An Educational Bildungsroman:
A Journey from Special Education to College Professor
by: J. D. Rall
My educational story begins with an excruciating event in elementary school when I was held back to repeat the first grade for a second time. When we are young, we don’t have an awareness that might help us later, we hardly know the past, and the future is very far away. At the time, I did not understand that there was an intended benefit, that the adults in my life who were responsible for my education considered it in my best interest long-term to hold me back one more year. I felt singled out and possibly a little inferior at the time, and over the years the experience festered and scarred.
That experience helped shape later experiences, like failing most of my 6th grade courses. In middle school I was tested, then placed in Special Education classes. My enrollment in these Special Education classes continued right through to the end of my grade school career. At 12 or 13, I hadn’t figured out what it meant to be labeled “learning disabled.” Although I didn’t articulate it even in my own thoughts, I understood that I was being segregated from the average kids because I was in remedial classes and there was a label on me that read “not abled.” But it wasn’t just being placed in a remedial course that affected me. Actually, I think it was the fact that these classes in my middle school were also separated physically from the rest of the “normal” classes. My remedial classes were in a tower, locked high away from the plaza below where the average or acceptable kids mingled. My classmates and I would sit at the tower windows and look down and dream of mingling, too, with everybody else.
Sadly, in high school the segregation continued. Special education students were placed into a single classroom, a small building all its own, located in the center of the student parking lot. The adjacent building was the groundkeeper’s garage. This only exacerbated my sense of isolation and heightened my lack of motivation to do anything that resembled schooling. At 17 or 18, I thought I would be committed to a life of physical labor in a town where my peers were setting their sights on Ivy League universities, med schools, and law schools. I must admit that by the time I had finished high school, my philosophy of education was a raised middle finger and a giant yawn.
Owing to the deficiency of my education, I excelled in sports. I was a star soccer player, a state champion gymnast, studied martial arts, rode bikes, skateboarded, played basketball and baseball, and pursued surfing with a passion. I also compensated for my deficiencies in school with woodworking, handcrafts, and surfboard shaping. The only pleasure I found in school was when I was in a Creative Design class.
Although my memory of all this is a bit faded or blocked out, I remember some things. I remember people saying I had a learning disability in reading. I remember the remedial courses and the special education classes. I remember my mother taking me to tutors and I remember reading three of Shakespeare’s plays on my own and being upset in English class that the other kids weren’t getting it. I remember reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and I also remember that if you had asked me if I had read any books, I would answer that I had never finished one from cover to cover. This doesn’t make sense to most people. Clearly I had read several books. The thing is, I didn’t equate the pleasurable experience I had with those books as “reading.” I could not connect the pleasure of Shakespeare with the pain of the “disability.” I thought of his writing as puzzles and finding the multitude of layers or levels of significance was a game. To me, reading was Reading, an academic subject that I was not “good” at, that included the humiliation of reading aloud and test questions, which would inevitably reiterate what everyone already knew, that I was a poor “reader.”
The label of “learning disabled” followed me into college. It might seem strange that I would even bother to enroll in community college, considering how I felt about school. But in the affluent town I grew up in, going to college was just the next step in education. No more a voluntary choice than high school or elementary school. So, the first year in community college I enrolled in typical General Education courses, but I could not seem to bring myself to attend class regularly. I spent most of my time surfing and earning a little money making surfboards, interspersed with strong bouts of drinking. After a short stint on Oahu where I realized the poverty I was heading toward, I decided to try school again. Luckily I had the option to move back home and begin again at the local community college, Los Angeles Harbor College. I started the semester planning to major in business, then switched to fire technology to become a fireman, but found myself failing again. Then something really changed.
What changed? At some point in my second attempt at community college, I found a friend who I wanted to impress and, more importantly, who would not allow me to belittle my own intelligence and capability. We met in our Human Sexuality class. She sat in front of me. I was terribly shy. She was terribly smart. She would not accept nor believe the label of learning disabled. She said to me, “Johnny, this is bullshit, for you to even think that you are disabled is bullshit.” Previously, I didn’t want to try in school because, as the saying goes, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” I did not want to further prove to anyone what had been told to me already, that I was incapable of learning, that I was a disabled learner, but I began to think she saw something that I was blind to.
