Finn and I threw down again yesterday.
In attempting to find the best possible educational match for him–a boy, again, with a 160 verbal IQ and the handwriting skills of a kindergartener–we bumped him up a grade at the end of last year. End result: for the most part, he’s vastly happier and better adjusted in his new class, but every now and again, he has an experience which he finds unusual and unsettling: the things that the other kids are doing without challenge are genuinely, just a little bit, difficult for him. I remember my first day at UC Berkeley, my first recognition that I was exceptionally far, here, from being among the smartest things in the room, and I feel for the kid.
I do not, however, approve of Finn’s coping mechanism, which is to see the assignment as an enemy to be defeated rather than an exercise to complete. I got him from my exhausted paraprofessional halfway through a power struggle on multi-digit addition and sat with him in my office through the rest of math and five minutes into recess before he finally gave up and completed the two problems. The power struggle took 50 minutes. The math, 90 seconds.
What finally convinced young Finn to suck it up and give it a try was his insatiable curiosity, combined with the by now well-established routine of Dead End: while he’s ranting and raving about not wanting to do whatever’s in front of him, I completely shut down except for statements absolutely necessary to ensure physical safety. In this case, mid-diatribe, he noticed a fly in my office and attempted to kill it.
“Finn, we are in my office, which as you know, is a place that you can only have access to next time if you abide by my rules. In my office, I do not allow people to kill flies.”
“Question bank question.” This is the shorthand we’ve needed to develop for Finn, because he typically wonders about 20 things in 10 minutes: we put his inquiries into a “question bank”, written down if needed, and address them at a more appropriate time. Often, it means, “That’s a science question, and we’re reading a fiction book right now, so I can’t answer that until recess”; sometimes it means, “I have no idea what the hell I should say in response to that, so I’m gonna think awhile and get back to you”. When Finn’s engaging in escape-oriented behaviors, everything is a question bank question, because Finn would vastly rather talk than work, and it’s way too easy to get off-track.
“Flies are nuisances. You should kill them.”
“Question bank question.” I tapped the inbox and shrugged.
“But they spread diseases and make buzzing sounds and land on your food and…oh, alright, give me the paper.”
As we walked downstairs towards the remaining 12 minutes of recess, I explained to Finn my reasons for not wanting to kill flies, recognizing as I did so that they were pretty much equivalent to my reasons for not disliking children with obnoxious behavioral challenges.
“Flies aren’t trying to bother or hurt us. They’re just doing the things that flies do. And if they were anywhere outside of my office, the exact same things they do in my office would be perfectly appropriate. So I don’t think it’s right to hurt flies just because they’re in the wrong place. It isn’t their fault that they’re in there. It’s not right for me to kill them, so I just ignore them.”
Finn, to his enormous credit, grappled with that admirably. Albeit idiosyncratically.
“What you need is a device designed to capture flies without killing them.”
“That would work. But it’s pretty hard to capture a fly without hurting it. That’s a problem I don’t know how to solve.”
“I could create a web forum, for users to ask other users for possible solutions.”
“Tell me more.” (Mental note to self as I say this: allowing Finn to rant for 5+minutes about technology is like giving a neurotypical child an enormous slice of chocolate cake. Later, I will remind him of how pleasant it was to spend recess talking about things he enjoys, and point out that this was only possible because he got his work finished before recess was over.)
“Well, there would be user names, and access codes, and designated sub-forums, and…” (This is a gross summary of the first three minutes, most of which I found utterly incoherent. I let my mind wander a fair bit, looking around the recess yard while Finn continued his soliloquy, bouncing up and down as he did so on a giant red ball.)
“You’d need a very specific audience, though. People who want to capture flies without killing them–are you sure there are enough internet users who fit this?”
“Well, you could ask other questions too. You could pose any dilemma you wanted, and other people could offer solutions. But I’d be the moderator, and I’d have to make sure to block non-human users using a captcha with distorted text, because a computer, for example, might just suggest, ‘hey, you should buy a tv from this store location over there, and that will solve your problem.’ Computers aren’t really good at solving human dilemmas. ”
“You’re right: computers can’t think the way humans can think. They can’t take other perspectives into account like we can.” Like we should do. Like we’re learning to. Like I need to do, right now.
An idea came to me and I dropped down to his level to pursue it, kneeling beside him as he bounced.
“Hey, I have a dilemma I’d post on that website.”
“I do. See, I have this really smart kid on my caseload, and even though some things are a little harder than other things, he really can do pretty much anything he puts his mind to at school. But sometimes, this problem happens, where he just decides he’s not going to even try to do it. And he spends a really long time doing things that don’t work, and it’s just so boring for him, and for everyone around him, and it just doesn’t really make sense, because it’s always more work to try NOT doing the work than it ever will be to just get the work done. And my dilemma is, how do I help this kid not do that as much?”
Finn looked at me with absolutely no recognition of this problem as applying to him, possibly because I’ve never addressed him in the third person: like a bot stymied by distorted letters, he may simply not have been able to extract the real message.
“So, Finn, if I posted that dilemma on your discussion forum, what do you think the human users might say?”
“I don’t know! I don’t have the users yet, and besides, I can’t read the human minds.”
“You’re human, though. What would you say?”
“I’d say make sure that something he likes follows completion of the work he doesn’t want to do.”
“Oh, like recess?” Again, with no recognition that he was, in that instant, a really smart kid on my caseload who was able to enjoy recess after completing work he didn’t want to do.
“And make sure you never lie to him.”
That came out of nowhere and sucker-punched my heart. Have I done that? Can I say, for sure, that I’ve never done that to Finn? To any of my students? To anyone in my life?
Question bank question. The bell rang. We moved on.