Friday's New York Times ran "Phelps’s Mother Recalls Helping Her Son Find Gold-Medal Focus," an article by Michael Winerip featuring thoughts from Deborah Phelps, the mother of Olympic swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps. Diagnosed with ADHD, Michael Phelps struggled in school, and teachers suggested that he wasn't capable of anything that required focus or attention. Not so much, as it turns out.
He was fortunate, of course, that his was a "swimming family," as Deborah Phelps describes, and that he received that support and conditions that he needed to excel in the extraordinary way that he has. And he was also tremendously lucky that his mom, a teacher herself and now a middle school principal, recognized that there was way more to her son than his early grades teachers suggested. She advocated for him, sought the right kinds of support, and most important, listened to him and kept her faith in him. As a mom, I imagine it must have been tough at times; it seems that he really struggled in school.
Of course, eventually "Michael the swimmer appeared," which must have put his school issues in perspective, and it seems that he was able to channel formidable attention and focus into his swimming, not only in the pool, but into the work he had to do on land to improve. I imagine it must have been immensely gratifying for his family to watch him blossom.
I think of so many other kids who struggle in school like Michael did. Not all come from families who are able to support and advocate for their kids as effectively as Ms Phelps, and not all find allies or are known well by other adults who can help them find their way. And not all are able to experience that thing in life that makes them extraordinary--maybe not Olympic-level extraordinary, but that thing that makes them feel great, that they can do well, and that makes them feel like a fully integrated, competent, successful person. Without that, it's all too easy for kids and perhaps even their families to believe the "he can't" and "she won't" messages that can come from schools that are overly focused on getting every kid ready for standardized tests at a uniform pace. We believe that all children deserves an education that allows them to gain literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills--but that does not mean that what we provide for kids should stop there. They deserve and require so much more.
Some kids find their way, as education reform advocate/writer Mike Klonsky reflected on in "Looking Back on Bernie Mac," a reflection on actor/comedian Bernie Mac's sad and early death this weekend. And many, many more would find their best inner selves if we made our schools places that not only support them as they develop literacy and math skills, but also make sure that they have meaningful experiences with all forms of the arts, the natural world, literature and poetry, music, sports and physical movement, performance, and as many other aspects of human endeavor as possible.
Schools can't be everything for everyone, but they should be places where all kids can shine and discover themselves. And for many kids, home and community life don't always offer a range of meaningful, safe, well-designed activities and exposure. For many kids, school and afterschool programs are the only place this can happen. Our kids deserve schools and communities that allow them to develop their full selves. When we cut arts. physical activity, and so much more from our schools, we limit options for individual kids, for communities, and for our collective future.