Indigenous People, MAGA, and Black Hebrew Israelites

This weekend the nation has been shaken by images from Friday 18 January, of teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School (Park Hills, Kentucky) visiting Washington DC. In the video, they are staring at — and in the background, loudly mocking — a pair of indigenous drummers. Many of the CovCath teenagers are wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, proudly displaying their support for President Trump. A tremendous backlash has ensued, with many calls for action against the students. Snopes is hosting an Associated Press article with lots of details.

Today another 2-hour video surfaced on YouTube, which helps provide some additional context. Some of the students, shaken by what they consider an unfair demonization, have put forward their own narrative. The new video, which apparently was removed from Facebook, is strange and confusing — and I won’t be surprised if it’s removed from YouTube soon as well. But I’ll try to explain what I see, and then discuss a larger context.

What the Video Shows: Hour 1

The video begins, so far as I can tell, at the end of the Indigenous Peoples March, near the reflecting pool of the Washington DC Mall, outside the Lincoln Memorial.

A small group of men, who appear to be Black Hebrew Israelites, are quoting scripture and trying to address everybody who walks past. They level some accusations at the indigenous protesters, including self-hatred and worship of false idols. (At one point, one of the BHI guys says “You got your head up the white man’s ass.”) A few indigenous folks try to talk with the BHI speakers, but most of these interactions are short and hard to follow.

At one point, the man holding the camera (who seems to be part of the BHI group) turns it on himself and says: “The problem is these women coming up with their loud mouth”.

As the BHI guys speak, other folks — of various backgrounds, possibly tourists, possibly from DC itself — approach the group. We start to see young people in MAGA hats and shirts. These are apparently students from CovCath who were in DC as part of the 2019 March for Life anti-abortion rally. The BHI guys accuse the young people in MAGA gear of supporting a “faggot” (because Trump once kissed Giuliani dressed in drag) and a “pedophile” (possibly because Trump has been accused of raping a 13-year-old girl).

The BHI guys then lambast the Catholic Church for its decades of sexual abuse of minors. (It’s not clear if they know that the MAGA-clad students are from a Catholic school or not.) Early in the video, the cameraman suggests that the “dirty-ass crackers” in the MAGA hats + shirts are afraid to come too close. He says they would never wear those items in a black neighborhood. “I will stick my foot in your little ass,” he says.

Throughout the entire first hour of the video, various people try to speak with the BHI guys. Some of these people are black, which leads to accusations from the BHI guys of “Uncle Tom”. The cameraman asks why, with all the MAGA-hat-wearing white folks around, “you wanna fight your brother”. They also refer to black teenagers near the CovCath students (perhaps they are also students at CovCath) as “Kanyes” and “Coon-ye West”. The indigenous protesters occasionally join the argument, but mostly appear to dance and drum in the distance.

At one point, addressing the white students (many of them wearing the American flag or MAGA slogan on their clothing), one of the BHI guys asks: “When was the last time you saw a Mexican or Hispanic or Native American or a Negro shoot up a school?” In response to the silent crowd, the cameraman says: “Yeah. Crickets.”

More CovCath students arrive — all of them guys, nearly all of them white. At least half are wearing “Make America Great Again” in some form: baseball caps, sweatshirts, winter hats, t-shirts. Some of them say things which are hard to understand. Some appear to be mimicking or mocking the native dances nearby.

What the Video Shows: Hour 2

The tone shifts in the second half of the video. One of the CovCath students removes most of his clothing (why, I couldn’t say) and leads the crowd in a chant of some kind. Most of the CovCath students join in. The guy holding the camera asks “Do y’all understand who the real caveman is now?” Referring, apparently, to Capitol Police, he adds: “We’re surrounded, and they won’t do a damn thing about it.”

It’s hard to tell who’s moving near whom, but both the BHI guys and the CovCath students exchange angry words. The distance between them shrinks, until two indigenous drummers — Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and Marcus Frejo, from the Pawnee and Seminole tribes — step between the two groups. They sing and drum for a while, until we arrive at the moment many people have already seen, with the MAGA-hat-wearing CovCath student staring at Phillips. Some students jump and dance, while others do a version of the Atlanta Braves “tomahawk chop”. Some chants of “Build the Wall” are audible.

