I recently caught wind of this minor controversy over at the local grade school. Evidently the competition among the 6th graders to join the pom-pom squad at the junior high next year was fierce. At our school only 2 of the girls who tried out made it. But there was some backroom grumbling among the parents of the disappointed girls because one of the girls who did
make it has some sort of brittle bone syndrome and is in a full-body brace, which prevents her from being able to perform some of the basic maneuvers that the girls were asked to do.
The snippets of conversation I heard included these comments:
"I don't mind that she's on the squad. But she took a space away from a girl who could
do the maneuvers."
"We all have our limitations, and it's important that we accept them. My daughter can't sing and so she can't join the chorus."
Needless to say, I think these parents were jaw-droppingly wrong. I mean, come on, do they really think that that girl doesn't face her limitations every single, goddamned day? There is no way in hell that she doesn't contemplate her limitations in and out and upside down. But it's just the freaking pom-pom squad. If the girl had the guts to go out there and give it a shot, surely facing ridicule from the less kindhearted members of her class in the process, then a few extra points are in order, I say. Because it is just the freaking pom pom squad, after all. Which, I know, is unfortunately pretty huge for the 12-year-old female of our species.
And I don't think I'll even contemplate the pitifully incongruent comparison between breaking bones all the time and not being able to carry a tune.
But I'm not about to get all self-righteous here. Because I know that I have said things that came off as jaw-droppingly insensitive myself, surely without meaning to. And also I was reminded uncomfortably of the hardest decision I have ever had to make as a low-level member of the University community.
When I was teaching at the University of Indiana I had a student, R. He was a non-traditional student in that he was in his mid-30s, but he also had suffered a major head injury in a car crash several years before which had left him prone to severe seizures, as well as hampered his ability to learn and remember.
On the first day of class he gave me the rundown of what to do in case he had a seizure in class, and I admit I was scared shitless. Within the first couple of weeks, he had had several seizures during lecture, but they were quieter affairs than I had expected, and we all relaxed. The semester proceeded as usual. Then one day he had a major seizure, falling from his desk, striking his head on the way down and kicking at the metal legs of all the desks nearby. There we had been, discussing the finer points of generative and transformative grammars, which had seemed awfully important to me until we all rushed over to clear the area around R to make sure he didn't injure himself anymore in the grip of the seizure.
We chatted a bit about his plans, and what had made him decide to come back to school. He was impressive in his optimism and drive. He was a funny guy. Likeable and enthusiastic about being back in the world after his close call in the car crash. But he was a horrible student. Just horrible. I arranged to give him as much time as he needed to take the exams, and I stayed there with him to make sure he could ask for clarification if he needed, but still he consistently averaged a disheartening 15-20%, with many of his answers garbled and incomprehensible. Suspecting that perhaps the stress of a testing situation was making it difficult for him, I decided to offer more extra credit that semester than I ever have. At first I was offering the extra credit to everyone, but as the class grade average creeped up to a laughable 98%, I secretly began offering assignments just to R, for whom it all had been intended in the first place. But R was also enrolled in 3 other classes, all of which were proving just as challenging to him. And he barely had time to finish the regular coursework, much less an extra-credit assignment. So when it came time to turn in final grades, he had only managed somewhere above the 30% mark. Still, I just hated to fill in that "F." How many points could I give for bravery?
In the end, I just couldn't do it. He was so far away from passing, and I knew that the 30% he had was already the result of incredibly lenient grading. So I gave him an "F," and sent him what I hoped was an encouraging email. I felt horrible about it for weeks. Still do.
So surely my soapbox on the pom-pom situation is a flimsy one. Why is it that I felt that I couldn't just fudge a little and give R a "D"? After all, it was only an Introduction to Linguistics class, not Med School. It's not like anyone's life was going to depend upon whether R could successfully diagram a sentence or analyze the pragmatic content of an utterance.
Still I can't help but feel that making that little girl's life as close to normal as possible and rewarding her gutsiness was the right thing to do, even if another little girl came home crying because of it.