Rich Weinfeld was warned about the quirky student coming into his fourth-grade class.
Her handwriting was sloppy, the third-grade teacher told him. Her sentences ran on and on. She used no punctuation. No capitalization. In short, the teacher concluded, she couldn't write.
Some educators might have been disappointed, anticipating the remedial work that lay ahead. But Weinfeld was intrigued and did something Mary White's third-grade teacher apparently never attempted: He actually tried to read the 8-year-old's prose—not concentrating on her mechanics or her handwriting, which Weinfeld admits was “a mess,” but on her ideas. And he was astonished.
“I knew she was gifted, and that's what I focused on,” says Weinfeld, then a teacher in Bethesda, MD.
Under Weinfeld's tutelage, Mary bloomed.
That was 35 years ago, before anyone had heard the words “twice exceptional.”
“If she had proceeded to have teachers like her third-grade teacher, she would have stopped writing,” Weinfeld says.
Mary White, now in her early 40s, has vivid memories of that difficult time. Her parents, both researchers at the National Institutes of Health, were going through a divorce, and she felt lost at school. She says Weinfeld “was the first teacher who really talked to me, who really communicated with me.” Regarding her depression and a learning disability that made organization (and tidy handwriting) difficult for her, she said Weinfeld “didn't care. He looked right past it.”
White now lives in Belleview, Wash.
Not coincidentally, she is a special education teacher for middle school students. Along the way, she graduated magna cum laude, with a major in literature and philosophy, from Beloit College in Wisconsin. She became a lawyer, worked in civil rights, criminal defense, and legal services for the mentally ill, and then returned to college for a master's degree in education. Now she's come full circle, in a sense, by returning to the classroom.
Along the way, the girl who couldn't write received the Hart Crane Memorial Award for poetry. She e-mailed Weinfeld recently to thank him, telling him about her multiple careers and asking for advice on how to teach students, some of whom are not so different from herself.
“How do we help them deliver their gifts to the world?” she asks. “Personally, to me, that's the question.”
American School Board Journal - www.asbj.com - March 2010