When the drummers step in, the cameraman says “Here comes Gad”. (Apparently that’s a term among BHI believers for Native Americans.) After a minute of drumming and singing, one of the BHI guys says: “Gad, he calmed all these spirits right down.” In a later interview, Frejo seemed to agree. “They went from mocking us and laughing at us to singing with us,” he said. “I heard it three times. That spirit moved through us, that drum, and it slowly started to move through some of those youths.”

When the CovCath students begin chanting again after a moment, the cameraman says: “Mockery. You’re at a native rally with Make America Great Again hats.” The rest of the video is a series of exchanges between the BHI guys and the CovCath students, most of which is hard to hear. Occasionally a white adult (presumably a teacher) will tell the students to “back up” or stop trying to speak with the BHI guys. “You’re not going to change their minds,” one lady says. Night falls, the cameraman explains that his battery is dying, and the video ends.

What I Think

It occurs to me that I’ve spent several hours composing this post about a disturbing incident that involved no physical violence, in the same way journalists and commentators dissect videos of police officers killing unarmed black folks like Laquan McDonald. (This same weekend, the cop who killed McDonald was sentenced to just seven years in prison. Kalief Browder spent three years in prison for allegedly stealing a backpack.) I could reflect more on that oddity, but instead I’ll just note it for the record, and move on.

I will also state for the record (although anyone who knows me will know it’s a given) that I am appalled and outraged by many statements from the Black Hebrew Israelite speakers. They demonstrate a kind of sexism, hatred of LGBTQ folks, and vile rhetoric that I cannot support. I will not apologize for any of their words, nor will I minimize their role in the proceedings.

At the same time, however, I want to point out that they represent “the hate that hate produced“. Some of their points are valid. (The demonization of black anger compared to the frequency of white gunmen killing people in schools, for example.) Anyone shocked by the attitude of the BHI speakers has never studied Malcolm X or the Black Panthers or the Black Liberation Army or the Nation of Islam. The Oakland rapper Paris once said: “Don’t be telling me to get the nonviolent spirit / because when I’m violent is the only time you devils hear it”. Again, I want to make clear that I do not endorse this brand of violent rhetoric. But it is an essential part of the historical dialectic that white folks generally refuse to consider.

Many people who have seen this weekend’s incident from multiple angles are loudly chastising the media for only showing the students mocking the drummers. They want the larger video to be seen. (The YouTube page is filled with commenters urging everybody to “download this now before they try to bury the truth”.) While getting that larger context is good, I worry that most of those racing to the students’ defense are only willing to consider a medium context, and not a larger, full context.

The larger context of this incident involves centuries of white supremacy. Let’s look at the concerns of the Indigenous Peoples March, shall we?

Missing and Murdered Indigenous women – Since 2016 there are over 7,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women. Within the first 6 months of 2018 there are 2,758 women reported missing. [...]

Native Lives Matter – For every 1 million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them died annually from 1999 to 2015 as a result of a “legal intervention,” according to a CNN review of CDC data broken down by race. The vast majority of these deaths were police shootings. [...]

Honor Our earth…Respect Our Treaties – President Trump’s first order of business was to sign for the Dakota Access Pipeline and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Dakota Access Pipeline — The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members have been fighting to stop the oil from flowing into the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP).

The Keystone XL Pipeline will go along the Mississippi River and affect all of our water. Keystone scheduled to be built 2019, will illegally be scheduled to be built on Native American-owned lands and private landowners.

Big Bear Ears Monument — Trump administration and investors are disregarding treaties to gain profit from a mining project. This project will destroy our Big Bear Ears monument, a sacred site to many Southwestern tribes.

These problems were not brought about by single individuals or small groups of people. Addressing them requires ardent attention from all of us. I daresay most Trump supporters are indifferent or hostile to the concerns of indigenous communities.

