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A Tragically Typical Tale

Did It Happen To You ...
Or Is It Happening to Your Child?

by Linda Blew Carlson

           I began reading at the age of four.  As I watched my older brothers go off to school, I could hardly wait for my turn.  However, the thrill of learning was short lived. I quit school in 4th grade. Oh, my body sat in class...but not my mind. It happened because a teacher told the class to draw a mountain lion.

           I had spent the previous year attending a small country school which had one teacher for grades 1 - 8, where I was the only 3rd grader.  I was teacher’s pet because of my ability to learn quickly and independently.  The other kids hated me, but the teacher kept issuing me greater challenges. Her philosophy was to keep me moving quickly as long as I could. So, at the tender age of 8, I read The Great Stone Face, by Nathaniel Hawthorne and understood it!

           This kindly, seasoned, teacher instinctively understood my thinking style, and motivated me to apply myself to her challenges by supplying me with art materials and inspiration from a large book featuring paintings hanging in the Louvre museum in Paris. You might say Rembrandt tutored me in art, as I struggled to learn what he knew about light and shadow.

I 'quit' school in 4th grade

           Then my family moved. The 4th grade at my new school had 18 other kids in the same grade. How was I to become a favored child with so much competition? Then the teacher asked us to draw a mountain lion. I knew this was something that could get her attention! I looked at a postage stamp sized picture of the cat and drew it on a standard sized page. When I handed it in, the teacher raised her eyebrows and indicated that she wanted work that I had drawn, not traced.

           In country school, 'traced' meant it didn’t have enough detail, so I returned to my desk to improve the effort. Admittedly, I had left out many details.

           The second time I approached her with my offering, she snatched it away, glanced at it and, as I turned my face up to accept her praise, she slapped me. Through gritted teeth she hissed that she was not fooled for a moment. She expected honesty from her students. Looking into her eyes, I saw that she wanted what she thought I could do, not what I actually could do.

           The next effort was hastily scrawled with clumsy proportions and, thinking I had repented, the teacher smiled. I mentally left school at that point. I was awarded an art medal that year, but it was for ducks with umbrellas and kittens curled in corners, not the Audubon birds I secretly tried to reproduce.

Linda Goes to ‘Survival Mode’

           Year after year I attended classes physically, but only partially listened. My education was dependent only on my own tastes. I had been evaluated as having a college level vocabulary at age 8. At home I read eleven books a week of my own choosing (the library would let me check out only eleven books at one time). But in school, I produced nothing. Teachers placed me in remedial classes, and requested tests for learning disabilities. A counselor even gave me an IQ test on which I scored so low I should not have been able to tie my shoe. Actually, I went several points lower than Forrest Gump’s score of 75.

           School became a game of mental hide-and-let-them-seek. Part of the elaborate charade was to walk with a shuffle and scrawl my name on papers that were otherwise blank. My parents were powerless to motivate me. I had withdrawn into my own world.

           Finally, in 9th grade, a new teacher who didn’t know my history asked the class on the first day, to write a story about a "Bathelgonic." When asked what that was, he said it could be anything we wanted it to be. These were the magic words! Whoosh! My mind came back to school. I picked up a pencil and wrote a 14 page short story for him.

Sleeping Beauty is Awakened

           The next day, my teacher was waiting at the classroom door. He had been so impressed with the story, he thought I should submit it to a publisher. In his desire to force me out of hiding, he grabbed my shoulders and shook me so hard I almost dropped my clipboard. Teachers were a lot more physical in my day.) He had checked my school records and wanted to know who I thought I was to be hiding like this. At this point I was not sure who I was any more.

           He read my short story to the whole class which totally blew my carefully constructed cover. My peers discovered I could read, write and even think. He requested another IQ test for me, to which I applied more effort (under threat of severe physical damage if I fooled around with it.) The scores released me from all remedial classes and enrolled me in ‘college prep’ classes. I finally began to earn A’s again.

           I used to think this was an unusual, rather tragic story until I told it to my husband. He listened, registered a sad expression, and then said that he wished he had been fortunate enough to have had a teacher who cared enough to find out what he could really do (He has a Ph.D.). I suddenly realized how lucky I was to have had two teachers who instinctively understood my thinking style and pushed the mental ‘hot’ buttons to get me excited and eager to do my best.

           How many students ever get that chance? Did you? How about your children? Real learning and personal progress only take place when our mental ‘hot’ buttons are pressed and we want to strive to do our best.

It’s Never Too Early...Or Too Late!

           To help a child learn in spite of circumstances or environment, it is important to locate and activate these ‘hot’ buttons. They may be very different from what we think they are at first. Mine were challenge, freedom to work at my own pace, and instructions only when I needed them.

           What are yours and your children's? I suggest you find out.


           Linda Blew Carlson, is GM of FOCUS II, LLC, a company dedicated to supporting families and individuals by helping them find innovative ways to individualize their communications and strengthen each other. To become a part of this effort go to