In one semester I went from earning C’s, D’s and F’s to earning straight B’s. I tried harder the next semester, with more intent, and received straight A’s. Suddenly, I wanted to see how far I could go. I chose to rush my way to UC Santa Cruz. I completed 22 semester units consecutively with straight A’s. What changed? What changed was that I understood the nature of the challenge, that I needed to make what I learned my own, not what some teacher told me. In one history class, I remember that the teacher asked me to explain to the rest of the class how I managed to earn 100% on every test. The truth was, I didn’t have a secret trick to studying, I just liked learning about history. I had stopped caring about the class a long time ago, and had been scrutinizing history for my own sake. I didn’t skim the textbook, I read every word and even extended my reading to other books when a particular topic intrigued me. I learned that learning is mine, not some structured system’s ideal, not some measured quantity that can be compared to other students. Learning became a way of being, a way of looking with a yearning to know more. What changed was that learning became a pleasure, a pleasure of knowing and of succeeding, a delicious nectar.
At 19, I began to apply myself because applying myself made me feel good and earned me success. Many years later, in hindsight, I realized that my learning disability was actually a dysfunction of the educational system that I had been subjected to. I was unaware of the choices that were being made for me, choices that chained me to a designation. Ironically, I also felt a bitterness in me when I began excelling in college. I completed 22 consecutive semester units with straight A’s to say to all those who had said that I was incapable, “*%$# you.” I chose to free myself from the chains that had held me back from achieving and wanted to prove to everyone that I was not only capable, but worthy of respect, which is also a freedom of sorts.
Over time, I found strategies to help me overcome the label of “learning disabled.” For one, I felt I had to teach myself to read and be “good” at Reading. My way of doing this was to force myself to read a newspaper from cover to cover every single day before I did anything else. Another strategy I used was to get a historical perspective on new subjects or topics because, as a learner, I felt the need to situate myself within the dialogue of that discipline in order to feel I could understand it at all. I was so successful at overcoming the label that I actually reached a point where people would be surprised when I told them that I had been in Special Ed. Yet, inside, I can’t say that the label has been erased completely. A deep-seated insecurity still bites at my heels. This insecurity persisted through my Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Anthropology. It followed me into the Master’s Degree program, where I pursued a line of study that I hoped would satisfy some of my questions: Why do we have institutions of learning? and Why is learning to write important? In my Master’s Thesis, “Humanistic Attitudes: The Pursuit of Democracy in Literature and Education,” I explored answers to these questions and others that helped inform my pedagogy.
As a graduate student working toward an M.A. in English with an emphasis in Comparative Literature, I was no stranger to writing. After all, I had earned two bachelor’s degrees in the most reading and writing intensive disciplines at my alma mater. At San Diego State University, I was also successful. So as I approached the completion of the program, I began to teach writing in the Rhetoric and Writing Program.
Despite my experience and accomplishments in writing, when my turn came to become a writing instructor, I felt a great deal of trepidation. The trepidation came from an incomplete education, especially in writing. Though I could pass any course, my writing was not strong. It was often marked by long complex phrasings, enigmas, and constructed language puzzles that I thought a good and worthy reader should be able to decipher. When I wrote, I wrote to “boggle” the mind. My professors, to their immense credit, managed to find the innovative thoughts and encouraged further exploration and discussion, but they always remarked on my lack of clarity. Having no real sense of the art of writing, I poked the complex thoughts out on paper and assumed that because I had interesting ideas and I could put them on paper, that they were bound to be a good read.
Many lessons in writing, surprisingly enough, originated from reading my students’ writing. I could recognize the problems in my students’ papers because the texts I had been reading and studying for several years came from the best writers and thinkers. As I identified my students’ problems and helped them strengthen their writing, I began to recognize the same problems in my own writing. Ironically, it was the study of another language, Latin, that ultimately gave me a solid ground in grammatical skills. This improved my writing and my confidence tremendously and, furthermore, gave me an understanding of what grammar I needed to teach my writing students. In more than one student, I even came face to face with the same convoluted writing style that I had been using for years. Being on the receiving end of writing that “lacked clarity” taught me to think of my audience when writing. This was probably the most important lesson I learned in regards to writing. My audience really needs me to construct clear sentences and to deliver my ideas clearly. Clear writing actually does lend itself to good reading. Who knew?
