How bags of concrete helped a student deal with his disability

After I retired from the classroom, I was subbing in a special education resource room. There was a young boy who was openly berating himself, as some kids do. Most do it privately, and a lot more than most adults realize. He was basically saying “I’m slow and can’t do things as fast as others and I’m never going to be able to do things as well as others”. 

Necessity is the mother of invention. So I said to him: 

“Suppose we have 100 - 50 lb bags of concrete on this end of the room, and have to move them to the other side of the room. I weigh almost twice as much as you do, so I can carry two at a time, and you can only carry one. So who’s probably going to be able to get those bags to the other side of the room quicker?” 

He answered “You” 

“You’re right. I may get it done quicker. But is there any reason that you can’t get those same 100 bags to the other side of the room?” 

He said “No” 

I then told him about being the only “fat” kid in my classes the entire time I spent in grade school. I could never run as fast as the other kids. I was always last at any kind of race. But I’ve hiked to the top of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney in CA. And others as well. I told him many of those kids who used to be able to run faster than probably hadn’t. And now at my age, I can probably hike faster than most others who used to run faster than me as a kid. 

Then I told him that it took me six years instead of four to get through college. Probably because I had a reading disability that was never diagnosed. But I made it, and even graduated with high honors. I actually learned to compensate for my reading disability by “mind-mapping”, making diagrams or big pictures of how things fit together. 

Then I asked him, “Is it possible you could find a way to make up for only being able to carry one bag when I can carry two. Like maybe walk faster than I do?” 

I taught health education. I taught kids to have an internal locus of control. That’s it’s really not the events of their lives that make them feel good or bad, but their thoughts about them that do. And we always have a choice as to how we want to look at things, including ourselves, and what meaning we want to attach to what happens. We also have a choice as to what we want to focus on, what we compare things to, what we expect in the first place, what we remember about the past, what we imagine for the future, and how much importance we attach to what does happen, or might. Therefore, we also have a choice how we want to feel about anything, including ourselves. 

The good news is that we have choices, choices that we alone can make, and that no one else can make for us, unless we let them. If we do, that’s understandable. People do that all the time, especially when young. But with practice, we can learn to keep control over such choices for ourselves, and to make them in the best possible ways. In the end, some ways will make us feel better, others worse. Some will make it easier to deal with things, i.e. having a learning disabilities, others harder. But no way we choose to look at things will change what’s already happened, or they way some things are. 

So I urge all teachers, but especially those who teach special ed, to teach and remind kids constantly of the cognitive choices they always have. That’s empowering. Then, if they’re making their choices in ways that get in the way of them learning, and your teaching them, offer alternatives. But in the end, it’s their choice, and they have to live with the emotional and behavioral consequences of the ways they choose. 

BTW, when I shared that concrete bag story with the young man, he started crying. I was a little befuddled at his reaction, so I asked his why he was crying. He said, “No one has ever explained it to me that way”. Turns out they were tears of relief, a joy of sorts.