Springfield, MO

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Education Matters

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by Arthur L. Mallory

The Little Kid was 11 years old, blond with blue eyes. He was handsome.

He and his teacher, a young woman with a very specialized master's degree, were working after the supper hour. The setting was the Missouri School for the Blind on Magnolia Avenue in St. Louis. This is the school were braille was first introduced in the United States.

I watched as the Little Kid and his teacher were going over some exercises designed to make him more sensitive to the outside world. I watched him, but he didn't see me. The Little Kid was totally blind he could not see the lightning. He was also profoundly deaf he could not hear the thunder. And, he was severely orthopedically handicapped.

He was strapped in his wheelchair by day, and at night he had to be strapped in his bed to keep from hurting himself with his flailing about. He had to be fed, spoonful by spoonful. In fact, his teachers and other caregivers were required to do virtually everything for him.

Beyond all these problems the Little Kid faced, he was retarded. This was no Helen Keller attempting to escape from a dark and silent world so his genius could be known. The Little Kid was really handicapped! He didn't even have a language.

The state Board of Education was meeting that day and the next at the School for the Blind. After a supper break I had wandered through the academic wing of the school and came upon the scene with the Little Kid and his teacher. The superintendent of the School for the Blind came looking for me to say the State Board was ready to reconvene.

On the way back to the meeting I asked the superintendent, Louis Tutt, how much the state of Missouri was spending annually for the education of the Little Kid. Louis said, "You probably don't want to know. This is really an expensive Little Kid."

I asked whether we would ever see any measurable result from the financial and emotional investment the state was making for him.

Louis declared that if he could have him until he was 21 years of age, there was a good chance that he would be boarding the bus, traveling to the Sheltered Workshop where he could apply a skill and perhaps earn some money.

Really, however, the expense associated with the education of the Little Kid is much too high for the very meager results we will see unless he is your child or grandchild! Unless he is the child born to next door neighbors whom you help from time to time.

If this were the case, one could argue that in America, where we are financially able to accomplish what we deem important and what we value, the Little Kid is worth it.

What was done for this child was an eloquent statement regarding the value we in Missouri place on one young human life.

Someone may wonder why God would so severely test the Little Kid. This is not a test for him. This is a test for us. I believe his presence and condition were permitted, thus allowing us the opportunity to serve him. It was a test, and to a large degree, the state of Missouri passed.

We live in a time when the education of children and youth, through our public schools and other public institutions, reaches out to the most able as well as to those who are less so. We have a system of education designed to meet the needs of all the children of all the people, and it works.

The system is not perfect, but in the case of the Little Kid, the state of Missouri appropriated money to build a facility on the campus of the School for the Blind which could accommodate him. No local public school could have responded to his needs, but the people, through state government, responded.

Where do we go from here? With higher and higher expectations the pressure is great on public servants to accomplish what people in and of themselves cannot. Of course this is perhaps the chief function of government to do for the people what can be done only by joining our resources and efforts.

Even a local school district with limited resources will be unable to provide every needed service, but the people, through state government, acting together, can do some mighty things and work some truly miraculous results.

Prior to 1970 there was a limited program for the developmentally disabled and nothing at all in the way of special state resources for the gifted. Now there are sophisticated programs with new research and discoveries every day.

The future is brighter than ever for the education of our children and youth if we will continue to seize every opportunity to improve their condition and serve them with love and imagination.

It is 1999. A new year. A new opportunity. There is someone, not a slacker or loafer, who can't possibly do it for himself, in need of our collective help a new test for us as a society. In the past we have done so well. How will we score on this one? Therein lies the challenge!

(Arthur L. Mallory, EdD, is a former president of Southwest Missouri State University and former commissioner of education who resides in Springfield.)

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