Saturday, May 2, 2015

Be Careful of What You Know

I may have written about Jack before. He made a big impression on me. It was in my first year of teaching music and movement to special needs preschoolers and, while I had a lot of experience in early childhood education and music and movement, my knowledge of special needs was limited. I was learning as I went along, supported by the excellent teachers and staff.

Jack was a blond-haired preschooler who never spoke. He never participated, either. He filed in with his class, sat there as though waiting for the bus, and then left when class was over. Something about Jack's facial features and flat affect reminded me of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. It was an image I could relate to. And I knew that some kids on the autism spectrum could not speak.

So when I looked at Jack, I thought Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, autism spectrum, non-verbal. And while I never stopped trying to encourage and engage him, I knew that he didn't--possibly couldn't--talk. And then one day, about halfway through the year, when his teacher came to collect her class, he turned to her and said with that same flat affect,

Can we go back to our room now?

I was floored. He talked. Jack could talk. Not only that, he could speak in complete sentences. And all at once what I knew changed. It wasn't, "Jack can't talk." It was, "Jack can talk, but he doesn't talk to me."

Big, big difference.

I raise this today because I have seen far too much postulating of theories this week in the story of Freddie Gray. "This is what we know." And then, "So this is what that means."

I say to you, Be careful of what you know.

I took the "evidence" right in front of my face, combined it with my own incomplete personal knowledge, and reached a conclusion that was profoundly incorrect. It is very, very easy to do that. And we do it without even knowing we are doing it.

It's an extremely dangerous thing to do. The person who may be fooling you the most may be: you.

At the end of his second year with me, Jack was singing familiar songs completely on pitch with all accompanying hand motions. With that same flat affect. I would be hard pressed to say whether he was enjoying himself, the way that I understand it. But he was definitely more engaged, and he was clearly learning and participating.

Jack's story was far more complex and nuanced than what I knew. So is Freddie Gray's.



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