And this is my biggest point: That’s not just any hat. Support for Donald Trump is not just another American political movement. Some people have suggested that MAGA is the new swastika. I don’t agree, but MAGA is not just another slogan.

Trump’s base loves the fact that “he’s not a politician”. Trump often ridicules the way presidents act. He spent years insisting that Barack Obama was not legally authorized to be President of the United States. Hopefully I don’t need to continue with this list. President Trump is willing to destroy the icons of American democracy; therefore we must understand that his movement is based on iconoclastic destruction, racism, and division.

This is the larger context we must address in this weekend’s incident. The CovCath students wore MAGA clothing as a way to make a statement, and that statement was reinforced powerfully through their mocking chants.

Of course we can’t know what that smirking student was thinking, but he made a conscious decision to stand his ground and stare down this indigenous elder as he tried to use music to calm a tense situation. As someone who has worked professionally with teenagers for almost two decades, I can say that he (and most of the other students) probably had one (or both) of the following thoughts in his head:

  1. I’m proud of this hat and what it represents. I’ve been told to hide my support for President Trump, but I refuse. I’m taking a stand against everybody who disagrees with me.
  2. lolz they are sooo triggered huahuehuahue im totally owning these libs

Either way, I’m confident that these young people have no idea why their mockery was so poisonous. I’m confident that a mini-mob mentality spurred their atrocious behavior. I’m confident that they felt attacked by the BHI speakers, and wanted to assert some pride as a reaction. I’m confident that they don’t understand the historical violence that has always accompanied White Pride. I hope that Marcus Frejo is correct when he says that a spirit of enlightenment reached the CovCath students, but I know from my own classroom that such enlightenment is rare and slow.

Some people have suggested the CovCath students are being unfairly maligned. They say that the indigenous drummers approached them, and they were merely reacting to the music. Some folks say that those of us outraged by the students’ behavior are not considering it in full context, but instead jumping to conclusions.

I think it’s important to be fair, and I’m bothered by much of the frontier/street-style justice I’ve witnessed on the internet. When it comes to issues of race and struggles against oppression, it’s true that we humans often cannot expect justice in any other form. But of course that doesn’t make it okay for people to receive death threats based on short online videos.

So how do we find a third way?

Let’s Resist Oversimplification, Shall We?

I’ve got a long history of resisting oversimplification. The only time I have ever blocked people on Twitter was because they suggested I was unwilling to keep an open mind. I believe my record proves that accusation to be without merit. I frequently play the Devil’s Advocate in my classroom. I often talk to people who disagree with me. I’m currently finishing a book about politics, in which I explain why I frequent Fox News and the Wall Street Journal:

First, I want to make sure I’m responding to what these conservative sources are actually saying, rather than what I expect or remember hearing. There’s a dangerous tendency for us to assume that we know what other people are saying — or would say — and therefore we think based on assumptions without going to the source.

But the other reason I read conservative sources is because I don’t know everything, and my vision of the world isn’t perfect. There’s always another side to every issue, and even the sources I do trust (like Democracy Now! and The Intercept) will occasionally leave things out of the conversation.

Having an open mind means that you seek out different points of view and take them seriously. As Chinua Achebe said in his 1987 novel Anthills of the Savannah: “Whatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and to save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.”

I don’t know what a proper condemnation from our society toward these students should look like. It would involve the impeachment of President Trump for a start, for his daily violations of the US Constitution. More immediately, some have called for the expulsion of students from Covington Catholic High School. I don’t know how I feel about that. Part of me finds it harsh, but another part says it’s a fair response to what the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School called, in a joint statement, “behavior [...] opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person”.

I was struck by a comment from Diné Navajo social worker Amanda Blackhorse on the issue of punishment for the CovCath students:

i do not intend to discount your fear, anger, and upset, but please keep in mind these boys are of high school age. i am tired, i am upset, and i am overwhelmed, but all i wish is for these boys to be reprimanded by their schools, parents, and friends. i posted this with the intention to spread the reality of being indigenous in 2019. we did not meet these boys with violence for a reason.

