more opportunities in life, get better jobs, and not be so exhausted later in life. (This presents unique challenges for those educators among us who are anarchists, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

The implementation of special ed classifications and modifications compound this schism profoundly. Let’s take a (relatively) simple case like anxiety. (I have no idea where that problem lies on the chart of disability classification, but we’re seeing it all over the place these days, so it’s a common example to interrogate.) When a student suffers from anxiety, the impulse for a compassionate educator is to excuse them from situations where that anxiety is aggravated — speaking in front of the class, for example. On the other hand, a long-term focus must recognize that the student must at some point overcome this anxiety, and find ways to fight through it, to avoid being defined and limited by it forever.

A callous, insensitive teacher will say: “I don’t care about your anxiety. You need to get over it. Everyone has to give a speech, and if you don’t, you get an F.” But an equally harmful educator on the other end of the continuum will say: “Your anxiety makes it impossible to do the speech. You get an A even if you don’t speak in front of the class.” This second teacher is enabling a total evasion of the problem, and ordering the student to surrender to anxiety. Therefore a balance must be struck.

I cannot recommend enough an episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia called “How To Become Batman” (23 January 2015). The show explores the remarkable case of Daniel Kish, a blind man who taught himself as a child to “echolocate” (like a bat) in order to make sense of the world around him. He became so skilled at this practice that he can now ride a bike. Even more remarkably, brain scientists have discovered that echolocation allows blind people to form neural structures similar to those created by the eyes in people who can see. (This leads the hosts to literally climb on a rooftop in order to shout: “You might not need eyes to see!”) It’s a remarkable program, and I really do urge you to listen right now. (I also just found his TED Talk.)

Kish’s biggest point, which he stresses at every opportunity, is that his biggest obstacle in life has not been the blindness itself, but the limitations people place on him because of it. He explains that most blind children begin echolocating at a young age, but teachers and adults immediately order them to stop. They worry about social stigma and the kid’s self-esteem.

This goes into another dimension when it comes to safety. Parents obviously want to protect their children from harm, but Kish says parents of blind children need to trust their kids more to explore and learn for themselves where the boundaries of safety and harm reside. The podcast features Kish’s mother, who explains that she let him roam around by himself, even though it was dangerous. Being a child is inherently dangerous anyway, she explains. This independence and self-reliance has obviously served Kish well throughout his life. Now he teaches other blind children how to echolocate and move around on their own.

This is not to say that we should remove all restrictions and supports for children with disabilities. But Kish’s story is a powerful reminder about how urgent it is for all adults — and especially educators — to check ourselves. Our desire to help children in the short-term can easily hamper their ability to become strong and self-sufficient in the long term. I’ve seen plenty of students diagnosed with ADHD use their diagnosis as a crutch to enable unhealthy behavior. I’ve seen plenty of parents and counselors assume that kids cannot perform a task because of a disability classification. This is unkind and dangerous.

Ideally, a new paradigm of mental health and cognitive classification would recognize the perils of “deficit” thinking against some imaginary ideal/normal brain. Instead we could recognize that every person has some varying levels of difficulty when it comes to, say, paying attention. (It’s hard for all of us, especially in our postmodern hyper-accelerated culture.) This could help reduce stigma while also recognizing that such difficulties are not inevitable limitations, but obstacles that can be overcome — or at least ameliorated.

That’s a radical and far-off notion, however, so I’ll return to the here and now, and (as I begin my third page of this long-winded diatribe) touch on some things I haven’t mentioned yet.

Yes, I think all children can benefit from disability testing. But I hasten to add that any such testing (and construction of “special education” accommodation/curriculum) must put the student at the center of the process. So often I see young people in IEP meetings as distant observers, only tangentially involved in the process. I always speak directly to the student, but in most cases I’m the only one.

I did my undergraduate study at New College of Florida, which features no grades and an intensely student-centered pedagogical philosophy. (The motto of New College is: “In the final analysis, the student is responsible for his or her own education.”) Spending four years in this rigorous environment of academic freedom and intellectual responsibility made me into the erudite and indefatigable scholar that I am today. Ten years of standard schooling had mostly trained me to regurgitate answers on tests and then forget the information immediately afterward.

