Monday, May 2, 2016

Landscaper! There's a Weed in My Sod: Why We Need Inclusion in Classrooms and Community

Note:  I wrote this several years ago and had originally posted it at my now defunct Educollab blog.  Special acknowledgement to Alec Couros @courosa who shared this video which inspired this post.   I decided to republish this after seeing the Autism Speaks celebration at Kid O's high school.  Rewatching this video by AM Baggs, I continue to be struck by her strong concluding statement:  ,"Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible."  This is what we all must strive for.

Waiter! There's a fly in my soup! What's a fly doing in my soup?

Looks like it's doing the backstroke.


The homeowner is explaining to the decorator and head of landscape team what colors he wants his rooms painted. Outside the team is putting down sod. As they enter each room the homeowner turns to the decorator and says, "I want this room to be painted (insert color here.) The decorator, instead of acknowledging what his client just said, shouts out the window, "Green side up!" This continues room after room after room. Finally the peeved homeowner turns to the decorator. "Have you heard anything I said? I keep telling you my color preferences, and instead of acknowledging them, you keep shouting out the window, "Green side up! Why is that?" The decorator reddens. "I am so sorry, sir. I have been taking notes. If I do not keep shouting green side up out the window, there's a chance that the (insert derogatory slur for ethnic or racial group of your choice or offensive term like "retard") will not remember to set the sod the right side up."


I have been engaged in doing my usual proto-gardening, as I call it. I have been removing dead leaves and other debris that have been covering the ground. I established two new garden spots last fall, so this is especially important. Much as I love winter, I need to do this out of anticipation of new growth. I get anxious to see, what, if any, of the bulbs I planted the previous fall are starting to come out of the ground. I call it, "coaxing out the green." It's a sacred time for me as my world shifts from darkness to light. When I see a tiny bud start to poke out of the ground, I very painstakingly uncover a bit more soil and remove any debris around the tiny plants. They are not my plants. They belong really to Mother Earth. I treat each tiny thing with a great deal of reverence. "Welcome to the world," I whisper. And, yet, when I see a blade of grass or a tiny bit of clover, I yank it. I have no qualms about yanking gill o'er the ground, as wonderful as it smells, since it would crowd out the rest in no time at all. It is, as gardeners would say, an invasive species. Not to be confused with non-native, which is a different thing altogether.

This past week, as I have been clearing out my garden spots, I have also been haunted by In My Language
written and acted and produced by A M Baggs. I forced myself to watch this three, four, five times, even as I feel myself recoil at another human being who is so very different from me. She is noisy. She moves. A lot. She offends my sensibilities which desire stillness of action and quietness of mind. Every time I watch I want to shout, "stop, stop, stop!" Her perpetual interaction with her environment just about exhausts me. And, yet, in the end, my heart centered self manages to feel empathy, something that I suspect would seem really ridiculous to her and possibly even mistaken for pity. She would probably be just as baffled by my emotional connection to my world as I am by her endless movement. In the end when A M Baggs asserts,"Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible," I am thrown back on my heels. She expresses exactly what I have felt about why kids like Kid O, the child of my heart, need to be included. Both profoundly autistic people as well as severely physically disabled people are labeled as non-persons. So even if A M Baggs wouldn't get my emotions and perhaps be repelled by them, she would understand my desire for others in school and in the community at large to accept my daughter as fully human.
None of us are weeds to be disposed of. We all form an intricate part of the educational ecosystem. We all have our loud humanity that demands attention. And care. And understanding. As we slide into the charter school chasm, we need to remember how individuals make up a community. If gifted children are not exposed to kids like Kid O, then we run the risk of teaching these children that only kids like them deserve a quality education. Kids who attend charter schools may be a racially and religiously and culturally diverse group. But there are certainly no weeds. No intellectual eyesores. Poor tester that I am, it is doubtful even I would find my way to a charter school let alone my beloved Kid O.

When the first ed psychologist placed his stamp on Kid O, he essentially denied her not only a place in a classroom, but a place in the community as well. When the advocate who was helping me, in a nominal way, try to advocate for Kid O's rightful place, he told me that since she couldn't speak, perhaps their assessment was right. I knew he had a special needs son who had received assistive technology. I asked him if this was "I've got mine and the hell with you." He paused. Then he apologized. All along he had been discarding my observations and implicitly siding with people at the school. Because she couldn't speak, he was dismissing Kid O's humanity, sight unseen, perpetuating the narrow definition of who is human and who is not.