Nevertheless, in my first semester of teaching as a T.A. at San Diego State University, I felt a little uneasy about teaching writing because I had not fully internalized the process of writing myself. My main concern, at the time, was to create a classroom environment that accomplished two main tasks. The first task was to provide real knowledge of the skills of critical thinking (Rhetorical Literacy). The second task was to provide practical knowledge of social disparities. These ideas were influenced by the writings of Paulo Freire. I had previously justified these concerns in an essay titled “Critical Thinking, Critical Conscience, and Academic Discourse.” In this essay, I argue that the Freirian notion of “critical consciousness,” the “Libratory Education” (an awareness of real political power and oppression), could not be effective without employing the two tasks I mentioned simultaneously.
Yet, I was wholly dissatisfied with my approach after the first year, because I felt that there was something missing in my students. Though many of them did well and responded positively to my instruction, I found many of them still lacked motivation (a yearning to learn). From my own experience, I realized that what made me motivated was that I found a way to make school matter to me. I sought ways to make school (and my English classes, in particular) matter to them.
To make things matter, it seems that my students need to see themselves as actors in their lives, that they gain a sense of where they are in the systems they are in. Thus my main strategy is to have them start reflecting on the purposes and value of education. When they can see what is expected of them in regards to the course, to themselves, and to the society at large, the students begin to see themselves as engaging in the shaping of our collective future. Responsibility for education becomes theirs and they elect it.
I have been for many years, and still am, a writing instructor. The classes I teach are usually “remedial” although, of course, no one calls them that anymore. My students are usually developmental writers, even though they are in college. So you can see that, in some ways, I come from a similar educational space as my students. Although my students come from a variety of experiences and backgrounds, many of them have something in common with me. They have all been labeled in one way or another, and internalized the label, through their school experiences. They are “A”, “B”, “C”, etc. students, they are “bright” or “slow,” they are “average,” “normal,” or “accelerated.” They are “good” at math and “bad” at English or “good” at English and “bad” at math, and often times they say they are “bad” at both. The problem with labels is that we feel compelled to live up to them. It may seem counterintuitive to embrace a negative label, but I understand why some of my students do this. It’s like this. Maybe you loved baseball as a kid. So when your P.E. class played baseball, you were excited to participate. But in the first game, it becomes unpleasantly obvious that you have not developed the same level of eye-hand coordination as the others in your class. At the next P.E. class, teams are chosen by students, and you are the last one chosen. As it becomes clear to you that your favorite activity does not favor you, you are presented with several choices that come down to: You can try harder than anyone else and risk the possibility that you will never even be good at it. Or you can try not at all, not care at all, embrace a non-baseball-loving identity and perhaps even scorn the baseball lovers. High stakes on one side makes the other choice, usually, the more attractive. Regardless of whether the label is positive or negative, every student bears some kind of label that places an obstacle to their learning, an obstacle that prevents them from caring about the subject.
Another obstacle I have identified and been working on for the past four years is the students’ lack of understanding of the purpose of the educational system and their place within it. For many students and many people, school is a means to an end. The degree is the means to “get a good job.” The classes are the means to the degree. Getting a good (or better) job through higher education is a good reason to walk in the door and go through the paces, so getting a great job or well-respected job might motivate a bright student to get good grades. But yearning to learn is something different.
Whenever I enter my classrooms at the beginning of a new semester, I realize that half of my job is to remove these obstacles. I address these obstacles by exposing students to essays that help them understand the history of Academia and lead them to think critically about their own place within it and where that places them within the socio-political world. We read “Allegory of the Cave” by Plato, “On the Education of Children” by Michel De Montaigne, and excerpts from writings by Freire, Nussbaum, and other pedagogical and non-pedagogical philosophers. By the end of the course, many of my students say it is the best class they have ever taken. Their final papers inevitably demonstrate that their confidence bears security and drive.
I realize now that I am fortunate to have had the experiences that I have had. When I reflect on my educational story, I am reminded of what led me to become a teacher and the obstacles I removed along the way. It is because of the experiences that I have that I can easily return to my earlier fears, fears that many of my students who are developmental writers, share as a result of our shared educational experiences. If we, as writing instructors, can take the time to look past the labels and give each student a fresh start, we can resist and remove the labeling that derails the educational process for many of our students. As a writing instructor, my development has been enhanced by an awareness that I am like my students and my students are like me. Only this time, I am not going to allow the labels to get in the way of our learning.