By Billy Madigan
Edward Hallowell, who wrote the bestseller Bored to Distraction, about coping with and bringing out the best in ADHD children, gave his keynote right after Howard Gardner left the stage at this year’s 21st Century Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston, MA. He had no PowerPoint, nor video, declaring, “I just want to connect with you.” He confessed that he himself has ADHD and dyslexia, and this became clear as he incessantly marched around the stage often gesticulating with his arms and hands. He walked the walk. He started with the story of his childhood schooling. He shared about the woman he declared had “saved him,” Mrs. Eldridge:
“She was a wonderful woman with white hair, and I don’t think she had any formal training in the teaching of reading. All I know is she had taught first grade for about 75 years! She was very plump and always seemed to wear dresses covered with apples. She simply would come over and sit down next to me. And in those days - the fifties – an older woman always used to wear a lot of powder all over their skin, so she would arrive next to me like a giant sugar donut. As she sat there would be this little cloud for both of us to sit in. She would wrap her arms around me and hug me into her ample bosom, and I would feel so safe. When I stammered and stuttered through my attempts at reading, none of the other kids would make fun of me because I had the “mafia” right next to me. That was my treatment plan; that was my IEP back then: Mrs.’ Eldridge’s arm, and it was brilliant. I looked forward to reading period, and that’s pretty amazing that a little six-year-old boy would look forward to publicly demonstrating his incompetence every day. The part of my brain that had a talent with words was able to inch its way out because of that arm. I did not acquire the REAL disabilities. The real disabilities are not ADD’s because I believe ADD and ADHD are signs of hidden gifts, but the real disabilities are shame, fear and thinking you’re stupid, thinking you’re a loser and giving up on your dreams! But those things didn’t happen because of that arm. Now Mrs. Eldridge didn’t excuse me from reading. She kept telling me to “keep trying, keep trying, you’ll get there.” I got challenged, but in a context of connection. By the end of the year, I was still the worst reader in the class but I was an enthusiastic bad reader.”
This connection is at the core of relational capacity. During his keynote at the AVID National Conference this last fall, Patrick Briggs declared that “relational capacity” was the key to bringing out the best in children. He confessed that he didn’t get this lesson until he failed his students during his first year. He offered that great aphorism, “They won’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Patrick emphasized this point for much of his keynote, and it’s right that he did given the fact that there really is a power in the gut of human connection. Connection can ignite passion and perseverance in miraculous ways.
Granger Ward, one of the executive vice presidents of AVID, shared one of the most inspiring stories about his own road to success while addressing the postsecondary AVID folks two years ago. He told of how a former teacher cornered him in a grocery store and demanded he go back to school and put his heart into learning. He shared how powerfully insistent and unpleasant much of this interaction was, but he also shared how in large part, it saved him. One person can have that power. Dr. Hallowell admitted that he never would have made it to Harvard and advanced degrees were it not for Mrs. Eldridge: the power of one is real.
Sir Ken Robinson, a passionate and well-regarded leader in education, recently declared that too much of education in the western world has been lead by a false and damaging paradigm that divides the mind from feeling - that we have “disembodied our children, focusing only on the brain and head.” In my own 25 years of struggling with children and learning, I have grown into the deep and settling conviction that feelings come first, and now there is growing evidence from neuroscience that NOTHING commits to durable or deep memory that is not anchored in feelings. In his book The Intelligence of Feeling, Robert Witkin reverses Descartes: “I feel therefore I am.” That “arm” around little Eddy Hallowell is the emblem of connected, caring feeling. I know it’s the soul of AVID’s greatest success and it fuels the rich moral purpose of the thousands of AVID teachers and staff around the world. We need to make relational capacity even a more conscious “standard” for the AVID family.