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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A child's reading of Why Children Fail

by Jamie Lutton

An earnest young writer was putting together a collection of essays, and wanted a contribution.
 She asked me to write about a book that I knew had changed me.
All books change me. Sometimes, I will read a book, usually non-fiction, and I will run around telling anyone who will listen (usually customers) how good it is. Sometimes for weeks. I frequently have no copies of the book in question, but I like the book so much that that does not matter. But what was the first book?
The first book was the most important book, and it came to me when I needed it the most.
I read the book Why Children Fail, by John Holt, when I was a child, and stuck in a horrible life. I was failing fourth grade, and was the focus of a lot of adult attention - administrators, teachers, child psychologists. I had even been sedated and tested for epilepsy  I got angry a lot, and lashed out at other kids, and was the focus of bullying by other kids constantly (which was then not checked by administrators or teachers) 

None of the adults could really help me. They did not have a clue about my home life.  My Mother was a chameleon - a respectable reference librarian by day, an emotionally violent alcoholic by night.  She had the teachers all fooled about what my home life was alike. And my Dad, a smart, fun dad generally, did not do much to confront or control her.
One of the worst possible childhoods I could have, with an undiagnosed   bi-polar disorder plaguing me, was to have a mother who was a drunk.  This unfortunately happens a lot, as bi-polar runs in families, linked with alcoholism genetically.

This meant I had no idea what it was like to have any real happiness. Even when my home was pleasant (as it could be, when my mother was sober), my mind  was disordered.  Back in the day, when a child 'acted out', home-life was not factored in. And my mother was adequate at fooling teachers and psychologists.
I was already a good reader; my home was filled with books, as both my parents were great readers. I came across this book lying around my parent's house, and was of course intrigued by the title. 
I found John Holt to be astounding. I had never gotten .out of my own misery' before; suddenly (which happens with good writing) I was John Holt
I stepped through the Looking Glass that day, and was in the adult world, observing troubled unhappy kids, and with a compassionate eye.  And this was a new experience for me. I suddenly was out of my world, and in saw other children - troubled children. And most of all, my own troubles seemed as if they would have, someday, and end.
And they did, didn't they?
John Holt watched young kids in third and fourth grade or so attempt to solve math problems, and being frustrated in the attempt to the point of tears. He commented about the nature of an educational system that takes eager, happy kids and make them hate math and be frustrated by it, and end up being disconnected from school, enduring it like prison.

This book by John Holt is a first-person narrative, meant to be persuasive, written in a simple, open style. It seems to have been written for teachers as well as the general public, a book meant to open the eyes of teachers and parents to the unwitting damage they do..
One of my favorite accounts was him watching from a distance a 16 year old girl at a public picnic who had the mental age of 6 or so.

The child was sitting quietly, terrified of disobeying her parents, obviously trained to 'ape' a child of her own physical age by being very, very good and still. Holt eloquently described the look of strain and horror on her face, as she forced herself to be still, when she (obviously to Holt) wanted to run and play.
I, too, have been constrained by that terror. Bi-polar disorder drove me to have extra energy, to have steep mood swings. But my parents made clear that when I was 'good', I was sitting still and reading a book. That I was not to react to whatever Mother said or did, or what the kids at school said or did.  This was not a bad solution; unlike that mentally handicapped child, I could escape. I could quietly attempt to tune out the violent cacophony around me, day and night, at school and at home.

In the end, it is reading that saved me, and continues to save me.. In the face of all the violence. misery and cacophony in the world, a good book is a wonderful distraction and solace. . 

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