I met Peter when I was all of seventeen years old. I had just graduated from high school and started my first job at our local university. He worked there too – in tech services, which at the time included managing events involving sound systems, visual presentations, and electronics. We ran into one another quite often, but I was very young and painfully shy and he was shyer yet.
A short time later, I began singing with a young gospel group that was based at a local church and discovered that Peter and his wife (who was the church secretary at the time and is one of the sweetest people I know) attended there. While we weren’t close friends, we recognized that we worked and worshiped together and a casual friendship developed.
Time rolled along and life with it. Jobs changed, family dynamics changed, and even the churches we attended, but I always enjoyed running into him and chatting about whatever came to mind in the moment. He had a great love of short-wave radios and would share some of his interesting experiences.
In more recent years, he began to pursue photography, sharing his work on social media. I can say that I think he was one of the most naturally gifted photographers to ever take up a camera. His work was absolutely amazing, as he was able to see and capture a beauty in everyday things that most could not. He was interesting and funny and I was honored to call him my friend.
Fast forward almost fifteen years. I was a full-time elementary education student at the same university we had worked for and one of my profs handed out this amazing piece illustrating the disconnect between teaching and learning. It was powerful, superbly written, sad, and profoundly eye opening all at the same time. Even more so when I saw the name of the author – my friend, Peter.
“There is a place, all too expansive, all too highly populated; a social no man’s land, a place of confusion and disarray where children wrestle with giants known as words and letters, and stumble through streams of numbers, which others traverse with ease and even pleasure.
All who enter there find frustration their closest companion and misunderstanding tags at their heels from dusk to dawn. They dwell in a place in which messages and directions are sent at the speed of light and all too often received and interpreted at a sadly, significantly slower pace.
Yet those who enter there, are often gifted with the sense of memory which not only rivals those who ridicule them, but unfortunately too often calls to consciousness, the most frustrating of life’s experiences.
Their abilities are limited only by their levels of self-esteem, and the levels of patience which others, blessed with more so called normal functioning capabilities, chose to employ in their dealings with them.
To a great degree it is only through such patience and enhanced levels of sensitivity that person whose pace is a bit slower and whose perception of things is a bit more clouded, will ultimately find doors clearly marked and open, puzzle pieces finally fitting together and disabilities at last transformed into possibilities.” Peter DeHart – October, 1991
I remember running into him shortly afterward and chatting about it and his confirming that the contents were a reflection of his own educational experience. I remember feeling a little confused that someone with the ability to create and write so eloquently and who was so obviously talented should have had to struggle with feelings of failure and inadequacy as a child. I remember feeling sad and determined as I looked ahead into my own teaching career and vowed that I would never intentionally be so insensitive with regard to my students’ learning abilities.
Life had other plans. I didn’t make teaching my lifelong career, but ended up putting about five years into the classroom before stepping back to pursue Christian Ed and writing.
Fast forward another ten years and I am now Mommy to a special learner of my own. She was not our first child, but came into our hearts through adoption and a very rough start in life. From the beginning, everything was a struggle for her and so, like any parent who loves her child, I fought – for understanding, for attention, for action, for sincerity, for results. I did my research. I begged and pleaded. I played devil’s advocate. I got angry. I experienced at a different level the same frustration my child was experiencing as she was pushed through and misunderstood and I began to see exactly what Peter had been talking about.
To connect all of that, it helps to know this…
Peter struggled with what some would consider “disabilities.” Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what those may or may not have been, but in a world where so much emphasis is placed on what people consider to be “normal,” there were those who saw him differently. And, maybe in the very beginning, and as a very young person who had yet to understand that first impressions are of little importance regardless of the circumstances, I did too.
But, not for long. Peter was a brilliant man – as in incredibly gifted and talented, interesting and insightful. Conversations with him were always real and I never walked away without something to ponder. That is, in part, why I think that what he has written has more merit than anything educators will ever learn from a textbook or how they are taught to apply it.
Peter learned differently. My child learned differently. Many children learn differently and that should be okay. Understandably, educators are human beings. No single teacher can be all things to all students, nor should they be expected to. What they are asked to do each and every day with a classroom full of diversified learners is herculean and I admire them more than I can say. The problem lies in the ideology that education for everyone needs to fit inside a pre-established box and in order for a child to be “successfully” educated, he must fit inside that box as well. When he doesn’t and, as Peter said, finds nothing but frustration and misunderstanding, he then BECOMES different in the eyes of the educational system, in the eyes of his peers, and most importantly and tragically, in himself.
I am the parent of a child who is gifted and talented, who is intuitive, creative, and who is capable. I am also the parent of a child who learns differently and whose entire educational experience was little more than a nightmare because she didn’t fit into the predetermined expectations of the box and no one knew what to do with her!
She didn’t learn on their terms because she wasn’t taught on hers!
It had nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not she could and, sadly, the box didn’t have holes that would have allowed alternative methods to flow through. It’s closed walls also prevented her from seeing out which, very loudly and far too early in the game, told her that she was less.
When you teach that to a child, you set him up for a lifetime of failure because he loses trust in his abilities and cannot see his own worth. Boxes, where special needs children are concerned, instill hopelessness and, in any child, that is the greatest travesty of all.
I can remember asking Peter if I may share his writing with some of my daughter’s teachers. I did. I can remember on another occasion asking him if I could share it with some of the foster care agencies. He was fine with that. I remember asking him if he wouldn’t mind if I referenced his work in a blog post some day and I am beyond grateful that he gave his permission. And so, I am.
We need to do better with regard to children who learn differently. I am no sage and I don’t claim to have the answers. I am, however, a former educator who spent most all of her classroom time working with special needs kids, but even more importantly, I’m a Mom. I watched, sweated, and cried right along with my child throughout her entire school career and felt an incredible sense of helplessness as the system let her down again and again. She was/is capable. She just needed someone to recognize, adapt to her needs, and stop trying to make her “fit” in the box. Peter was capable. He just needed someone to do the same. They both deserved better and that shouldn’t have to be something that is acknowledged in hindsight.
Different doesn’t mean wrong. Different doesn’t mean inadequate or incapable. Different doesn’t mean lesser. Different simply means the opposite of the same and, in a world where we profess to honor and encourage individuality, every child deserves to be recognized and respected for his learning style regardless of what that may be. Thank you, Peter, for helping me to understand that.
The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the least — Psalm 119:130