The Poet and the Learn’d Astronomer
Fish In a Tree, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a (mostly) wonderful book that’s narrated by the main character, a 6th grade girl named Ally Nickerson. Ally’s had a tough road to navigate. It’s clear she’s a smart kid with a unique way of seeing the world. But Ally’s always had trouble at school, particularly when it comes to reading and writing. After a couple of chapters, it becomes pretty obvious that she’s got dyslexia. After a few more chapters, I went straight into clinician mode and picked out signs of ADHD, and anxiety as well. Before I knew it, I was designing a treatment plan for her and wondering why no one at her school had ever identified any of these issues, all of which seemed perfectly obvious to me. Get this kid a good IEP and we’ll fix her right up!
Which, of course, misses the point completely.
Fish In a Tree eloquently describes the struggles involved in getting through a day of school when you have learning differences. Social isolation, devastating assaults on self-image, and the ever-present frustration of feeling stupid and misunderstood are inevitable and permanent parts of Ally’s landscape. She’s skeptical when one of her teachers appears to show an interest in getting to know her, saying “He doesn’t want to know about the real me. It’ll be like people in scary movies who think they want to know what’s in the basement but when they find out they’re always sorry.” The book takes us through Ally’s 6th grade year and does a great job of capturing the sometimes cruel social interactions, adolescent angst, and overall ickiness of middle school.
By the end of the story, things have begun to fall into place for Ally. Her teacher, Mr. Daniels, is a good man who takes the time to identify and focus on his students’ assets. Even before he recognizes Ally’s dyslexia, he takes an active interest in helping her learn to be happy by just being herself. If he hadn’t laid that foundation first, it would have been unlikely that Ally would have put in the time and effort to access the interventions he eventually put in place for her.
What the book brought home to me is that in working with kids, it’s important to focus on both the art and the science of the job. Without Mr. Daniels’ artistry, Ally would never have come to trust him or look at him as anything except just another part of the problem. Without the science, he wouldn’t be able to do much to help her after he had developed an alliance with her.
I suppose my initial reaction of viewing Ally and her story through the eyes of a clinician would have been okay in real life. But only if I could keep my mouth shut long enough for me to earn her trust. Only then could I put my “profound” (and obviously evidence-based) observations into practice.
(Incidentally, I hated the book’s ending and it came close to wrecking the whole experience for me. Anyone who doesn’t mind reading a spoiler can click here to read about it.)
Parents, teachers, and human service professionals may be tempted to approach the task of helping children with learning differences as simply a matter of proper assessment and treatment. Don’t get me wrong. That stuff is really important. Adults are well advised to read about the neurology and treatment of learning differences and the strategies involved in helping kids to manage them. But read Fish in a Tree too. Without a solid foundation built upon listening, honesty, empathy, and trust, those efforts are going to be wasted. It’s not a matter of choosing either art or science. Rather, it’s a matter of taking what you need from both disciplines in order to make a difference. At Academy MetroWest, we focus on creating a safe, supportive space for kids in which they can be themselves, while also providing targeted social feedback. Without establishing a community based upon empathy and trust, that feedback would be much more likely to fall on deaf ears.
Walt Whitman had a perspective on our universe that added a layer of understanding that science could not. On the other hand, astronomers and astrophysicists add their own type of depth to that understanding. Whitman had a point but let’s face it – he and the learn’d astronomer could have learned a lot from each other.