More to the point, however, it doesn’t really matter what I think about the punishment these students face. I can’t have much influence on that series of events. But I can reach a few people with these words, and that’s what I want to focus on. I want white folks to understand the nature of this insult. I want America to stop the violence facing indigenous communities, explained above. I want people to understand what white privilege is, and behave in a way that demonstrates this understanding.

I also want an immediate end to native mascots. The American Psychological Association has advocated their end for 15 years, due to the “harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people”. My friend Colleen Butler recently tweeted:

Native mascots contribute to the dehumanization of Native people. Dehumanization was just what I saw in the eyes, the smirk, and the laughter yesterday. These things are connected.

We must also (all of us) resist the temptation to engage in groupthink and blind certainty. I believe the BHI speakers were driven — as many religious folks are — by a fiery conviction that their interpretation of scripture is The Truth, and that anyone who disagrees is Evil. As Arthur Miller said in The Crucible, about the Puritans of Salem: “They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world.” Many Trump supporters (and members of the International Socialist Organization) share a similar certainty.

I believe the CovCath students were driven — as many teenagers are, as I was in my youth — by a need to belong, and the strange surge of adrenaline that comes with being in a group united by purpose. I believe that the indigenous guys were driven by a desire to calm the tension and provide the strength of spirit their ancestors offered them, through drumming and song.

I want us to escape our silos and have painful, honest conversations that result in true consciousness on all sides. In a way, that’s what the Indigenous Peoples March and the March for Life were trying to do. The confrontation we saw here was, in a way, just an uncovering of the seething resentment that has been festering for years. I’m horrified by what this mirror showed us, but I’m also glad that things didn’t get worse — which could have easily happened.

I’ll close with this: Such consciousness is needed most among white folks. Obviously black folks and native folks and latinx folks also have room to grow, and blind spots of their own to address. But there’s a particular brand of unconsciousness among white people because white supremacy has left a unique stain on the soul of humanity. We have to understand that the violence and poverty among black, latinx, and indigenous communities is the result of a wretched history — but also that this poverty and violence continues today. We must not ignore the suffering of Kalief Browder and Laquan McDonald and Anna Mae Aquash and the unnamed 8-year-old from Guatemala who died on Christmas Day in ICE custody. This suffering is a problem for our entire species. It affects the people in the ghetto and the barrio and the reservation more than it affects those of us in the suburbs, but it’s our problem too. If you truly believe that you are not free when others are oppressed, you need to act like it.

The election of Donald Trump showed a hideous lack of consciousness among white Americans. It showed our willingness as a nation to invest tremendous power in a man who has bragged about sexual violence; mocked disabled people; ridiculed native identities; urged violence against black protesters; and shown utter disregard for the humanity of most Americans. The fact that he won the election (sort of) is a stain of dishonor, the result of a serious lack of consciousness among white folks.

One way for us white folks to raise our consciousness is to hear the voices of indigenous people. The Reddit forum /r/IndianCountry has some great resources and discussions “By Natives, About Natives & The Americas”. The Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing (who should already be in your Twitter timeline) recommended some native folks on Twitter worth a follow: Adrienne Keene, Rebecca Nagle, and Kelly M. Hayes. And of course there are countless online news sources like Indian Country Today.

Claiming that we should all “come together” in an amorphous spirit of “unity” is oversimplification. Suggesting that we should all take pride in being American, and downplay the racism we see every day, is oversimplification. White supremacy has always been based on violent oversimplification. Trump’s wall is oversimplification, based as it is on the idea that swarms of Others are coming to hurt us. Thinking of ourselves as Americans rather than human beings (what Chuck D calls “Earthicans”) is oversimplification.

I refuse to engage in that kind of oversimplification, and I hope you will too.

A luta continua.

EDIT: On Tuesday 23 January, Nathan Phillips spoke to DemocracyNow!. An excerpt:

 I was absolutely afraid. There was a group of over 200 young angry white men who were displaying mob mentality. And they were facing down just four black individuals. And it was coming to a point where just a snap of the finger could have caused them kids to descend on those four individuals. I didn’t agree with the Black Israelites and what they were saying. But what I do believe is that America is a land of freedoms. And as much as I disagreed with those Black Israelites, they had the right to be there.

