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Valentine


St. Valentine. Patron saint of beekeepers. Blessing those who navigate between the honey and the sting.

Okay. This one’s too easy. How about a reach?

My work in cognitive distinctions began when I was a young school teacher. My interest was in how we developed language, then, in particular, reading. I got obsessed by why some cracked the code easily and others didn’t seem to.

Picking up on john a. powell’s Othering and Belonging. Children who cracked the code had some kind of cosmic light of Belonging shine on them, while children who repeatedly struggled were cast out into an Other place called “special.”

A boy, let’s call Luke, was a third grader. He had terrible handwriting, and hated reading. During reading period he would slump all over his desk as if his bones had gelatinized, and he matched his posture with an exhausted expression that suggested he was on the verge of collapse. The second recess was announced, his face lit, he bounced up, and fled rapidly into the play yard, and whatever natural science experiment he had underway in some dirt pile. Our science teacher was an entomologist by vocation, and Luke would try to find ever exotic bugs to engage with her. She never disappointed.

When the reading specialist evaluated Luke one on one, he displayed high-school level vocabulary and reading comprehension. His parents had his vision and hearing tested: both were normal. The diagnoses started: “He’s just lazy.” “He’s not motivated.”

At mid-year, we used three types of reading exercises. We had one set that presented a single sentence that required a one-word response. The page has single lines surrounded by lots of space. The second set presented a paragraph with a multiple-choice response. Each paragraph was set off by lots of white space. The third presented a page or two of closely-spaced reading with questions to be answered in complete written sentences.

At some point, I realized Luke was working on the 8th grade level on the single sentence materials, the 4th grade level on the paragraph materials, and he shape-changed into an invertebrate when presented with the stories and accomplished next to nothing. The headmaster, Peter, poked his head into my room one day when the students were away at Music, and I was pondering Luke's work folder. “I’m waiting for revelation,” I said. Peter laughed, “It will come.”

It did.

The school had just been given a photocopier: our first. It had this revolutionary feature in that you could enlarge a copy by a factor of two. I took the book with the stories that would boil Luke's bones, and photocopied it. Then I cut each page up into individual paragraphs. I pasted each paragraph on a clean sheet of paper, then I enlarged each paragraph. The assignment now had one enlarged paragraph on each page: lots of space between words, between lines, and between paragraphs. I put the pages in order into Luke’s reading folder.

The children came into the room. Luke sat in his desk and opened his folder. He was already beginning to slump.

The papers caught his eye. Already slumped on one arm, he scanned a page. He started visibly and sat upright. He started to read and turn the pages rapt with attention and displaying full energy. I was so excited, I abandoned a classroom full of nine-year olds, and raced illegally across the gym floor to the office of the school psychologist. “Harriet, you have to see this.” We dashed back to the classroom. Luke was still sitting up straight, turning pages, and reading with interest and focus. “It’s a miracle.” Harriet murmured. She was a behavioral scientist who wasn’t above using a spiritual metaphor to express the happy astonishment of a eureka moment.

I now understand it wasn’t a miracle. It’s the release of our life’s force that happens when we move from The One Who is Other to The One Who Belongs. Okay, maybe a miracle.

The photocopier got a lot of use enlarging Luke’s texts. By fourth grade, he became our first student to use a laptop to read and to compose text.

What emerged after some sophisticated neurological testing, was Luke had congenital muscle weakness in his upper body. It was a non-progressive muscular dystrophy that particularly impacted the small muscles we use for precise movements -- like vision, like handwriting. While Luke could focus his eyes normally for short periods, over time the effort to focus his eyes on small text was exhausting for him. His muscles couldn’t sustain the effort. Same with handwriting. The muscles of his fingers fatigued exceptionally rapidly. All he needed to succeed was enlarged text and a keyboard.

Turns out he wasn’t lazy or unmotivated. He just needed to belong.

Today is a day when Othering and Belonging is put into sharp focus. Who else in our lives can we bring under the cosmic spotlight of Belonging?


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