Suppose you had a child who had sustained a moderate head injury in a car accident, how would you assess her her first few months back?
Her memory may be wobbly, she may be prone to bouts of inattention.
You'd be kind, no? You'd work with her to help her get through her material. You might even whisper to her that there are bigger things in life than this week's homework assignment.
You certainly would not blame the child for the extra work you both need to do to get her through the curriculum.
Suppose you had a child who's just returned from home instruction after a particular rough bout with treatment for his brain tumor. He's doing better now, thanks be to God, but he's not quite as sharp as he was.
A colleague mentions to you he had brain irradiation. You get a vague 504 notification that he needs more time to complete his tasks, that he needs an outline of all class activities. You'd be more than glad to take on the extra duties. You're a teacher, and like most teachers, frequently take those extra steps for children who need them. You do not need a 504 reminding you to be human.
You certainly would not blame the child.
Now imagine you have a child who has been exposed to a drug during early childhood, a drug known to shrink a portion of the brain called the hippocampus.
You can predict how such a child might do in today's schools.
The drug? Cortisol.
The source? A child's own adrenal glands, a response to stress.
The cause? More often than not, poverty.
I worked for years as a pediatrician in shelters and public housing in some of the most stressed neighborhoods in New Jersey. I saw plenty of love, strength, and beauty under conditions that crushed souls. But I was putting band-aids on the gaping wounds of systemic neglect that continue and continue and continue.
A child who lives under constant severe stress has, literally, smaller hippocampuses than a child not exposed to the same stress.
I sat a table's width across from Governor Christie last spring as he spouted off one of Arne Duncan's soundbites: "Zip code is not destiny."
And I agree. As brain tumors and moderate brain injuries are also not destiny.
But if you think any of them have no effect on a child's education you are simply not thinking.
Would it had made a difference if I screamed at the smugness that accompanied the remark?
A remark by the most powerful man in our state, speaking of the least.