The Poet and the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Walt Whitman 
Walt Whitman might have been on to something. We humans have a tendency to let our big brains define and dominate our understanding of the universe at the expense of our emotions, our sense of wonder, and the magic of everyday existence. Often, our intellectual understanding of the world is really just the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t do justice to the larger truth.
I remember one day in graduate school about 30 years ago. In the middle of a developmental psychology class, normally one of my favorites, I started getting a little cranky as we delved into the unit on adolescent development. The professor was talking about the theorists and researchers who had made some outstanding contributions to the field. So outstanding, as a matter of fact, that I can’t even remember any of their names now. I sat in class, quietly stewing, because none of these luminaries really added anything important to my understanding of adolescence. The more I heard, the more I thought “Not one of these (insert pejorative plural noun here) can tell me what it feels like to be a teenage boy the way Pete Townshend does in Quadrophenia.” 
For the uninitiated, Quadrophenia is an album by The Who that came out in 1973. It’s a song cycle, eventually made into a movie, about a teenage boy trying to figure out who he is when everyone around him seems determined to impose their own labels on him. When I heard:

I’ve got a Gibson without a case but I can’t get that even tanned look on my face. Ill fitting clothes and I blend in the crowd. Fingers so clumsy. Voice too loud,”

I went back to the doctor to get another shrink. I sit and tell him ’bout my weekend. But he never betrays what he thinks. Can you see the real me, doctor?,”
I heard songs that felt like they were written for me. Pete Townshend felt my pain and assured me that I was not the only one who felt that way. He let me know that it was okay and left me feeling less alone in the world. Those ivory tower academics we covered in class did nothing like that. They seemed like Whitman’s learn’d astronomer spouting convoluted, irrelevant factoids and missing the larger point.
Another recent experience cast more light on the importance of drawing upon both art and science in working with children.
On recent trips with my 11 year old daughter, we’ve been listening to a number of audio books from the Young Adults canon. We’ve heard some good stuff (Wonder, Moo, Because of Winn-Dixie) and some bad stuff. We just finished Fish in a Tree a few days ago and it’s fresh in my mind.

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.