The Fear–and the Power–of Change


Discrimination by any other name is just as rancid.

What is it that defines a person as an individual?  It is how he sees himself or herself in the world?  Or is it how the world sees him or her?  Is there a particular condition or mannerism or peculiarity or talent or quality that makes a person stand out from others?  If there is, by what standard is that concept judged, and by whom?  Is that what makes a person good or bad, righteous or evil, kind or cruel, beautiful or ugly, “abled” or “disabled”?  Can someone be considered successful despite having imperfections, or deemed a failure though seeming perfectly normal?  And what is “normal”, anyway?  Who gets to decide?  And what if a person far exceeds or is far below that definition?

            As sad as this may sound, I did not pay much attention to many of those questions in the past.  No, let me rephrase that: when those questions came up in conversation or in thought, I would rarely if ever put myself as the subject.   Now, however, it seems I am asking myself these questions practically every day.  And with every new reading assignment, new questions come up about how I see myself, my community and the world around me—past, present and future.  My head hurts from all the information being poured into it, but at least I am getting answers—whether I like them or not.

            I believe the first real smack of reality I experienced in my “Disability in Contexts” class–and at Teachers College in general–came from our discussions and readings regarding eugenics.  In one of those readings, Snyder & Mitchell (2006) looked at the rise of eugenics, the explosion of entire medical, sociological and institutional efforts to cure or treat “idiots”, “morons” and the “feeble-minded”, and the wide-ranging effects of eugenics on American society from the late 1800s to today.  It was a difficult read, disheartening and stomach-churning yet wholly valid when you consider the ramifications.  The belief that those with “deficiencies” could be cured, rehabilitated or outright euthanized in order to prevent the spread of “human debasement” sounds almost nonsensical at first, but in light of such strong evidence—from well-meaning but misguided medical and psychological theories to the creation of institutions to the actions of apartheid and genocide—the concept of eugenics quickly moves from the absurd to the frighteningly real.  Adding to this horror was the fact that it was actually done here in America, home of the “all men are created equal” credo.  Whenever I hear this line, I am always reminded of one of Napoleon’s re-written “rules” from Orwell’s Animal Farm (1948):


For eugenicists, even that statement isn’t enough.

            I don’t mean to sound naïve; I have seen how cruel human beings can be to each other, both from a distance and up close, where their differences are concerned.  Whether it was watching young black men and women being hosed on TV as a child, or bemoaning the outcome of the recent “stand your ground” cases in Florida, I have seen that discrimination is just a prevalent (and more tangible) than what we learned in our history books about slavery.  I have been the target of slurs from both blacks and whites as a child, and until recently had trouble finding my place in the socioeconomic landscape.  When I tell people that I am disabled, or someone takes notice of my “dancing eyes” (nystagmus), people tend to apologize or look at me with curiosity, as if I was suddenly stricken with a curable malady which caused some disfigurement or other impairment to what used to be a perfectly healthy body.  Telling people I was born with my eyes like that (one of the many “symptoms” of albinism) only makes the pity deepen and curiosity grow.  When you add the fact that I come from a multi-ethnic background, have poor eyesight, am overweight, well into my middle-aged years, unemployed, unmarried, and without children…well, the eugenicists would be lining up to put me down in the name of God—oh wait, I’m also an atheist, so that would most likely add more fuel to the already towering inferno.

            I had come across the topic of eugenics before, but only as a side note while discussing Darwin’s Origin of the Species in one of my sociology classes.  In our class, however, eugenics was laid out in all its ugliness—not just for its anti-racial aspects, but as a whole vile entity, covering the spectrum of what hegemony aimed to create.  While Snyder & Michelle’s (2006) article laid the groundwork, other readings—most notably Smith’s (2008) argument that the eugenics movement did not end with the fall of Hitler, and Baker’s (2002) exploration of how eugenics shaped America’s “special education” system—enhanced my knowledge of the subject and to what degree it has (and continues to) affect our lives.  Looking at the effects of eugenics also helped to better understand terms such as “ableism” and “disabled”—the latter being far more complex (especially when pitted against the concept of “normal”) than I previously thought.


