A truly heartwarming scene: as friends and family dab their eyes, a 19-year-old young man, in Special Ed since middle school for both “behavioral” and “cognitive” learning disabilities, hears his name called, and with unself-conscious delight on his face shuffles across the platform to loud applause. He receives a warm hug from the principal – and his high school diploma.
We’ve all been there – sweet moments that help other parts of modern life be a little easier to take.
A few days after the graduation, I’m meeting with that same young man’s divorced Dad. He described tearing up just like everyone else as he clapped (sitting well apart from his ex and her side of the family) “just seeing that expression on my boy’s face.” He “totally appreciated” and was “really touched” by the warm applause and support for his son.
But now he’s almost weeping in frustration, “Does it make me a bad person that I can’t get past knowing that – honestly – my son really hasn’t learned much of anything, hardly ever cracked a book, can barely read or write at all, and, if anything, has a shorter attention span now at 19 than when he started high school five years ago?”
He wasn’t saying this to vent about the school’s “just show up” standards for graduation. He was really concerned that the school didn’t see – or was ignoring – that his son’s behavior had also been deteriorating along with his academic (non)performance. Early on, his son’s natural sweetness and friendliness had carried him. He’d become well-known around the building – “kind of the school mascot.”
But senior year he’d begun to backslide: angry outbursts, had several “bad restraints right in the hallway” in the last few months. Plus, according to Dad, his mother avoids mentioning out loud how hard to handle he’s getting to be at her home (she has primary residence) and, also according to Dad, “she sure doesn’t want people to know how scary his increased anger can get sometimes.” In anguish and frustration Dad asks me: “Am I not supposed to say what I’m seeing? Am I supposed to just shut up?”
Examples like this do cause me to reflect upon a cultural trend that seems to prefer to coerce people (all the while denying it) into pretending things are positive – when they’re really not. What so many apparently feel in these strange, postmodern times is that positive fudging for the right reasons – and ignoring the negative (even when it’s blatantly visible for all to see) – produces better net outcomes.
Maybe. Maybe not. Of course, some of this stems simply from the instinct to be nice to – and protective of – vulnerable feelings: basic kindness and decency.
But I’d hoped we also all knew by now to be wary of “group think”- even for noble reasons. In this case, there was all of that major front-end investment of resources, energy, and time – by so many well-intended people – partly driven by professional assessments (and clinical diagnoses requiring all of those professional services) and I really don’t doubt for a second that virtually every professional along the way was competent and acting in good faith. I’m also sure that other students with even more severe problems and limitations (and even lower academic achievement) have also graduated.
So, what played out here was hardly unique to this young man and his family, but it’s hard not to detect that sense of mutual backscratching, professional denial of an inconvenient reality. Parents, mental health providers, and education professionals allowed their own needs for the validation of their efforts – and a desire for a happy ending – to trump candor, a clear-eyed view of actual academic achievement, and the true level of skills. It was more about the teachers and other providers than it should have been.