Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Mitchell can't say

By law now, college instructors are not allowed to discuss a student’s grades or class progress with parents. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), parents have access to their kids’ academic records only if the student has signed a waiver allowing them to.

That doesn’t mean calls and emails from “concerned” parents have slowed up any. Sometimes I’m introduced to a parent’s voice on the phone or find his or her email in my in-box before I’ve ever even laid eyes on the darling son or daughter.

Such is the case with Mitchell, a tall, shy young man with big blue eyes and a mop of curly blond hair that hangs almost to his shoulders. Days before I meet him in the media writing class, I receive an email and a phone call from his mother – I’ll call her Ruth.

Hearing Ruth describe her son, I get a picture of an outgoing, talkative young entrepreneur with a penchant for public speaking and the personality of a budding Donald Trump. Even as a high school senior, Ruth tells me, Mitchell had found a mentor in a vice-president of a major advertising firm in the area. The man encouraged Mitchell to major in corporation communications “because of the great job potential” (Ruth’s words).

So on the first day of class, as I call the roll, I am eager to see how Mitchell matches up to his mother’s glowing description. I spot him sitting on the back row by himself. One by one, the other students sing-song their answers to the usual “Who are you and what’s your major?” questions. I usually throw in something odd, too, like “Tell me your most recent brush with fame” or “Who is funnier – Leno or Letterman? Give reasons for your choice.” (This is a great way to differentiate the bright kids from the mediocre ones. Smart ones pick Letterman. And the really smart ones say, “Neither. It’s Jon Stewart.”)

When we get to Mitchell, I am surprised to see him blush a deep crimson and give me a sort of nervous wave, as if to say, “Skip me, please. Don’t make me talk.” I think I say something like, “OK, we’ll come back to you later.” But by the end of class that first day, he still hasn’t spoken up.

That night I grade their first-day quizzes (see the post below for a sample). Mitchell fares poorly, missing more than 60 of the 100 multiple choices and fill-in-blanks that assess basic skills in grammar, punctuation and spelling.

At the next class session, I discreetly hand back the papers (long gone are the days when students grade each other’s work – an “invasion of privacy” that someone decided embarrasses the dumb ones unnecessarily and therefore can’t be allowed).

“Anyone who missed more than 50 percent of the answers should seriously reconsider taking this course,” I tell the class. “Unless you get outside tutoring or spend every evening in the Learning Enhancement Center, you will have big problems with the writing assignments and probably will not pass.”

Mitchell looks stricken. After class I wave him down toward the front of the room. As I gather up my notes and folders, I ask, “What are you going to do, kiddo? I’m not sure you’re up to this.” His score was the lowest of the 40 students in the two sections. I don’t tell him that.

“I n-n-n-n-know,” he says, blinking hard as he struggles to spit out the words. “I’m n-n-n-n-not the b-b-b-b-b-best writer. I n-n-n-n-need a t-t-t-t-t-tutor.”

Ah. The problem. Mitchell has a profound speech defect. He doesn’t just stutter. He blocks. I’m no speech pathologist, but I can tell this is a lifelong, severe impediment. It could account for his poor grammar and punctuation skills, too. If the kid never spoke in high school, if he couldn’t communicate or ask questions, he probably fell behind long ago on the basics.

I don’t like to blow smoke. I’ll tell a student the what’s-what right to his face. But I can’t just kick the kid out of class on the second day. He assures me he will keep up with the assignments and get outside help. But already I dread the day the class makes their oral presentations. What will he do?

Back in my office that afternoon, I get another email from Mitchell’s mother, Ruth. “I am surprised about the number of items that he missed on the test,” she writes. “But he is definitely up for the challenge.” I guess Mitchell has already talked to her about the test.

Then the phone rings. Ruth again, wanting to discuss Mitchell’s test score further. We have been in class only twice this term and already I’ve had four communiqués from this mother.

I listen to Ruth tell me again what an outstanding communicator her son is. Then I tell her in the most general way that students who have fluency problems, either written or spoken, have a tough time passing a class that requires so much writing and speaking. And I’m a tough grader, I tell her.

Ruth is indignant. “As far as his fluency difficulties, Mitchell was never even sent to speech assistance in his entire 12 years of school,” she says, not quite shrieking but close enough. “In high school, he gave speeches in class, interviewed people, was in a singing group and performed in school plays. He is very conversational in his classes and always has been. Perhaps you are intimidating to him. I don’t know. But I have heard from another teacher who said he had no idea that Mitchell had any difficulty with speech.”

Denial. Pure and simple. The son has a profound speech problem, not to mention sub-par skills in the basics of writing, and the mother doesn’t acknowledge either. Excedrin headache No. 31.

Ruth isn’t finished. “Mitch would really be upset if he knew that I contacted you and had mentioned his speech. I guess as a mother we never stop worrying about our children. He is an only child, which probably does not help.”

After she hangs up, I Google her name. Ruth is a special education coordinator for a large metropolitan school district. Sigh. Whatcha gonna do?

It’s a tough semester for Mitchell. He does try. He writes and rewrites, but never really makes much progress on the page. He exhibits some signs of dyslexia, transposing letters and numbers. Because of the stutter, he can't read aloud without difficulty. I don't ask him about any of that. Unless I get a letter from the university's Office of Services for Students with Disabilities telling me that a student needs extra accommodation because of a learning problem -- and I have no such letter about Mitchell -- I never bring up such things directly with a student. You really can't.

In Mitchell's case, I give him some slack. He asks and I agree to let him do an additional written assignment rather than his having to get up in front of the class to give the required speech. On the days the others do their stand-up presentations, Mitch ditches class. We both understand why.

I feel for the kid. By midterm he and I both know he isn’t suited for the major or, probably, a career in corporate communications.

We do have some good chats in my office before and after classes. He is a sweet boy with a sunny outlook on life. What he'd really like to do, he tells me, is own his own motorcycle shop. Every story he writes for the class is related to motorcycles. One-on-one, as we get to know each other, he relaxes and his stutter isn’t nearly so bad. But he never says a word in class. He smiles. He shrugs. But he doesn’t talk.

How might Mitchell benefit from some serious work with a topnotch speech therapist? They have excellent methods for overcoming problems like his now. One involves the stutterer listening to his own voice in an earpiece as he speaks. There are breathing techniques that can be learned. Heck, about all I know is what I see on ABC’s 20/20 (co-hosted by John Stossel, a former stutterer), but I know that stutters like Mitchell’s can be controlled and conquered.

Mitchell has done none of these therapies. His mother won’t let him. Perhaps at home he doesn’t stutter so badly. Maybe the pressure of college classes makes it worse. Maybe he feels like he'd be letting his mother down if he admitted he even has the stutter.

He earns a passing D in my class and moves on to major in some other department. I never hear from Ruth again.

It’s certainly not impossible to make it in media with poor writing skills and a speech problem. (See Bill O'Reilly for the former and Campbell Brown of NBC's Today show for the latter.) But sometimes there are bigger obstacles that stand in the way of becoming a whole person. Mitchell will have to overcome one particularly difficult impediment to his future success if he’s ever going to be an independent adult capable of living his own life. It has nothing to do with how he talks.

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