03/15/2011 04:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Story About Learning Disabilities

I believe in disabilities. I mean, I don't think they're an invention of a cruel, capitalistic, oppressive system. People are all different, and some of them have a lot more trouble with things that are basic for the majority of other people. But a lot of learning disabilities make me suspicious. And sometimes they just make me really sad.

When kids aren't learning to read on time, for example, there's a lot of panic. And there shouldn't be, because kids learn to read at very different points. Some kids don't learn to read until they're 14, and then they read like everyone else. And no one can tell that they were a kid who didn't read until they were 14.

Kids are like that with learning in general. Not every eight-year-old brain is ready to absorb the information that a nationally approved 3rd grade curriculum demands it process. And then what happens when they don't learn it on time? They learn that they are "slow." They might get left behind.

I remember in Hebrew School when I was 12, there was this funny kid named Seth who was nice to everyone. He made everyone laugh with his antics. He was good at making ridiculous faces. He was good at people. And one day the teacher said, "We're going to go around the room and each take a paragraph." We were reading a story about the biblical Jacob and his very large family.

I showed off, because I was an obnoxious little kid and I was really good at reading aloud. The teacher smiled at me and everyone else silently hated me with all their brief, concentrated might. And then it was Seth's turn. He was haltingly trying to sound out the first word.


We all knew it was wrong. And there was a long, stunned pause. How could he not know that?

How could he barely be able to read?

He was bright red. His head was bowed so far forward it was practically on his desk. It was his moment of reckoning.

And I realized in horror that he had gone through this hundreds of times already. That he was used to being this humiliated. But that he was still just as humiliated anyway.

One of the other boys started giggling. "Israelites," he said, a little too loudly. "It's Israelites, man." (I don't know why 12-year-old boys called each other man, but it happened a lot.)

"Yeah, yeah," said Seth, stretching his mouth into a sick grin. He tried to make a joke. He tried to keep reading.

"Can someone take over for Seth?" said the teacher.

He changed a little after that. His secret was out. We all knew there was something wrong with him. We treated him differently. His humor was less lighthearted. We all knew how stupid he was. Except Seth wasn't actually stupid. He was quick and kind and funny. He just couldn't read well yet. But "yet" wasn't good enough. It was too late.

He dropped out after his Bar Mitzvah and I heard years later that he'd joined a band, and later was trying community college. Which may have been fine. Community college isn't failure. But it can definitely feel like failure when your classmates are going to Princeton and Duke, which they were. Which the guy who laughed at him did. Well, not both at once. But you get the idea.

It's wasteful.

People do better at life when they feel smart. When they think they're worth a lot.

And it's really hard to make someone feel like they're smart and worthwhile when they aren't on the level that the kids who are defined over and over again as "smart" are on. And when being "smart" in that way is so critical to being whole. When no one is giving anyone an "A" for being hilarious.

This article is crossposted on Un-schooled