Suckers, Monsters, Coaches, and Teachers

Warren St. John’s 2009 book Outcasts United tells the story of a soccer team in Georgia made up of refugees from war zones all over the world (Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan) who come together to form a team — literally and figuratively. I’m reading it with my American Literature students for the Quest Unit.

In Chapter Four (“Alone Down South”), we learn about the coach’s first foray in leadership.

Luna Mufleh coached the only way she knew how — by following the example set for her by Coach Brown. [Brown was a tough-as-nails soccer coach Mufleh had played for at the American Community School in her native Jordan. -esp] She was more demanding than any of the girls or their parents expected — she made her players run for thirty-five minutes and do sets of sit-ups, push-ups, and leg lifts before each practice. And she refused to coddle them. Luma explained to her girls that they would be responsible for their actions and for meeting their obligations to the team. Players who couldn’t make practice were expected to call Luma themselves; there woiuld be no passing off the excuse-making to Mom or Dad. Likewise, if a player had problems with the way Luma ran the team — complaints about playing time, favoritism, or the like — she would be expected to raise those concerns directly with the coach.

[...] Luma’s rule-making wasn’t entirely about establishing her authority over the team — though that was part of it. She also believed that the team would benefit once individual players started to take responsibility for themselves. Luma herself had been coddled by her parents in an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, and believed that she had paid for these comforts by sacrificing her self-reliance and independence. If Luma was going to coach, she was going to do so with this basic lesson as a backdrop, whether her players’ parents understood it right away or not. Time would tell whether her approach produced results.

[...] When confronted by unhappy parents, Luma displayed a confidence incongruous with her status as a newcomer, an attitude that put off some parents and intrigued others. Once when Luma ordered her players to practice barefoot to get a better feel for the soccer ball, a team mother objected on the grounds that her daughter might injure her toes.

“This is how I run my practice,” Luma told her. “If she’s not going to do it, she’s not going to play.”

During Luma’s first season as coach, her team lost every game. But over time, her methods began to pay off. Dedicated players returned, and those who didn’t buy in left. The players worked hard and improved. They stopped questioning Luma’s methods and began to absorb and intuit them. In her third season, Luma’s twelve-and-under girls’ team went undefeated and won their year-end tournament.

This passage speaks to me deeply. As a teacher, I am caught in a trap between leniency for the sake of compassion and strict demands for the sake of long-term improvement. My students are dealing with a panorama of difficult problems — anxiety, sexual assault, depression, divorce, self-harm, loss of loved ones to suicide and drug overdose, pervasive subconscious racism, college debt, overloaded schedules, and the myriad pressures of late stage capitalism. I want them to be prepared for the fights ahead, but I recognize also that many of them are engaged in grueling battles now.

I often think of it this way: Do I want to be a sucker, or a monster? In other words: Will I risk showing too much leniency and compassion, allowing some students to take advantage of my kindness? Or will I risk being too demanding and tyrannical, causing pain and suffering to students who already have too much of both in their lives?

They key element for me is the lack of choice for the kids. In Luma’s case, the kids choose to play soccer with her. She gets to have total control over the process, because it’s an entirely voluntary affair. What might have happened if too few students wanted to be on the team? Or if every parent demanded her resignation after the first season?

We teachers don’t have this same set of boundaries. My students have to take my 11th grade English class. Obviously I have to set rules and expectations, and no good teacher will choose 100% Sucker Status, because we know there must be expectations for learning. But I do everything in my power to avoid sending kids out of the room. I know that the kids who act out most have the fewest people showing them compassion. I know that they’re waiting for adults to complete the script, to send them (once again) the message that they are disposable.

Even in the elective classes I teach, students sign up because they need an English credit. I know they’re usually not crazy about writing, or expecting a career in letters. I could be more harsh in the Interdisciplinary Poetics class focused on hip-hop, but so many of those students have struggled in other classes. I have a rare opportunity to nod and wink more (and whack their knuckles less) and thereby (hopefully) infect them with a deeper love of learning. Showing no mercy could very easily burn bridges and send them back into the spiral of To Hell With School.

