Dedication: This essay is dedicated to my daughters Aila and Sumay, as well as their good friend Aanya. Your creation of, “WEquil.School”, during the coronavirus outbreak inspired me to share my deeply personal story in hopes that it may help more kids learn to love learning.
Dear Teachers and Parents,
I failed Kindergarten...and was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) shortly after. Most of my childhood I thought I was dumb. This was my big secret...but sometimes life presents opportunities to share our secrets in hopes that they may help a greater good.
As I write this essay, schools across the country are shut down, and parents are being forced to juggle work and educate their kids. For many parents...this is a struggle. But for many kids...it’s the first time they are being treated like individuals with their own unique strengths and interests.
In this essay I share my own experience struggling through the traditional public education system, a system that has not changed much since the industrial revolution. I then provide several reasons why I believe that our digital age and our creativity driven economy require a rethink of childhood education.
My hope is that my story can inspire others who felt or feel like failures … who never got the benefit of early childhood education, tutors, and a stable family. These are gifts my wife and I bring to our daughters today, and they make a difference. But the only thing that really matters is learning to love learning.
Picture: Baby Sumay
My parents broke up when I was four years old...the same year I started Kindergarten. Memories are hazy, but I do remember the fights. My brother and sister and I would play games while our parents argued.
Sumay and Aila, my daughters, had books in their hands when they were babies. My wife and I sent them to Montessori Schools starting at age 2. They could read small words by age 3. When I must have been about 4, I remember playing in a sandbox. It was dark out...but I didn’t mind as I played with my toys...alone. I didn’t know a single letter.
Shortly after my parents split up I was told I failed Kindergarten. We kids moved to Iowa to live with my Mom’s parents in Winfield Iowa. New school … new rules. My grandmother, Betty Wittrig (Momow) loved telling me a story of what the principal told her upon hearing that I had flunked Kindergarten. She said, “Your new school doesn’t believe in holding kids back. After school, you get to go to a special class where they will help you keep up with your new class”. My face widened and I yelled out, “Yippee! I’m part of the world!”
I guess they would call the class “Special Needs” today. There were only five of us. Most had been diagnosed with learning disabilities...as I would a few years later. My teacher was an angel. She helped kids like me because she loved making a difference. She reminds me of my sister, also a Special Edu teacher. Most of those kids wouldn’t have a chance without people like them...and yet they remain some of the most underpaid and under appreciated professionals in the USA.
By the second grade I had graduated out of “Special Edu” and even scored at the top 99% for math on a standardized test, but my success was short-lived. We moved again...this time with my Dad and Stepmother, Albina, before I started the third grade. New school … new rules … and theirs were less forgiving. The hardest part was making friends and fitting in, problems that my wife never had to contend with. She had an entirely different set of challenges.
My wife went to an elementary school that was literally just a concrete bunker. The toilet was a hole in the ground. One day a child accidentally fell in the hole and the teacher had to fish him out. Kids didn’t have books. The schools could only afford one book...so the “lecture” consisted of the teacher writing the text on the blackboard for the students to copy. You were tested on your ability to remember what had been written.
She went to school at dawn, riding an adult-sized bicycle to school starting at age five. They learned math, Chinese and English. Unfortunately, their English teacher didn’t really know English, so conversational English was largely skipped over in favor of memorizing words.
The gym class consisted of running for a half-hour followed by a few minutes of PingPong played on concrete tables. Lihong’s classmates studied all day until dinner...with the only break being a short power-nap around noon. She would typically fall asleep with a book in her lap before waking up the next day to repeat the same schedule six and a half days a week...all year long. Such a rigorous schedule seems unhealthy to many western readers, but Lihong did not find it stressful. Kids knew what was expected of them, and that was to study.
With so much time dedicated to studying there was almost no time for friends or messing around. Quite the opposite of her husband, Lihong skipped Kindergarten and was always at the top of her class. One occasion she decided to draw a picture instead of listening to her teacher review the answers to a test she had Aced. Her teacher walked up to her and hit her over the head with a wooden ruler. That was the last time she ever lost focus...until she met me.
Third grade was hard for me because it was the beginning of social pressures and anxieties of fitting in … It was especially hard by being in a new school district and a family still trying to piece itself back together. Unlike many growing up in China, there were a lot of distractions, and I had a hard time paying attention to my studies.
That’s when I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). A specialist sat me down and asked me a few questions. Then we bounced a ball back and forth for about five minutes. After that, he told my parents I had ADD and wrote them a prescription for Ritalin. Momow told me later that the same doctor, “had diagnosed lots of little boys” … and that was a key reason she did not trust him.
It turns out that lots of “little boys” were being put on medication so they would “calm down” back then. Teachers valiantly trying to keep order in a classroom of 30 kids can’t really be blamed for what is now widely regarded as a bit of an overdiagnosis of kids, especially boys, that never evolved to sit in a chair for hours a day taking notes. If you type word “overdiagnosis” into Google and the first suggestion is .
My parents and grandparents didn’t let me take any medication, and I’m thankful for that. Many people need medication, but for me, I think it would have stunted my ability to hone my unique personality and develop natural coping mechanisms. It would take years before I figured this out though. All I knew at the time was that I was struggling at home, doing poorly at school, didn’t have any real friends, and a “Doctor” said I had a disability.
In short...I thought I was stupid.
But a seed of hope was planted in the Fifth Grade. My stepmother, Albina, came to me after I delivered a poor first-quarter report card. She had asked my teacher, Mrs. Wunch, if I could get extra help...but was turned down.
Albina looked me right in the eye and said, “Joe...you are smart...you just need to prove it to her.” The next week my teacher gave us all a pre-exam to assess where we stood in understanding fractions, decimals, and percentages. I aced it. Mrs. Wunch walked up to me and asked, “How do you know this already?” I just sat there not knowing what to say. She told me I would be bored for the next two weeks given my results so she offered to let me do a project of my choosing so long as it involved applying fractions, decimals, and percentages.
That was the first time I ever got to have a say in what I did at school. I walked home stunned. My mind was racing. What did I want to do? I hadn’t ever been asked what I wanted to do.
My teacher gave me a hall pass so I could conduct a survey of students around the school. I was in my element...and learned more about myself, the value of numbers, and public speaking during those two weeks than I probably learned that entire year sitting in a classroom.
… then it was over.
All kids in public education are told they are students. They are told to learn from their teachers. Unfortunately, they are not told that the best way to learn is to teach. I had to wait until college to figure this out for myself.