Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Think Challenge, Not Impossibility

Once again, I have posted a "musing" to Mahlou Musings that seems to fit here in the clan space as well. So, here is that thought -- it comes from my 2003 book of vignettes.

"Where there's a will, there's a way" is the line written under the picture of a mouse pulling an elephant up a hill. That picture has hung on my wall for a very long time. My friend and former roommate, Katie, gave it to me years ago because she thought it exemplified my attitude toward life. She's right. It does.

When my daughter, Noelle, was very small, she would occasionally say, "I can't." That, to me, was not the appropriate response to a difficult situation even though she was paraplegic and coping with a few other problems, such as epilepsy and hydrocephalus (water on the brain).

"No," I would tell her. "Can't is not the word you are searching for. You want the word, how, and the question, how can this be done? Think challenge, not impossibility. Where there's a will, there's a way."

As a young child, she learned this lesson very quickly, perhaps partly because it fits her own instinctive philosophy of life. Slides of preschool Noelle feeding the cows on her grandmother's farm, slopping the pigs, riding the tractor with her Uncle Will, and swinging on gliders with her very young aunts, Sharon and Victoria, were used in a multi-conference presentation by her neurosurgeon on the topic, "What Spina Bifida Children Can Do."

Noelle was lucky. She met other people who thought challenge, not impossibility. When she wanted to learn to roller skate because her kindergarten class went roller skating once a week at the next-door roller rink, Andi Kush, her physical therapist, did not say, "Paraplegic children cannot roller skate."

She said instead, "Well, we have to figure out a way to do it safely. Crutches and roller skates are not compatible." She recommended a walker with rollers on the front and rubber tips on the back, and that worked just fine.

The guard at the roller rink also thought that a mouse could pull an elephant up a hill. When Noelle became discouraged from multiple falls, he did not say, "Roller skating with braces and a walker is probably too hard; don't worry about it."

Instead, he come up to her outside the rink and sat down beside her. "I've been watching you," he said. "If you keep up that hard work, one day you'll be a champion."

Reinvigorated, Noelle pulled herself back up from the bench. Pushing her walker ahead of her, she skated back into the rink.

Many students who might have failed have graduated from programs I have directed because teachers thought challenge, not impossibility. "Can't is a word that I don't understand," I would tell any who claimed that a student could not learn and needed to be disenrolled. "Figure out how the student learns and teach him or her that way."

Figuring out how students learn has led to drastically reduced attrition rates in my educational programs. That attitude led to the graduation of proud students who might otherwise have left or been disenrolled and demoralized. What the teachers and I learned in that process has led to articles, book chapters, and books, sharing that information with colleagues around the world. It has also led to my conducting seminars on that topic in many countries, often team-teaching with some of those teachers who made the discoveries with me years ago.

The most recent example was with Doah a decade ago. Due to his mental retardation and very low IQ, our local public schools refused to teach him to read anything but highly functional words, such as exit and toilet. Teachers and administrators told me routinely that reading was an inappropriate goal for him. After he graduated from high school, he began regular tutoring sessions with a former elementary school teacher, Julie, who had a different attitude. As a result, he began to read real books, ultimately writing one with my help that was featured by the press at the National Book Exhibit in Los Angeles in 2003, where he spent some time as an author, signing books for visitors.

"After I gave up trying to teach him the standard way and my way," Julie told me, "I paid attention to how he learns, and I began to teach him his way. That worked." Of course, it worked. It worked because she was thinking how, not can't. It worked because she was thinking challenge, not impossibility.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On Feeling Rich

I woke up this morning, feeling like a princess. I had a sheet underneath me, a sheet over me, a blanket on top of that, and then, riches of all riches, a fluffy bedspread to snuggle into. Ever since purchasing a new bed in early July and moving our old bed into the empty bedroom for Doah and guests, we have had only a blanket on top.

I have hankered after a bedspread not because it is the commonly accepted way to finish a bed -- everyone knows I am eccentric, anyway, so having a blanket was sufficient in many respects: warmth, covering, etc. No, I just wanted a bedspread the way children want a ball or candy or something special. For me, the bedspread was special.

Certainly, with my income I can afford a bedspread. But there is an odd thing about my income: it disappears rather quickly. (I suppose I am not unique in that way.) First, there is Shane who needs $300 a month for special milk for Nikolina who is missing most of her intestines. Then there is Lizzie and her cat, who seems to need surgery periodically. Then Doah and Noelle, who needed scads of money to pay for medical expenses as children but need little these days, are always happy to have a small gift. And that's family. After that, there is Sula, the parish cat, who needs surgery -- I promised God's credit card in support of that cost. And the mission and the retreat center and other charities. And, the most fun of all, nearly every day someone who happens into my life who needs the money more than I do. After all, I need little and, surprisingly, I find myself post-conversion wanting little. I enjoy sprinkling my income around in this way, but somehow it did not leave any extra for a bedspread the past two months.

Until I got my recent travel reimbursement and per diem and found that I had spent considerably less on eating than my office thought I should have. Yippee! Bedspread money!

There is something special about waiting. There is something special about wanting. Instant gratification does not compare with the richness of want deferred or potential want gratification given away to someone else.

Yes, I feel rich with my new bedspread. However, I feel even richer each time I am able to take money from my pocket and give it to someone who needs it more.

(Also posted on 100th Lamb.)

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