I wish I had some specific ideas of how to make “special education” more student-centered, but I can say for sure that all students must become familiar with the concept of metacognition at an early age, and return to it on a regular basis throughout their schooling. They must start figuring out (much earlier than I did) what they need to get from school, and go after it. Our models of education rely heavily on passive students and rote “learning”, for many reasons. Transforming this mindset will benefit not only those students with disabilities, but all other students as well.

I must close with an emphasis on resources. Everybody talks about “how important education is” and “how valuable teachers are”, but our public policies and budget decisions as a society reflect a very different view. Helping kids individually takes time and money. (Again, consider the chaos that would result from a doctor having to help patients 30 at a time.) Most initiatives aimed at helping students are not accompanied by money for more staff or resources. (Jamie Vollmer’s 2010 book Schools Cannot Do It Alone explores this phenomenon in great depth. He is also the author of “The Blueberry Story”, which is a quick but essential read for anyone interested in education.)

Go to any public school in the United States and talk with the special education teachers about how busy they are. In most cases they are twice as exhausted as the regular teachers — who are plenty exhausted themselves, believe you me. (As I’ve said elsewhere: We call it special education because the teachers are special.)

We like to think of teachers as being capable of magic, so it doesn’t matter if they have 10 kids or 20 or 30. (Well-funded press releases from education-reform organizations like The Gates Foundation declare with great volume the irrelevance of class size. Meanwhile, the private Lakeside School — which Bill Gates loved so much — brags on its website about an average class size of 17 students.)

If we’re serious about helping kids with disabilities, we must pay for that help. It’s not cheap, and doing it right requires great effort from all of us — especially the students. But each of us would want the best, most individualized care for our own children, with conscious emphasis on approaches that will best help kids in the long term. Therefore anything less is an affront to our shared humanity.

Deer, Me

There I am, driving in to Sun Prairie this morning on Highway N like I do every day. Public Enemy is on full, Terminator X pounding through my system. I’m getting psyched for the day ahead as I pass the BP station, ready to wake some heads and rattle some cages.

Then BAM something hits my car — OH MY GOD I hit a deer — and there’s a black piece of something stuck to the door, dragging alongside the car and flipping up to hit the window. I’m freaking out and I kill the radio. My hands are shaking and I almost drop my bagel. I take crazy rapid breaths, trying to calm down as I pull over. I put the bagel in the dish beside me and hit the emergency lights.

It was a deer oh god I hit a deer! How could I hit a deer? I’m always so careful. People who hit deers aren’t paying attention but I hit a deer so I guess I wasn’t paying attention oh god that poor animal why did my industrial machine have to kill it? Is my car totally broken now? What the hell just happened?

I get out of the car and realize that a strip of plastic from the bumper is jammed in the the wheel well. I yank it out and drop it in front of the car. I expect blood and deer body parts, but there’s nothing. The bumper gap has exposed a plastic tank, and it’s dripping onto the pavement. I put my hand under — which I immediately realize is stupid, since it could be really hot or corrosive or something — and sniff the liquid. It doesn’t smell of anything.

A guy who lives in the house across the street comes over and assures me that it happens all the time. I ask if I should call the police and he says “Sheriff’s Department.” I ask if I can use his cell phone because I don’t own one. He dials and talks to someone. I look at my car. There’s no deer parts around, and the splotches look more like mud than anything. I look at my hands, which are filthy. I take the strip of broken bumper plastic to the trunk and put it inside. The towel I expect to find is missing. I look back at the road and there’s the deer corpse in the middle of it. Cars are slowly moving around it.

“They’re sending someone,” the homeowner says, hanging up his cell phone. I thank him and try to laugh.

“Whenever I hear about people hitting a deer,” I say, talking really fast, “I always think Oh they weren’t paying attention. What’s wrong with people? But you don’t realize how fast it can happen until it happens to you.”

He nods and says he needs to start packing up his truck for work. We’re a bit of a contrast — here I am in my suit with my pink shirt and pink tie (I totally forget about the LGBTQ-solidarity rainbow flag lapel pin, which surely adds an interesting element into the dynamic), and there he goes with his jeans and Packers jacket, ready to move stuff into his truck as his kids wait for the bus. I worry that I’m coming off like some effete intellectual (which I am), and I think about the perceived class difference and the probable actual class difference and my brain’s just racing.

