As I knelt down on the floor of my son Carter's first grade classroom, his teacher, Marti Mogensen, offered to let us join in opening a small box of fresh school supplies. A few other students gathered around, as curious 6- and 7-year-olds will do. The sounds of crinkling plastic and eager little fingers tearing at the packages trailed off into the distance as I realized that several of the packages were left-handed scissors. I remarked to Marti that there seemed to be a lot of left-handed scissors for such a small class. Marti agreed and said that there were five left handed students, a remarkable number given that the class has a total of only 16 students. Five out of 16 seemed strangely high.
Carter was new to the class. So I responded to Marti with enthusiasm, telling her how happy I was that Carter would not be the lone lefty. And then Marti looked at me, surprised, and replied, "Oh! Carter is a lefty too? That's right! That makes six." Approximately one in 10 people are left-handed. Five of the last sevenU.S. Presidents have been left handed. To me, this cluster suggests a resilient and limber quality. Personal resilience is something that may prove valuable in learning to overcome the confines of the status quo. At the very least, being left handed is an inescapable lesson in creative ergonomics and dare I say, empathy. For the record, I am right handed, as is Carter's dad. While perhaps a genetic mystery, Carter’s left-handedness is as clear as day, and comes with a whole host of subtle ergonomic challenges, writing obstacles and cultural biases passed on from prior generations. The world is filled with right-hand oriented doors, scissors and even ice cream scoops. While left-handers open doors with the same proficiency as their right-handed counterparts, young lefties are prone to experience what some observe as awkwardness. Many objects in our daily life are tailored for the majority: right-handed, right-footed, right-eyed, right-sided, and perhaps left-brain dominant.
For many left-handed children, frustration and discomfort materialize while learning to write in school. A world where writing eludes at the tender age of 5 or 6 can be a world filled with misunderstandings, frustration and brow-furrowing labels. These judgments often cause doors to shut prematurely and hamper a left-handed child's potential and future academic success. They also open doors that lead from specialist to specialist. I believe that every child deserves to learn and thrive at school. This includes access to an effective teacher, and a robust learning environment where each student reaches his or her full potential.
Carter is my oldest child. Like most first-time parents, we worried about timely achievement of early developmental milestones. Thankfully, turning over, sitting up, learning to crawl, talk, and walk happened naturally and with ease. I assumed the transition to his early school years would come as easily. And I was wrong. Carter entered school a happy, playful and curious student. His development across the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social domains was different, or so we were told.
In kindergarten we heard reports from teachers that Carter did not enjoy writing. That he had difficulty concentrating and seemed to be easily discouraged with writing assignments. Teachers reported that he was verbally engaged and well-behaved, but had trouble putting pen to paper. In the beginning, we took the wait-and-see approach, but as fall turned to spring, teachers continued to express concern. True to his temperament, he was happy and, for the most part, enjoying school. But he was exhausted at the end of each school day.
A reading specialist recommended a psychological assessment, followed by and a binocular vision assessment for perceptual skills and eye-tracking. We followed the recommendations. We spent hours over the summer seeking answers. Carter went willingly along as we trudged back and forth from appointment to appointment, meeting with strangers in large, institutional settings with long multi-syllable titles such as Occupational Therapist and Neuro Opthamoligist. We went in search of an answer that would satisfy the question, "Why is beginning reading and writing so difficult for Carter?"
First grade began at a picturesque public school where Carter's mood quickly shifted from curious and happy to frightened and discouraged. He came home with frownie faces on his papers, and cryptic little notes such as "not focusing!" He lost recess time and free playtime for not completing written assignments. He was miserable and demoralized. I was repeatedly told that he was falling behind and not working to his potential.
One day after school, with Carter standing beside me, I was told by his exasperated teacher that he was a "wiggle worm" and his "issue" of not being able to keep up with writing assignments was due to personal responsibility. That if he would try harder, he would succeed. After reaching the top of a long waitlist, we met with a developmental pediatrician, an expert, and an authority on child development and school-related problems. She spent time getting acquainted with Carter, observing him in a classroom-style setting, and then carefully listened to his feelings and explanations about school. She found Carter to be developing appropriately, even excelling in certain areas. She reviewed his schoolwork and teacher comments and suggested that we explore other school options. She recommended a hands-on developmental curriculum, something she hoped we could find in a charter or independent school.
We immediately connected with the community and curriculum at Berkwood Hedge in Berkeley, California. Carter visited the classroom for a day, and as soon as the car door shut after school, he told me, "This is it. This is a place where teachers want kids to learn and they help them, instead of scaring them to learn." That sealed the deal. Within three weeks, Carter emerged a reader and a willing writer. The spark of curiosity returned to his eyes.
At Berkwood Hedge, the teachers create lessons and activities that challenge and engage a wide range of students. As an independent school, teachers are encouraged to focus on, and teach to the individual. They provide support and instruction that allows left-handers to learn to write left-handed in a language and world constructed for the right-handed.
According to the Occupational Therapist we visited, improper instruction on how to position paper and pencil can lead to awkward, uncomfortable, and inefficient posture, which can result in slow writing. When teachers welcome students as creative participants in their own learning and respect a child's physiology, stress melts away and learning flourishes. Success defined in broad strokes, such as critical thinking and creative problem solving, makes academic achievement possible for all students.
It is rare, if not unique, to find a classroom in which 37 percent of students see and experience the world through their left hands. We cannot know with certainty what the future will hold for these students as a group. As a parent, I feel a quality education offers tools for life, and is the key to opportunity now and later.
For Carter, being a member of this class makes a significant impact on his daily life. He shows a sense of belonging. Rather than spending his classroom days subdued by fear, feeling like he is not good enough, and generally loathing school — he now has a place where he feels valued and accepted. It is an educational foundation with a sense of excitement, a willingness to meet challenges, make mistakes, and persevere. It is a place to learn and grow.