Not All Students Fit Mold

Danny was nearly pigeonholed for a bird-man drawing

As the class of 2010 shoulders the all-important book bags and heads for those exhilarating first yellow school bus rides, it's helpful to remember that not every child will fit "the mold" exactly.

Molds, categories, and labels are only useful if they lead us toward something - not away from it.

I remember a friend, Judy, taking her son to school 20 years ago. At that time the school gave a readiness test to all kindergarten students.

She didn't want to make her firstborn anxious about the testing. So she merely told him he was going to visit his new school and talk to the teacher.

Judy waited in the hallway while five-year-old Danny eagerly went with the teacher. Afterward, Judy was told she would be hearing from the staff soon.

Back in the car, she casually asked Danny what he did with the teacher. All he could remember was that she'd asked him to draw a picture of a man.

Danny said he drew a pigeon. Judy, trying to get a grip before jumping off the nearest bridge, managed to ask Danny why, if he was asked to draw a man, he drew a pigeon.

"Well," he said, "when I started drawing the fingers, they got too long, so I just turned them into wings."

No one else asked Danny about the picture. But his pigeon/man apparently was enough to cast him as not ready-for-prime-time kindergarten - he was placed in a special developmental kindergarten class.

Danny didn't fit the cookie-cutter norm at school, but it didn't mean he couldn't or wouldn't be a good student.

First school experiences are crucial and it's important not to let one or two tests or mistakes pigeonhole a child.

Danny's first experience didn't have a negative effect because his mother was active in her child's school life, maintained a sense of humor, and communicated with her child, his teachers, and his friends.

Danny didn't fit the mold in other areas either. In fact, he was one lad ahead of his time. His interest in dinosaurs foreshadowed what became a popular subject in the late 1970s and evolved into today's billion-dollar dinosaur-based entertainment and education industry.

Most parents of today's preschoolers are not surprised to hear the words stegosaurus or Tyrannosaurus rex coming from the mouths of babes. But it was most unusual in a 1975 kindergarten class.

As was common, the class often worked on one letter of the alphabet in many different ways; finding things in the room that begin with a certain letter, making the sound of the letter and tracing the letter.

One day, Danny's class was given the task of drawing three things that began with the letter "d." When the teacher came to our hero, Danny, she began to write the word "dinosaur" on his page to match the picture he had drawn.

"That's not just a dinosaur," the budding paleontologist said, "it's a diplodocus."

"Well," answered the teacher, "I'm just writing dinosaur."

The next drawing was of a die, not a pair of dice, but one die. The teacher seemed pleased that Danny was getting all his "d" sounds correct and happily labeled his drawing "dice."

Again the enthusiastic student told the teacher it wasn't dice, but rather one die. The teacher insisted on writing the word dice on his paper, though.

Despite his first year placement, Danny did not repeat any grades in school. He later qualified for high school honors classes. He finished college and in one of his first positions, he evaluated learning problems in children - hopefully his own experiences were of value to him in seeing each child as an individual. He is now a youth director in a community center.

Counseling public school children and their families, I've learned it's best not to jump to the kinds of conclusions that are still all-too-common in our society. For example, don't assume because a family's name is Lopez that the child is Catholic, or needs to be placed in bilingual classes. Don't assume that physical disabilities have anything to do with intelligence.

Think about the Dannys, the Tamikas, the Manuels, and each individual student. They depend on all of us - family and friends - to ask the questions, and more importantly, to take the time to listen to the answers about who they are.

* Vicki Blum Vigil is a home and school counselor in the Euclid, Ohio, public school system.

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