Two people pull over and a woman asks if I’m alright. I say yes and she drives off. A second guy in a Notre Dame cap nods and stands near me, tapping his cell phone. I tell him he doesn’t have to wait because I’m fine and the car seems okay and the other dude called the sheriff. He just nods and I think Okay that’s weird. Then I look at his white SUV and I realize one of the headlights is gone.

“Oh wait,” I say, “did you hit it too?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I was going the other way and I guess it bounced off of me and hit you.”  He does that thing Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics Chapter Two:

The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car. If one car hits another, the driver of the vehicle being struck is much more likely to say “Hey! He HIT me!” than “He hit my car” or “His car hit my car”, for that matter.

Oh, so I didn’t hit the deer. I mean, I did, but only because it ricocheted off the other guy’s car. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention. Wait, really? Weren’t you just talking about how stupid it is to jump to conclusions like that?

These are the conversations that go on in my head all day every day.

“It could be worse,” the Notre Dame cap guy says. “At least it’s not raining.” He gestures to the sky. “We can enjoy this sunrise.”

“Yeah,” I say. I pull out my iPod and take a photo of the sunrise, which I often do anyway. Oh man he probably thinks I’m some weird arty geek (which I am) but he doesn’t realize I often take photos of the sunrise when I get to school. My brain continues racing. I get some napkins out of the glove box and wipe some of the dirt off my hands. I get out the manual and find a diagram of the engine area. The leaky plastic tank is for windshield washer fluid. Whew.

We wait. I practice being here now and count my breaths. Notre Dame Cap Guy points out that someone is pulling the deer corpse off the road into the ditch. We wave thanks.

The teacher who teaches next door to me pulls over. As soon as I see that it’s her I laugh and approach her car. “I’m fine,” I say as she rolls down the passenger window. “Everything’s fine. We hit a deer.” She asks if I need a ride and I say no. “Thanks, though. I should be in soon.” She nods and heads off.

We wait some more. Eventually a cop car pulls up and an officer approaches us. I think about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and how different I might feel in this moment if I were a black man. The officer takes down our info — I’m visibly delighted to see that I have an up-to-date insurance card in my wallet — and goes back to his cruiser. A minute later he comes back with a report number scribbled on his business card. We thank him.

“So you’re both okay?” he asks. We nod.

He pauses. “Do either of you want the deer?” he asks. We say no, but I wonder if maybe one of the hunter kids at school would like the meat. Oh well. We pack up and drive off.

I feel really bad for the deer. I hear the line from My Cousin Vinny, in Marisa Tomei’s thick New York accent. “Imagine you’re a deer.” The only thing that animal did wrong was frolic through the prairie at the wrong time. Our industrial automotive fixation killed it, as it kills thousands of other animals every day. One of those hideous, acceptable tragedies that probably could be avoided if we transformed our entire society.

Oh well. It could have been worse.

Didactic SynCast #101: Hecka Rando

Today I just turned on the mic and talked about the first month of school, my latest book, Bill Maher, and Donald Trump. Enjoy!


There is an insane chaos going on in my brain, and I don’t know what else to do with it. So I’m just going to write and see what happens. The image was one of the first results in a Google Image Search for “meshugas“.

As I posted on Facebook recently, I could list some rationalist forms of material dread that are contributing to my state of exacerbated disconsolation. But they’re always weighing on me in some form or other, and usually my indefatigable sense of resistance/acerbic revolutionary je ne donne un damn pas can ward off the gloomies.

But once a month (give or take), something happens and all that iron-spined middle-finger-up-to-TheMan™ withers, and I find myself immobilized by a weary sense of helplessness. My amazing special lady friend is invaluable in her patience and support, of course, and I am blessed to work with loving soldiers of pedagogical eminence who show me boundless compassion and moral sustenance. These experiences would be infinitely more difficult if not for these amazing people.

The episodes come and go unbidden — probably the result of some chemical hurleyburley, or (mis)alignment of the planets. I can never predict them, and nothing really seems to hasten their departure. (The music of Ministry, the playing of video games, and the consumption of classic films like Fight Club are taken in Extra-Strength doses, but they serve mostly to ameliorate the symptoms, rather than provide any comprehensive respite.) Sometimes I’ll deal with these episodes by using all my loquacious vocabulary that has no utility in the classroom, since it mostly befuddles my students.