The fallacy that is the “normal curve”

            Armed with this knowledge, I have begun to look at myself—and how others see me—in a different way.  I try not to play the “disabled card”, much as I disdain the use of the “race card”, when identifying myself.  I go about my life as I normally would, but now I can see why there are stares of disbelief if I do something like pull out a magnifying glass to read a menu in a dimly-lit restaurant.  When I see kids in a public school get less funding and poorer-quality technical and faculty support than their more affluent—and less “deficient” peers, I know that it’s not simply a case of “rich vs. poor”, but “power vs. powerless.”  And while my own disabilities do not come with accessories like canes, walkers, hearing aids and such, it by no means proves I am more or less “fortunate” than those who uses such items.    Unfortunately, I do not get to dictate how others see me, or react to me.  For better or worse, understanding their point of view helps me to better relate to them.  Understanding my own point of view—where it comes from, what stereotypes I play into or beliefs I need to change–helps me to better understand myself.

            I can better understand that everyone has differing levels of “disability” or “ability”, just as there are no living, breathing “normal” people.  As Dudley-Marling & Gurn (2010) theorize, the “normal curve” is a fallacy.  Those who use standard deviation to assess how far above or below the mean a person’s given characteristic must understand two very important things: 1) “normal” is a relative term, defined only by those who coin their own definition of what “normal” is; and 2) most people fall below the norm, such that the “true” norm is substandard to what the definers would suggest.  As such, what you end up with is a group of people who believe they are not only “normal”, but above the norm—or elite.



            Whether part of the One Percent of America’s social hierarchy; a genetically or surgically-enhanced symbol of beauty or athletic excellence; an elected or self-appointed leader who believes his or her position was the result of divine order; or one of Dr. Seuss’ star-bellied sneetches (Geisel, 1961), those who follow the idea of eugenics (or any euphemism it may be known as today) are anything but normal—they are the true outliers, the real abnormals…the very things they are trying to eradicate.  They would not exist without having someone to compare themselves to—their interpretation of “deficient”.  Yet they cannot see this: perhaps they have their own “deficiency”—which even an “idiot” can diagnose as “moral blindness”.

            I have learned more in nearly a half-semester of this class than I have in five semesters of sociology and most of my educational life combined.  While the reading may be over-abundant, deep and often harsh, it is also challenging, enlightening and viscerally real.  It not only arms us to understand how power is gained (or lost)—especially in terms of “ableism”, but how such power can be taken apart, examined, and reconstituted in order to give power to the powerless.  The Law of Conservation of Energy states that power cannot be created or destroyed, only converted.  After this class is done, I hope to have learned enough to be a very “able” power converter.


Day One: So Much to Learn!

This past Thursday I attended my first class at Teachers College, and let me tell you, it was quite the experience.  I learned so much in 100 minutes of class time that I needed two days to fully process it all…and that was from one class!  I’m gonna need a bigger brain.

I had thought that the class I attended, Mathematics for Childhood Education, would be a long lecture about how we were to manipulate the brains of our little charges so that they could better grasp the concepts we were about to cram into their heads.  That notion was shattered within the first ten minutes of the class—it was our brains that would be manipulated.

Our preconceived notions about how children feel and think were challenged when the instructor gave us a “do now” exercise.  That’s right, a quiz…on Day One! 

“Carol bought some items at the deli.  All the items she bought were the same price, and she bought as many of the items as the price of the items in cents (for example, if items costs two cents each, she bought two of them for a total of $0.04.  Or if she chose items costing eight cents, she would have bought eight of them.)  Her bill was $2.25.  How many items did she buy?”