Excluding people on the basis of whether or not they had received the gift of speech was never acceptable. With technology it is now inexcusable. It is also inexcusable no to be openminded enough to be generous of heart and spirit. AM Baggs is right. When we do not take the time to learn how someone else is in the world, we do not give them human rights. Should not be easy to deny someone else's humanity. We do that when we label people instead of interacting with them. We do that when we call someone by their disability instead of by their name. Kid O is not cerebral palsy. She is Kid O. We do not do anyone a kindness when we shrug and say, "Oh, that is just them. Just who they are." When we do that, we give them an unacceptable out and us along with them. It is then that we can justify placing one child in Special Ed and one child in the gifted program. I have known kids with CP who have been kept out of gifted programs. They are kept out, not because of lack of demonstrable intellect, but because they are not ablebodied. What impact does being able to walk have on whether or not a person can read or is capable of critical thinking? None. And yet we use disability as a reason to exclude all the time. Would John Milton be rejected from the gifted program? Would Helen Keller?

When we place all the gifted kids into charter schools with the sole aim of preparing them for an Ivy League education, we do them a disservice. We are practicing a form of reverse segregation. Now I am not even remotely suggesting that kids like Kid O belong in the same classroom. But they should at least be in the same building. There is a charter school less than a block away from where Kid O attends school, and `yet those kids and Kid O may as well be worlds apart. It's unlikely their paths will ever cross.

When we segregate gifted kids from the rest of the population, we keep them from learning from people of all abilities and all walks of life. We cheat them out of a life that is richer and fuller because we give them the message, implicitly or explicitly, that "you are better than them," and so close off so many possibilities for many different encounters and interactions. We also do not prepare them adequately for certain curveballs that may be thrown their way. Would they know how to cope with life's disappointments? I am not so sure, when the pressure is for them to succeed at all costs.

When we segregate Special Ed kids from the rest of the school population, we do not allow other kids to learn from them. We also do not allow the Special Ed kids to have interactions they may not otherwise have. When we do not allow for the human element to enter into the equation, then we are left with the freak show that A M Baggs talks about. Gifted kids grow up to go to Ivy League schools and great careers and Special Ed kids grow up and end up in sheltered workshops. We are talking about extremes when we should be talking about happy mediums. We should be talking about community. Not that gifted kids shouldn't go to Ivy League schools, but that Special Ed kids should have the opportunity to interact with them and vice versa. These two populations need each other. Together they thrive. One is not better than the other. Just with different strengths and different weaknesses. They could give each other mutual nurturance. They could accept each other's humanity. Love, compassion and acceptance flow both ways.

All kids need community. We all need to feel a sense of belongingness. When we emphasize competition over collaboration, we perpetuate the idea that someone has got to win and someone else has got to lose. We also perpetuate the idea of us versus them. That is a false dichotomy. There is only us. And together we all need to succeed. We need to bring all of us along, regardless of race, religion, disability and how we perceive all of those things. We cannot have human rights for some and not for others. That cannot stand. By the same token, we cannot have educational opportunities for some and not for others. We cannot have life opportunities for some and not for others.

If we had community then all would learn and all would flourish. All would then learn to the best of their abilities, and none would be left out. We have one planet, one community: the community of mankind. If we were to extend what Dr. King said about not being judged by the color of one's skin but by the contents of one's character to also include regardless of disability, then we could have a really strong community where many more people could be more actively a part and not merely living on the fringes.

When gardens are all uniform, they are not as interesting. When communities are more homogeneous, they may lend comfort to those who dwell within, but there is little to recommend them from the outside. There will always be weeds. There will always be people who live on the fringes. But there are also wildflowers which can lend diversity. When we label someone without examining the whole picture, then sometimes students do not get the help they need.

Some of the best people I have known have been weeds. They do not conform to "sod" standards. We lose much in this society when we do not make the effort to know the weeds and to benefit from them. In other cultures, the witch doctor or shaman knows the benefit of weeds. They use different plants for their healing powers. In some cultures, people who are different are revered. Not shunned. A disabled person is not of any less value than a gifted student. Sometimes they are one and the same.

What is this weed doing in my sod? Giving it nuanced beauty, and much needed character.