The Debt I Owe to the Worst Teacher I Ever Had
Not too long ago, I was asked by a student how much difference the Americans with Disabilities Act and all the associated civil rights legislation has had on attending college for blind and visually-impaired students. After some thought, I told the following story.
In the spring of my freshman year of college, I enrolled in a class called Physical Science Survey. Taught by the Dean, it was held in the largest lecture hall on campus and gave an overview of physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. The buzz among undergraduates was that it was an exceptionally easy way to get four hours of credit toward meeting the general education requirement in science. In fact, it was the easiest class I ever took.
The instructors (the Dean virtually never made an appearance in class) bent over backwards to ensure that even the least motivated and dullest students could pass. Toward the end of the first four weeks, it was announced that a review session was scheduled for the Saturday morning before the Monday exam. Knowing that I needed all the help I could get, I joined forty other students at 8:00 in the science building to go over the material.
Instead of a conventional review session, the instructor gave everyone a copy of the exam. This wasn’t a copy of an exam administered in some previous year but the exam that was going to be given on Monday. We couldn’t believe our luck. If that weren’t enough, the instructor then proceeded to go down the exam question-by-question, providing the correct answers.
I’ve always felt that there will be prayer in the public schools as long as there are exams, and am sure there were more heart-felt prayers of thanksgiving that morning in that science lab than usually occurred in the University chapel.
The only problem was that my vision had deteriorated to the point that I couldn’t read the printed page fast enough to complete the lengthy multiple-choice exam in the allotted time. Like most blind and visually-impaired students, because of no fault of my own, I simply couldn’t read nearly as fast as my peers and, so, I was unable to complete the final one-fourth of the test, leaving all of those multiple-choice questions blank that we had been given the answers to in the review session.
Knowing that I was going to be lucky to even pass with all of those unanswered questions instead of receiving that gift A I had been anticipating, I stopped the Dean and, in my eighteen-year-old naiveté, explained that, because of my vision, I simply couldn’t read fast enough to complete the lengthy exam and asked if I might have a few more minutes to finish. In all his professorial majesty, he answered, “Of course not,” turned on his heel and left the room.
Indeed, I answered every question I was able to read correctly but received a D because of all of the ones I had to leave blank.
Now, there are two ways to respond to this story. The first, and more obvious, is to react to the unfairness of the time constraint that prohibited me from doing my best on the exam through no fault of my own. This, after all, was an outcome that didn’t benefit anyone. While I certainly would make no pretense of being an outstanding science student, having been handed all of the answers to the exam, a grade of D didn’t accurately reflect what I could have done on that exam.
If I were taking that class today, I could make arrangements ahead of time with the appropriate university official to receive a predetermined amount of additional time to compensate for my extremely slow speed reading. And it was far from the only class where I encountered this problem.
There is, however, another, and less obvious, way to respond to this situation.
My mother was the sole of kindness and thoughtfulness, but, when I complained to her about how unfair this was, she said, “You’re going to have to deal with a lot of people and situations in life that aren’t fair so you better get used to it now.”
Before being shocked by her not offering me a psychic Band-Aid for my emotional boo-Boo, it might be helpful to reflect on whether her advice was wrong.
This wasn’t the first, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the last, situation in my life like this.
The question my mother was asking was “Are you going to complain, allowing the professor to dictate how you respond to the situation, or, realizing it’s unfair, are you going to do something to take control of things yourself?”
The English playwright George Bernard Shaw put it this way: “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in the world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”
If this seems unduly harsh, let me suggest that, once I’d gotten over praying for the slow, painful death of the Dean, and taken my mother’s advice to heart, I realized that, albeit unintentionally, the experience had given me a lesson that was far more valuable than any grade in the course.
While I couldn’t do anything to increase the rate at which I read print, the experience forced me to realize that I needed to think of strategies that would enable me to consume print more efficiently.
This meant teaching myself to learn to skim text and improve my skill at listening to material, whether that be through recordings or working with live readers -techniques that, in the long run, made me far more efficient than I had been when I signed-up for the Dean’s class.
All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but, if he’s visually-impaired and can’t read as fast as his peers, it’s an effective strategy to ensure that he can keep up with them in class. The catch, and it’s a very important one, is that, once Jack graduates, this strategy will almost certainly not be as effective. Your teacher may not care if it takes you twice as long to read what you’ve been assigned, but it’s a safe bet that your boss will.
Without meaning to, the Dean, in all of his narrow mindedness had given me a gift far more valuable than any grade; he had inadvertently force me to develop skills that would last a lifetime and benefit me long after I left college.