“Oh my…maybe I’m overthinking this problem a bit…”

After giving the class a few minutes to do the word problem, the instructor asked how we felt about having been given the test.  Not surprisingly, the class reported various levels of anxiety.

Our first lesson: Kids are anxious about taking tests, just as we were at that moment.

When the instructor asked how we arrived at the solution to the problem, most gave algebraic formulas, the deconstruction of square numbers or other methods gained through higher learning in order to arrive at the answer.  One answer brought a wide smile to the instructor’s face: a student simply counted up from one until she reached the answer (15 items at 15 cents each).

Our second lesson: Kids don’t use complicated equations to solve problems.

Later, we were broken up into groups, with each group solving a different word problem.  Rather than simply having one person in the group come up with the answer, the group worked together, comparing strategies on how they arrived at the answer.  In most cases, the simplest strategy made the most sense.  Other methods were used to check and double-check answers.  And since the group had to explain how it arrived at the answer to the rest of the class, the simplest way proved to be the easiest to communicate.  In this manner, the group worked together to find the solution, with each member of the group contributing either a different strategy or a concern about the outcome.

Our third lesson: Kids work best when they share information in order to resolve a problem.

As the class continued, we all seemed to pick up on the main theme of the session: children learn the way children learn, not the way adults learn, so we cannot teach them as if we are teaching adults.  This brought me back to the “Growing Down” article I wrote here awhile back; as prospective educators, we cannot expect kids to grasp concepts that we ourselves learned (and in some cases, re-learned) years past their grade level.  It is up to us to understand their thought processes and problem-solving abilities. 

For me, that was the key in solving many of the homework problems we were given.  Rather than using algebra immediately to discern whether a sequence of numbers were arithmetic or geometric, I simply counted the differences between the numbers in each example.  The algebra came to be understood once I had a grasp of how the differences could be put into a formula.  In other words, there was a progression to how I learned..


Don’t worry, kid…we’ll have you spouting the Fibonacci sequence before lunch!

I’ve been shown how education has changed drastically from the days when I was in elementary school (think pre-disco!).  I am also glad to see my assumptions on how we should reach children was correct; that we should reach them on their level, so that they can relate to the material, even if it gives them a little discomfort.  We should not sell them short—they can work together to solve problems just as we adults can (maybe better than we can, I think!).

One class.  All this came out of just one class.  I have three other classes, and nearly four months to go before this semester ends.  If you see someone’s head spontaneously explode on a YouTube video somewhere, it will probably be mine.

Move Over, Emily Litella!


Miss Emily Litella…she puts the “Miss” in misunderstanding.

In the early days of Saturday Night Live, their “Weekend Update” segment would have occasional appearances by Emily Litella (Gilda Radner), a schoolmarm-ish editorialist who would give stinging opinions on a variety of topics while squinting menacingly at the camera.  Unfortunately, Miss Litella was hearing-impaired, so her rants were hilariously directed at the wrong targets (protecting natural “racehorses” instead of natural resources, for example).  When told of her error, Miss Litella would half-heartedly apologize to the news anchor (Chevy Chase or Jane Curtin), and then to the audience…”Never mind!”  Take a look at one of her escapades here…then come back.

Okay, now that you got the gist…I had my own Emily Litella moment today, and I’d like to share it with you…as embarrassed as I am to admit it.

The instructor for my Social Studies class sent us the outline for her class this afternoon; after reading the first couple of paragraphs, I was shocked…shocked, I tell you!  While she described how the class was going to delve deep into the exclusionary tactics faced by many students (racism, classism, religious/non-religious discrimination, etc.), the focus of the class would be on the role of atheism and how its prevalence affects education in the United States.

Atheism??  Wait…there’s a culture of atheism that had led to the promotion of exclusion in the United States?  Was atheism being compared to racism, sexism and the like in keeping minorities, the disabled and the LGBT community from attending the good schools?  Did my professor have an agenda of spreading anti-atheist propaganda amongst the student body at Teachers College?

