I Miss School

The winter break was everything I had hoped it would be. A few friends have asked, “Did you snorkel?” “Did you take a helicopter ride?” “Did you parasail?”

Other than enjoying tropical breezes, almost uninterrupted sun, and the occasional hike through gorgeous natural scenery in Hawai’i, I did not tackle adventure on this vacation.

My family still reminds me of the vacation we spent in the Caribbean. I rented a Hobie Cat and took the family out into the harbor. It took us about 10 minutes to sail from the beach to the mouth of the harbor. The prevailing winds were out of the harbor, and sailing back into the wind would require more sailing skill than I possessed. At that point, I turned to my children, then around 10 and 12, and asked them to sail us back to the beach, into the wind.  My wife and I had made sure they had a couple of sailing lessons in a small harbor off of Lake Michigan. I assumed the two hours they spent in 8 foot Sunfish sailboats had prepared them for the open seas. They both looked at me with a mixture of fear and incomprehension, and my wife started yelling at me, thinking for some reason that since I had engineered this entire fiasco and sailed us almost out of the safety of the harbor, I had some idea on how to get us back safely. Four hours later (after embarrassingly running into a 40-foot sailboat moored on one side of the harbor while the horrified owners tried to wave us away with their hands), we returned to land. My family does not do adventure with me.

I spent my time reading. I read on the plane, on the beach, by the pool, in my room, everywhere I could. I tore through 3 1/2 books. It was glorious. I had not spent so much dedicated time reading since graduate school. I read Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the Worlda gift from a friend. I balanced this fictional account of Bangladeshi independence in the 1920’s with Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai UndercityThe contrast between the lives of early-2oth century Bangladeshi aristocracy and present-day residents of a slum smashed up against the Mumbai airport filled out my developing sense of India, building on my knowledge  from a visit to Bangalore in 2007 and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balanceone of my favorite novels and a magical telling of the life of an Indian family set in 1975. I also read Neal Stephenson’s ReamdeI have long been a fan of Stephenson, and Reamde fit the bill for action-packed narco/terrorist/hacker/survivalist interactions. Plenty of mayhem and chaos round out the unalloyed fun. It was a great vacation read.

As for the 1/2 book of the 3 1/2 I read while on vacation, I am now about 5/7’s of the way through Andrew Solomon’s Far From the TreeThis book has gripped me like no other in a long time. It makes me want to be back in school, reading this book, showing up for class with my inline notes and yellow highlighting, ready to debate with classmates the implications of medical technological advances on the Deaf or Down Syndrome communities. As my wife will attest, I babble to every friend I know about the urgency of them reading this book. I love Solomon’s writing, and his construct for looking at children and families with special abilities is changing how I look at the world.

What I learned on winter vacation is that if you want a fun read, read Reamde. If you want to expand your understanding of the Indian Sub-continent, go with the trilogy mentioned above. If you want to change your life, read Far From the Tree. 

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

2 thoughts on “I Miss School

  1. Working with what I learned to think of “other abled” students and their families for over 29 years did change my life. I am grateful that I took so long to return to college so that I could be part of the movement in Illinois, ten years before 94-142 became a national law, to provide so called ‘Special Education’ for children, youth and adults with challenges which were little understood, and resulted in some of them being warehoused in residential facilities, excluded from public education, locked in attics or basements and not given opportunities to develop their very real potentials.

    I knew from age four that I wanted to teach. My secondary education in a small high school was provided by a few talented instructors in Math, Science and English. (Social studies was taught by the basketball/baseball coach who was good at sports, but his concept of teaching American History was: read the text, write the rote answers to picayune questions, memorize everything, regurgitate the material on rote memory tests. I hated history.)

    While Mr. Pat Flanagan, the only English teacher, did teach the basic necessary rote stuff: diagraming of sentences, use of proper grammar, use of perfect spelling, etc., more importantly, he taught me to think, question concepts, love classical literature and on and on. But beyond the English curriculum, he helped me develop confidence in my abilities, to believe that women could be more than housewives, to believe that I could do anything that I was willing to work to achieve. From my ninth grade year I knew I was going to be a teacher of English!

    I dropped out of college without completing the last quarter of my freshman year and did not return until over twelve years later – as an English Education major. By then the college had grown five fold in student population, had achieved university status and had developed a sprawling campus. It also housed a building dedicated to special education in anticipation of the newly generated need for teachers who were qualified to teach students with ‘special needs.’ In 1965 the General Assembly of Illinois had passed legislation mandating ‘special education’ for students – to be identified and classified with an array of ‘disabilities’. The LEAs were required to have programs and services in place by the 1969-70 school year in order to address the needs of this population.

    After completing my first full semester as an English major, (as well as a mother, homemaker and part time employee of Colonial Ice Cream Shoppes), I experienced an epiphany. I went to Graham Hall, the building dedicated to Ray Graham, an Illinois special education trailblazer. I met with staff, observed in the Lab School and changed my major.

    And that’s where it all began.

  2. I, too, read Far From the Tree just before the winter break. I liked it so much that I bought several copies for friends and colleagues as holiday gifts.
    This book has changed my life, my perspective, and my teaching in countless ways. There are several chapters that I would love to assign to my students, but the book is so massive, I can’t even imagine suggesting it. So, yesterday I wrote to Andrew Solomon to see if there was any consideration from his publishers to make individual chapters available to educators. No answer yet, but I will keep you apprised.
    I think we should have a HWC book group- everyone should read it and then discuss.
    Really transformative.

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