Giving Students Room to Run

Read this installment of the "Why I Teach" series.

In the third grade, near the end of World War II, I learned why I wanted to be a teacher.

Mrs. Wright, a woman in her late 50s (or so it seemed to an 8-year-old) taught me what every child needs to know. And I don’t mean grammar or multiplication tables or how to sit quietly in our chairs, which were bolted to the floor.

Teacher sits on a fencepost in an open field
Photography by Jenson Larson Photography

Mrs. Wright was austere in appearance, wearing beige two-piece suits, sensible shoes and a white blouse with a jabot fluff held securely by an oval cameo pin. She was a gentle, supportive and knowledgeable person who was obviously born to be a teacher. Her voice never rose in anger or frustration. Her pleasant, plain face, framed by bobbed silver hair, never displayed anger or disappointment.

And in the back of the room, in seat seven of row six, sat Joel, an active 7-year-old with dark unruly hair, lopsided glasses and fidgeting hands. He spoke with a decided lisp, although he did not speak to the rest of us often. Joel was in our classroom, but he was not in our “class.” A mathematical genius, he was a long-time member of a national quiz show featuring children with exceptional intellectual ability. Joel’s aptitude for mathematics was amazing, even to those of us who didn’t know what calculus or trigonometry meant. He was taking math classes through the local high school and some college-level classes as well. But he was taking those classes while sitting in our third-grade classroom.

Today, Joel would be identified as ADHD, or perhaps even as autistic. Back then he followed a peculiar ritual. He would look at his “homework,” whisper something to himself, get up, run around the perimeter of the classroom at full speed two or three times and then slide into his seat and write down the answer. With 10 to 15 problems on the page, Joel spent most of his time running around the classroom. Meanwhile, we sat quietly, participating in reading groups or individual work.

Finally, after three or four weeks, one of the children apparently had had enough, either of sitting quietly or of watching Joel whiz around the room.

“Mrs. Wright,” she asked, “why is it that we have to stay in our seats to do our work, and we have to mostly not talk to our friends, but Joel gets to run around and around and around and talk to himself even when he is supposed to be doing his seat work? Why? How come he gets to do that?”

Without even a pause Mrs. Wright replied, “Well, remember how we talked about how some of us learn to read very quickly, and some of us take a little longer, and some of us have very small voices and some of us have very big voices—because we are different, but we are all special. You know that Joel is very special in doing things with numbers. He is doing many things we don’t even understand, things like calculus and trigonometry. Joel can do those things because his mind works very, very fast. In fact, his mind works so fast that sometimes he has to hurry so that his body can keep up with his mind. That’s why he runs around the classroom when he is thinking. So he can help his body to keep up with his very fast mind.”

“Oh,” the little girl said. “I get it—sort of like singing really fast when you are jumping rope really fast.”

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Wright, “something like that.” And everyone went back to work while Joel ran frantically around the room. Today, a student like Joel would have an IEP, but it’s unlikely he’d have a more accommodating classroom. Six decades ago, special education was in its infancy. Special needs students were often shuffled off to private schools, kept at home or shunted into separate rooms. A few unusual savants, like Joel, awkwardly made their way in general ed classrooms.

Joel was different in how he worked, but we respected his differences because Mrs. Wright respected them.

I knew then that if I could make one child feel as comfortable with “specialness” as Joel was made to feel with his, and if I could help one child accept another who was “different” in any way, I would do something really wonderful.

And so that is why I teach.

Lorna Greene is the professional development coordinator for the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County, Colo. She is also a part-time instructor at Front Range Community College.

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