Mostly what I have to do is wait them out. But when I’m in the midst of these demonic paroxysms, I find it harder than ever to turn off what DFW called “the constant monologue inside your own head”. Part of this is because I usually don’t do the most helpful thing I could (and should) do in times like this — meditate and take my own advice. Instead, I cling to my anger and woe, finding some bizarre comfort in the despondency of how brilliantly my intellectual ego can delineate and triangulate the true causes of post-millennial despair.

So as a result my brain starts dwelling on the deep sources of my existential crisis: failure to get books published, inability to instantly change students’ lives, frustration at the intractability of political oppression, police brutality, economic injustice, etc etc. Again, these things are not actually to blame for my atrocious mindstate, but at least they are things to which I can point. More to the point (ha ha), they are always lingering (or, perhaps more accurately, festering) just beyond my peripheral vision at all times — but my insurmountable sense of hope and revolutionary fervor (thanks a lot, East Timor and Chuck D) allow me to push them aside as I Fight the Power and Stick It To TheMan™.

I can’t lie to people at school. So when someone inevitably asks “How’s it going?” I have to say: “Not great” or “I’ve had better days”. I’d most like to say: “Atrocious because the horrors of modern life are sometimes too numerous to contemplate.” But then the person would probably get really super-extra concerned and insist on some kind of intervention, or (more likely) laugh awkwardly and say “Well okay then.” And then where would we be?

In between pretending like everything’s fine and making some weird plea for help (which, trust me, I am not doing), there lies a constant desire for genuine human interactivity that goes beyond the platitudes of social media and banal workplace acknowledgement. On the other hand, what the hell is there to even talk about? “I guess it just beez like that sometimes,” as New Kingdom said — so if I know this too shall pass, then why waste time and breath enumerating all the fucked up shit that everybody’s already aware of?

I mean, I know how stupid that line of thinking is; so many people insulate themselves from honest and painful conversations because they’re convinced “there’s no point”, and that hogwash is just  few steps removed from the idiocy about how voting doesn’t matter and recycling makes no difference. So there’s the intellectual comprehension of my own over-intellectualist intransigence on the one hand, and a deep terror on the other hand about being some kind of emotional abyss requiring idiotic Stuart-Smalley-style affirmation.

But then, of course, our minds can’t save us, and neither can technology. So what’s left is a rejection of the yin-yang table in Tyler Durden’s apartment representing the facade of fake enlightenment. (The tao that can be made into a coffee table is not the eternal and unchanging tao.) I just gotta go sit somewhere quiet and wipe my mind. I know it will help, because it’s helped in the past. But I also know that it won’t actually solve the problem, and at most it will reduce the intensity of my meshugas by 10%. (I actually have an idea for a pretty cool cartoon about that ratio, but I’m feeling too run-down and overwhelmed by school stuff to create it.) So maybe I’ll just play some video games instead. (Scoring a goal in a ranked match of Rocket League is nearly as good as authentic kensho.)

Words are my life’s work, so it’s helpful for me to plow through several hundred of them. (As of the end of this sentence, I’m at 909.) It’s easy to get discouraged about those, however (see above about difficulty in getting published), so while I’m gratified to receive LIKES and positive commentary pursuant to various ramblings here and elsewhere (cf. memorials to awesome people, especially), it’s tough to feel like I’m making the kind of impact I’d like to make with my scribbles. (Of course the ego conveniently moves the goalposts of what the impact would actually look like, so it’s a fool’s errand to even contemplate that question.)

Well, it kinda feels like my rage and dissatisfaction is being overwhelmed by exhaustion, and I think I’ve run out of things to say in any case, so I’m just gonna stop here. I can’t remember if I turned off comments (the spam is ludicrous) or not, so you can try to leave a response here if you like. Otherwise, holler on Twitter or Facebook if you hear me.


Didactic SynCast #100: Glamour, Guns, and Girlfriends

It’s been less than a week, but I’m back with yet another episode of my award-winning podcast. (NOTE: My podcast has never actually won any awards.) Enjoy!

Top Links

Current Events



Killer Robots, Etc

  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople trailer: