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I'm not talking here about a disciplinary problem or those bright but rebellious types who refuse in inappropriate ways to learn. I'm talking about someone who hurts no one but handles school, other people -- all of life -- in an unconventional manner.
That was the topic of a lovely little article in the March issue of Child magazine called "Daydream Believer." The author was Gershom Gorenberg, a journalist, historian and father of three who lives in Jerusalem.
He explained that he'd often get calls in the evening from his sixth-grade daughter's teachers. "[T]hey like to keep in touch with parents," he noted. "They like to say pretty much the same thing. 'She doesn't listen in class,' the exasperated voice reports tonight. 'She draws or stares out the window. You need to ... '
"The teacher goes on. This complaint could be sold plain-wrapped, with a generic title. I'll talk to my daughter, and she'll insist that she does listen. She'll say that it's easier to listen when she draws and that just because she's looking out the window doesn't mean she isn't learning. She'll remind me that she got a 90 on her last math test."
Gorenberg recalled that when he taught school long ago he, too, felt frustration looking out at faces that weren't focused on his. And he said he understood that his daughter's teachers might think, "This girl is ignoring me."
"But now I'm a parent and I see things differently. Perhaps as she stares out the window my daughter is studying a beautiful butterfly, her mind creatively attending to something else. Perhaps she is listening -- but in her own way."
Gorenberg said that when faced with such situations, he revisits the story of Alexander Fleming, the Scottish researcher who discovered penicillin. "As a child, Fleming was a smart student but had a dreamy demeanor and failed to exert himself. As an adult, he worked under a mentor who insisted on sticking to orderly procedures. One day Fleming glanced at a discarded petri dish of bacteria -- which had become contaminated with mold -- and noticed that bacteria near the mold were no longer reproducing. As we now know, Fleming's distracted curiosity led to a scientific breakthrough that helped save millions of lives."
According to Gorenberg, this business of attention, of a child's ability to stay "on task," often means, in school jargon, "she doesn't pay attention to what we want." He said he returns to Fleming "when well-meaning people advise me to have my daughter diagnosed, to assign an acronym to her lovely, infuriating elsewhereness. Sometimes, I tell myself, the child who watches a butterfly flitting outside the classroom window grows up to notice something interesting about that mold in the petri dish."