Tuesday, December 07, 1999

An advanced lesson from the students




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        What they do seems impossibly hard. Brave. Gallant. They think I am making this too complicated.

        Piece of cake, they tell me.

        They merely stand up in front of a bunch of people and talk about having a disability. Then they answer as many questions as the audience cares to ask. Pointed, sometimes indelicate, very personal questions.

        That's all they do.

        Piece of cake.

        Brittany Edwards, 14, of Kennedy Heights, and Brent Marx, 11, of Crescent Springs, are seated in the library of their school, a school for children with learning disabilities. Besides the requisite, old-fashioned books, there's a bank of computers and a pile of beanbag chairs.

        Beanbag chairs? “When children have trouble reading, you try to make the library as inviting as possible,” says Shelly Weisbacher, Springer School's director.

        And that, in a nutshell, is the problem and the solution.

        Now, instead of making this too complicated, I am making it too simple. Brent would probably advise me to take a deep breath and use a coping strategy here. Brittany could probably help me organize my thoughts. They know more about these things than most children. They know more about these things than most adults.

        Students at Springer, who come from 53 different Greater Cincinnati ZIP codes, generally have reading and language problems. And their IQs often are higher than average. At Springer, they study the process of learning. And somewhere along the way, they also get a big dollop of self-confidence. This is not an insignificant part of the curriculum.

        Depending on the nature of the problem and the nature of the kid and the nature of the previous school, some students report to Springer after years of being told that they aren't trying hard enough or that they aren't paying attention. Worst case, somebody tries to convince them that they're stupid.

        “You can kind of get down on yourself,” Brent says.

        Brittany says her dyslexia didn't start showing up until the third grade. “That's when we were starting cursive,” she says. Next year, she'll attend Purcell Marian High School. Most students remain at Springer for about three years. Then, armed with what they've learned about learning — and about themselves — they leave this cocoon of a school that has eight staffers for every student, a school where no student is allowed to make fun of another.

        Not for any reason.

        Springer has 197 students, each in his or her way, I suppose, is an ambassador. But officially Brittany and Brent and 11 other Springer students are Ambassadors for the Everybody Counts Program, where elementary school children study disabilities, such as vision or hearing impairment. Fifth grade is when they study learning disabilities.

        “I learned that it is not a terrible thing to have a learning disability,” wrote a student from St. Mary's Grade School after a visit from the Ambassadors, “and you just need a little extra help.”

        And that you are not from Mars.

        Sometimes, Brittany says, somebody in the class has a learning disability. “But maybe they didn't know it. It feels good to maybe make it a little easier for somebody else.”

        Brittany Edwards, writer of poems, and Brent Marx, fly fisher, go to a special school. Thanks to this very special school, they know a lot about themselves. They each have a learning disability. It is what they have. It is not who they are.

        After a few minutes with them, that's not hard to remember. Not at all.

        Piece of cake.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears Mondays on WVXU radio.

        PULFER ARCHIVE