(Side note: As I write these words, I am showing my Creative Writing II students the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction. I just noticed two students were staring at cell phones. Inspired by this very piece I am writing, I said “Put the phones away. Watch the movie.” One student said: “This movie’s boring.” I said: “Too bad. You signed up for the class. This movie is part of the class. Watch the movie.” The inextricable ingredient of cell-phone-addiction is another piece of this puzzle for which I shall not indulge at the present moment.)

This dilemma is made more complicated by my anarchist proclivities. I want to live my life as much as possible through voluntary association, which is nearly impossible in our context of compulsory secondary education. The most satisfying choices I’ve ever made in my life are the ones with the least pressure attached — at New College, for example, where I found a deep love for authentic education even though (in fact, because) there were no grades involved. So when my students choose not to pay attention, I often think: “Well, that’s their choice. I’m not the kid’s mom.” It’s especially tough when I want them to pay attention to me. What gives me the right to insist that I matter more than the activity on their cell phone screen? Shouldn’t I be able to find non-coercive ways to lead young people into the light?

Of course it’s a balancing act. We have to find ways to be compassionate and loving, without killing our students with kindness. We have to demand excellence and set high expectations, without robbing our students of fun or free time. I think the worst teachers are the ones who pick a position and never examine in, regardless of which extreme they fall into.

But it’s tough. I feel like young people are so very fragile these days, so distracted and overstretched and pressurized and overloaded and filled with worry and pain and desperation. I want to help them in the long term, but I can’t ignore the suffering they’re going through here and now. And I don’t have the option to say “If you don’t like how I teach, you can leave.”

Random Thoughts from a Much Better Thursday

  • Very little has changed in the material reality of my life. Trump is still an atrocious empty suit; I still have mountains of papers to grade; many students are still paralyzed by fragility or lack of confidence. Yet I feel much much better today.
  • Mac Barnett is awesome.
  • Thanks again to friends and family that were willing to help or just put up with me as I dealt yesterday with my occasional swing into depressive terrain. As promised, the pendulum has swung back into the manic.
  • It can be healthy for me to have these occasional episodes, because it gives me a glimpse into the lives of people who suffer from actual depression. It’s not a choice, it’s not a moral failure, it’s not a light switch. Things change, but sometimes they don’t change much or very quickly. At those times we’ve got to be careful that we don’t say or do things that will make the person feel even worse.
  • Granola bars are tasty.
  • I’m tired of being chastised and gaslit by Trump apologists. I work really hard to be open-minded, compassionate, and intellectually honest. People who try to convince me that I’m not — well, haters gonna hate.
  • I’m working on Part Two of my Resisting Oversimplification thing. Maybe I’ll put in some work on it this weekend.
  • Soon I’ll get to do a thing I’ve wanted to do for a while. Yay!
  • I still don’t know if that horrible rumor is true or not and I still have no way to find out. That still sucks.
  • Some students write some really awesome stuff.
  • Today a student asked to read Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity, my favorite book about writing ever. This was the first time a student ever asked to borrow the book, so I’m very happy. I hope they like it.
  • There’s nothing like a slightly-too-small pair of pants to remind you that you should do more sit-ups and eat less stuffed-crust pizza.
  • It’s tough to teach a text you really love. If students don’t love it (or don’t love it enough) then you might take it personally. And it’s not personal.
  • A student just asked to see my copy of The New Jim Crow after I mentioned it in class. There is no better way for a school day to end. We’re done here.

The Didactic Interview: Sofia Ali-Khan

To confront the existential horror of President Trump, I’m joined by my longtime activist friend Sofia Ali-Khan. We discuss our lives as progressive rabble-rousers, educators, and Americans. We sort through the problems we face and some concrete steps for action. Let’s get to work, everybody!

Links to things we discussed:

Here’s the song at the end, “Simply Are” by Arto Lindsay:

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.