The Australian Ambassador for Change
by Michelle Webb-Smith
Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits. We are rarely ready to meet a significant challenge. The strength we long for arises as and when needed - not before. Jacob was always a target. Diagnosed learning and physical disabilities classified him to be just above the cut off for special school so he was mainstreamed. This made him a standout for many reasons and standouts become targets. But this is not a story about a victim. Bound tightly by the effects of hydrocephalus as an infant, his parents desperately sought many forms of therapy including the talent of a highly accomplished ice skater who gave him, through the grace of movement, the gift of balance and to eventually walk unaided.
Jacob’s vibrant mind remained hidden in plain sight for most of Junior School. With a school history littered with learning difficulties, Jacob would appear to understand the junior school narrative. As his parents quietly processed the chilling implications of his non-verbal learning disorder, Jacob desperately found ways to hide this excruciating vulnerability by delivering responses so fluently and confidently to fool most people until he repeated the rehearsed sequence. It was his peers who were the quickest to observe this ruse, responding with ridicule or in the cruel art of distancing. As they sensed he was different, so did Jacob and school become an exercise in navigating a very different and difficult landscape.
There isn’t a solution for every problem. By the time he entered middle school, the inequalities of birth and opportunity had crystallized. Those whose learning is defined by repeated past failures like Jacob learn either to hide or disengage as they move through their schooling. Stripping these carefully constructed deceptions is often the hardest task as the more resilient the packaging, the more fragile the content can be. Even now, Jacob’s confession to me, “I came to you through a terrible darkness,” still shreds me on many levels. He remains reluctant to reflect on the past that saw him, in frustration and fear, repeatedly bang his head on junior school desks to block out the threatening reality. He likens this journey to a blank canvas onto which he projected different versions of himself but no-one would see past his imperfections. Frustrated teachers’ aides subdued his mindset to one of dutiful compliance, a result not a victory regardless of who applauds. Jacob simply retreated, mastering the ability to hide part of himself from view and eventually even hide himself from himself. The chance to reshape his destiny came in middle school when he enrolled in my holistic “Strong Minds” program, allowing hope the time it needed to blossom and gave me an unparalleled chance to grow as an educator.
“Strong Minds” was borne out of what fragile learners like Jacob lacked, a dedicated program to develop skills in emotional, social, physical and mental resiliency. The theory that intelligence is modifiable, not fixed guided me to develop this unique program for those whose lives were littered by epic failures, lives defined by academic failure. The pedagogy underpinning the “Strong Minds” program is the internationally acclaimed Feuerstein method of mediated learning which applies systems of structural cognitive modifiability to unblock learning potential. As a fully licensed Feuerstein provider, these non curricular tasks provided me with the ability to help fragile learners access the curriculum equitably, to experience feelings of value and empowerment and to move from a life beyond these bondages of learning disabilities to one of hope.
By invitation only, “Strong Minds” operates covertly to protect and empower the most vulnerable. Ironically, the road to strength is vulnerability and openness but in a standard classroom, it’s easy to attack and criticize those taking a risk. Cruelty is cheap now it’s conveniently cloaked through the anonymity of technology. “Strong Minds” begins its sessions with mindfulness to gently unwind the coils of camouflage and make time for the vibrancy of stillness. Scotty, our reclassified guide dog will then unobtrusively seek out those with ADHD who may be still agitated and quietly sit on their feet under the desk, his warmth and pressure immediately soothing and calming. Or he may choose to sit within patting range of the most fearful of learners and maintain a constant, reassuring presence as they strengthen the cognitive functions of problem solving, flexible thinking, decision making and planning.
Here, authentic learning requires you to let go of what you think you should be and to not accept your limitations.
Here, mistakes are absolutely essential as failure is instructional in the process. Here, we name and greet your fears with compassion. Here, we don’t accept you as you are... If we are locked inside our minds then our capacity for empathy, love and trust are hidden and become equally difficult to express in our outer life. As cultivators of curiosity, “Strong Minds” gently explores these most noble and often nuanced emotions yet the transition from the true self to the social self remains elusive to Jacob. Echoes of a problematic past place him on the outer of the social fringe and facing tough truths. Despite struggling to build friendships, he remains firm in his guiding principles. With most codes of etiquette broken in one sitting, he continues to intentionally build his peers’ self esteem at his own expense. He expects tolerance and kindness and when they are absent, he walks away. Jacob’s gentle, faithful hand of loyalty never wavers, despite the rejection of his offers of moral support to distressed friends as he believes that if you ever care for a moment, you care for a lifetime. Harder to overcome is his poor muscle tone as it presents to others as extreme clumsiness and limits his participation not only with his peers but also with his family. “I used to love going for a ride with my family but I don’t anymore now that my younger brother can ride a proper bike, not a three wheeler like me...” This is the kernel of his unease and mine.
Jacob has silenced his critics but remains a restless figure because often what happens in our inner lives shapes our outer realities. In order to help fragile learners adapt to a world that disables them, one must be prepared to be a real presence in their lives. The partnership gradually extended to my private tuition where, with close mediation, Jacob engages at an additional level and transforms. His parents worry less about him finding a place in this world, for as an ambassador for change, his path now shines brightly with abundance. In a moment of candor, he will tell you not to worry that your imperfections will give you away because your imperfections allow other people to share common ground. The courage to own his imperfections transcends into other subjects where he will patiently explain how the permanent weakness in his right hand will require his tests to be enlarged in order for you to make meaning of the rich answers that lay buried beneath his spidery handwriting. Through robust self-talk, he will overcome his brain’s penchant for distractions and impulsivity when faced with challenging tasks. Equipped with a growth mindset and a stress ball, Jacob now works independently in mainstream classes, searching for the infinite order beyond the chaos.
I invite you to hold your gaze and see the beauty when you meet Jacob. He is no longer a victim in hiding but a victor in waiting. On a sincere path of inner growth, much richness is taking place in his life and within my heart. He will engage you in robust conversation which will not only include the customary weather report but more importantly, insights into his world of long distance running and just how hard it is to control Roxy, the sheep assigned to him in his school’s regular sheep shows. In his quirky way, Jacob creates small touches of beauty wherever he goes because compassion can transcend not only social status but also learning.
By Michelle Webb-Smith