A look at the syllabus gave me further pause: the two main projects for the course, of which I had to choose one, focused on showing how anti-atheist procedures could be created and implemented in the classrooms of elementary schools.  That’s right, we had to come up with ways to debunk the debunkers before they got their hands on our precious little sheep…er, children!

As an atheist myself, I was appalled!  I was livid!  Hell, I was burnt!  I was ready to fire off a letter of protest to this instructor!  How could she possibly teach a class in inclusion and fairness, while forcing us to participate in anti-atheist activities?  That was beyond hypocritical!  The more I thought about it, the more upset I became, until I was about to transfer out of her class altogether.

I checked the course catalog to see if there were any other options, but there were none, meaning I would have to suffer through this indignity in order to get the necessary credits for my degree.  I would have to swallow my pride and muddle through as best I can, all the while wrestling with the internal emotional struggle faced by my personal morals.  How could such a prestigious university endorse such a horrible class…one that puts the souls of the majority against the beliefs of the few, and discriminates against the non-believer while it champions the efforts of those who fight against all other forms of discrimination?   I was so beside myself, I was ready to go to my advisor and file a formal protest…

…then I read my syllabus again, this time on my 27” iMac.  Oh dear.

Umm…it appears I made a little mistake.  I saw atheism where it actually reads ableism.  Ableism?  I didn’t even know that was a word!  Even as I type this, MS Word has it underlined in red.  I had to look it up.

“Well, that’s very different.  I’m sorry….that’ll never happen again.”

So…what’s the moral of the story?   If you’re a person who is sensitive to an issue, be VERY careful not to see a problem concerning that issue where there is none.  Misreading a single word could have cause a truckload of problems for me, not the least of which would have been being labeled the class idiot even before the class started.  Before we set off to fight against an idea or a perceived attack on our values, be sure that what you’re about to attack is an attack at all—it could very well be a defense, or a strong offense in your favor.  Learning how those with disabilities are given the short end of the stick when it comes to education is something I should pay very close attention to…especially considering the fact that I myself am visually-impaired.

In the words of Emily Litella…“Never mind.”

“Roar, Lion, Roar!”


One afternoon I found myself staring at the open jaws of a lion.  For most, that would be an imposing sight.  For me, however, it was sort of a welcome.  This was the Scholar’s Lion, a statue near one of the many buildings on the campus of Columbia University.  Like the other students who attend Teachers College, one of the many arms of this sprawling campus, I had become a part of this lion’s pride.

I stared at the lion in wonder—not so much because of its massive size or its ferocious stance, but because of the sheer fact that I was standing there at all.  How was this possible?  How did I go from a life of loss and uncertainty to preparing for my Master’s degree in Education in one of the most prestigious schools in the country?  How did I go from crabgrass to ivy in only three years?

Believe it or not, the power responsible for such a dramatic change came from four little words: “You CAN do it!”

The first time I had come across those words, they were part of a large sign draped on the side of a building that was being constructed in my neighborhood.  The sign was for something called Metropolitan College of New York.  I had never heard of it, so I assumed the block-long, 17-story edifice would house this new college.  At that time, my life was in complete disarray. My girlfriend of 20 years had died a few months prior, and I was at a loss as to what to do with my life.  I had thrown myself completely into caring for her, as she had various illnesses.  I left The College of Human Services back in 1989 to care for her, but her death in 2009 left me with a life of emptiness.  After six months of grieving, I still had been unsure about what to do, and that’s when I saw that sign.  Curiosity got the best of me, and so I looked up the college on the Internet.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that it was the same college I had left over 20 years ago, in a new location and with a new name!  The words, “You CAN do it!” stood out to me.  Could I pick up where I left off?  Could I adjust to 20 years of changing technology and teaching methodology?  Could I keep up with all the younger students who would be there?  So many questions, but at least I had a direction…and if not an answer, then at least some encouragement.

