By Greene County Superintendent of Schools David Jeck

People tend to remember where they were and what they were doing when really bad things happened. Whether it was the Kennedy assassination, the Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy, or 911, people maintain vivid memories of those

Greene County School Suoerintendent Dave Jeck, center, was once a special education student

events. I remember, for example, exactly where I was and what I was doing the first time that I realized that I was not as “smart” as the other kids. In fact, I remember thinking that I was dumb, that I was not like everyone else, and that my peer group would be limited to kids with the same issues that I had.

I was told that I would be attending a new school during the summer between second and third grade. Not because I or my parents wanted me to and not because we changed residences, but because I was struggling in school and someone at some point decided I needed more specialized educational services. I don’t remember thinking or caring much about the change at that point.  I did have to ride the “little bus,” but I don’t remember being too bothered by it initially. My new school seemed fine and I made new friends quickly.

The following summer my mother hinted that I might be returning to my old school, and I was excited!  I was becoming more and more sensitive to the innocent teasing by some of my neighborhood pals. It seems that riding the little bus to school wasn’t such a cool thing and some of the not so innocent teasing that I was experiencing was damaging. Still, I don’t remember being traumatized, just annoyed. The traumatization came at the hands of the adults, one adult in particular.

One fall morning a classmate named Donna and I were called to the office. She and I walked quietly to the office and were escorted into a room where a man whom I had never seen before sat at a desk. He was an older, balding “gentleman” who wore glasses and had a scowl on his face. He did not acknowledge our entrance into the room. We sat in two chairs directly in front of his desk and waited. After a few moments, the man spoke:

“Donna, spell a word for me.”

Donna thought for a moment and then, with a smile on her face, said:

“Cat. C-A-T. Cat”

The man behind the desk seemed unimpressed.

“Can you spell a longer word?”

Donna, whom I liked very much, suddenly had a look of pure terror on her face. She sat quietly and said nothing.  After what seemed like an eternity, she finally spoke:
“No, I can’t,” she said.

The balding man said nothing at first and instead jotted down a few notes. After a moment or two, he looked at Donna with the same disgusted gaze. “You can return to class.” Without saying a word, the humiliated Donna exited the room.

Now, just the balding man and I remained in the room. I remember feeling badly for Donna, but what could I do? I knew she could spell longer words. Why didn’t she? “Anyone can spell cat, for crying out loud,” I thought to myself.

Now, the balding man looked at me and spoke:

“Please spell a word for me.”

This was my chance. My foolproof strategy was to spell the longest word that I could think of, totally impress the balding, grumpy man, and then be immediately returned to Murphy Ranch Elementary on a big, long bus. I looked confidently at the balding man and spoke:

Dave Jeck

“Mother. M-O-T-H-E-R. Mother.”

I am sure that I smiled broadly because I remember being extremely proud of myself. Hey, how many eight year olds could spell “mother?” But, as you might have guessed, the balding man was not impressed. I quickly surmised that perhaps all eight year olds could spell mother.

“Can you spell a longer word?” the balding man asked.

Now, looking back nearly forty years and as I reflect on that awful morning (as I have hundreds of times), I am sure I could have spelled a longer word. If the man had asked me to spell “December” or “Mississippi” for example, I am sure that I would have nailed it. He didn’t and instead left the choosing to me.  I thought for a moment and drew a blank. “No, I can’t” was my shamed reply. The man jotted down a few notes and offered the same look of disgust. “You can return to class” were the parting words from the man whom I would never see again.

I am now 46 years old. I’ve earned a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction and Doctorate in Educational Leadership.  I have had a successful career as an educator, having served as a high school social studies teacher, high school principal, and now a public school superintendent.  I am an adjunct professor, teaching future school administrators, for a prestigious Washington D.C area university.  I’ve been happily married for over twenty years and have two teenage boys who are excellent students and wonderful kids, but a part of me is still ashamed and embarrassed to write or talk about my time as a special education student.

My transition back to a mainstream classroom wasn’t easy. Over the following several years I honed my ability to compensate for my processing difficulties.  I’ve come to learn that my disability is one associated with “working memory” disorder: I could read anything, but could retain little of what I read. I could be given specific instruction or curricular content, but synthesize very little and had a very hard time responding to questions. I tried desperately to hide my disability through humor or avoidance and was generally successful.  I learned to cope and “found a way” to be successful over time. It has never been easy. In fact, at times, it often seemed downright impossible. Nothing ever came easily, particularly through elementary and middle school. I found relief through athletics, an area where I experienced success and some recognition. Looking back on my own experiences, however, and evaluating what the difference was for me really comes down to one thing: M-O-T-H-E-R, my mom.

I transitioned out of special education in the fifth grade and something very interesting happened: I was identified as gifted. This was very confusing to me, but boy was I happy! The kids in the program were the smart, popular kids who had previously taken delight in giving me a hard time but now I was, legitimately, their peer. How did this happen? How did I go from “retard” to gifted in one short year? The truth is that I don’t remember how or why, but I do remember vividly the reaction of my parents, especially my mother, to the ups and downs of my K-12 education.

My mother never allowed me to make excuses for myself and never made them for me. She held high expectations and NEVER so much as mentioned my “reading problem” to me or anyone else that I am aware of. She expected that I do well in school, just as well as any of the other kids. She insisted that I deal with my own problems (to the extent that I could) and would not allow me to feel sorry for myself, ever.  She made me feel as though I could do anything if I “just tried hard enough.” She never, ever swooped down and took me under her wing when there was a problem at school, either with a teacher or anyone else.

I reference my mother because she did not raise me or my six siblings to be brittle children because she understood that brittle children often become brittle adults. Brittle children are often raised by parents who feel as though they must intervene on behalf of their children whenever a problem, no matter how minor, occurs. They make excuse after excuse for their kids. If they get a bad grade, it is because the teacher didn’t teach the information correctly. If their child gets into a fight, it is always the other child’s fault. If their child isn’t named the starting shortstop on the baseball team, it is because the coach is biased. If their high school senior doesn’t get into a prestigious university, it is because the school system failed him. If the child has excessive absences, it is because the school is creating “stress” in the life of the child and, as a result, becomes ill at the thought of going to school. I experienced all of these scenarios during my time as a high school principal.  I wish I could have done more to help the students in these situations, but the parents were the problem and they are often much more difficult to help.

If you’ve been a public school administrator for any significant length of time then you’ve participated in conferences with parents who MUST solve the problems of their children without ever requiring their children to take responsibility and ownership of their own problems. They swoop in and fix, and then swoop out, temporarily confident that they have truly advocated for their child.  The end products are often children, young adults, and grown men and women who are unable to cope with life’s challenges and, rather than benefitting from the removal of obstacles by parents, actually face the additional hurdle of never truly developing resiliency. Brittle children leave home for college and often return a short time later. Nationally, over 50% of the students who enroll in college as recent high school graduates never finish.

My experiences have taught me that the students who leave us in a brittle state, already burned out as a result of over-parenting having never developed genuine resiliency, will struggle mightily in the post-secondary school universe. College drop-out statistics support this concept. By shifting our focus toward fostering resiliency, and by providing parents with honest and sometimes brutal support, their children will develop into confident, self-advocating students and adults. My mother was not a perfect parent (are any of us?), but she got this part 100% right.

Thanks, Mom, and my kids thank you, too!

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