That July, I came to MCNY for my registration.  I was met by a cheery woman who was half my age and full of positivity.  When she had trouble finding my records on the computer, I reminded her that I had not been to school in over 20 years—a fact she reinforced by pulling my files from an old ring binder.  I told her that I felt like Rip Van Winkle, waking up after a 20-year sleep.  She simply smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you can do it!”  As we completed the registration process, she shook my hand.  “Welcome back to the world, Mr. Johnson.”

The first week of the Fall semester was almost a blur for me.  Some things were familiar (computers, math), while others were confusing (values and ethics in particular).  For the most part, I was the oldest student in my classes, but it didn’t seem to matter much.  As it was in 1989, students came in all age ranges and backgrounds, though women seemed to outnumber men in this timeline.  There was a major constant—the Constructive Action.  When I attended in the past, we had an “Intro to the CA” class, which I failed (along with three of my first six classes), so I never really got to actually work on one.  Just reading about it in the Purpose Handbook made it seem like an intimidating task.

“You CAN do it!”

The little lady in the Harry Potter glasses sat on her desk and repeated the school’s mantra to her Constructive Action class in a heavy Puerto Rican accent.  She told us about the document, showing us that it was really a series of documents that, when put together, constitute a completed piece of work.  She walked us through the process, one step at a time, and in doing so allowed us to express ourselves in a manner in which I had not been accustomed.  We did not just answer questions that were given to us; we explored ourselves.  Our turning points, our weaknesses, our decisions, our goals, our hopes and dreams…our lives, inner and outer, were put on paper and discussed in class.  Some students felt these issues were too personal to share with others, others felt too shy to share, though they really wanted to.  I fell into the latter group; even when asked questions, I would give short answers or say nothing at all.

If there was one thing I learned from that CA class, it was that the instructor, Anisia (she disliked being called “Dr. Quiñones”) knew how to get even the toughest nut to crack.  Before I knew it, I had told her about my background, my mother’s bouts with alcohol and drugs, my struggles caring for my late girlfriend…even the fact that I was an atheist.  All was laid bare in her class for all to see, to share, to discuss, and to learn. 

I believe that experience helped me to learn about myself and my capabilities, and allowed me to take on the challenges of an accelerated college with drive instead of fear.  I earned an “A” in her class…as well as the other six, landing me on the Dean’s List.  As the Purposes moved on, I continued to excel, achieving Dean’s List in Purposes 2, 4, 6, and 7.  I had done well in outside internships, but really felt at home working as a Mentor in the college.  Anisia’s keen intuition had picked up my love for teaching before I myself had even realized it.

As I was trying to decide where to do the Master’s degree, Anisia had suggested Teachers College at Columbia University.  The fact that it was her alma mater had something to do with it—she knew I would get the best learning experience if I wanted to pursue teaching as a profession.  I scoffed at the idea; how could I even think to go to an Ivy League college, much less pay the tuition or even get accepted?  To her, the Ivy League was not out of my league—she knew I could do it, but I was not so sure.  Even so, I put in an application, as well as for one for Teaching Fellows (I would have put one in for NYU, but I missed the deadline).  If those had failed, I would still have the MS Ed. program at MCNY to fall back on, so it was at least worth a shot.  I graduated magna cum laude, with a GPA of 3.87.  I was also part of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and spoke at the Commencement Ceremonies.  Even with all this happening, getting into Columbia seemed like a pipe dream.

To my surprise, I was accepted at Teachers College!  To those who had supported me, this was not surprising at all, as they seemed to know it was possible…that, indeed, I COULD do it.  I learned that having people believe in you and your abilities helps you to do the same and that belief can take you to heights you never dreamed possible.

So here I am, standing in front of a scruffy but proud lion.  Should I fear him and the challenges he symbolizes?  Should I be intimidated by the Ivy League atmosphere?  Should I feel like I don’t belong here?  NO!  Because I CAN do this, too!

“Roar, Lion, Roar!”