Our fifth grade teacher, Bob Digiantomasso (Mr. Dijon), had a carved wooden plaque at the front of his classroom that read, “There ain’t no one so DUMB as he who WON’T learn!”
That may seem like a mean thing for an elementary school teacher to advertise to his impressionable students. School boards would demand that plaque’s removal in today’s schoolroom, especially when the sentence lacked the “he or she” phrasing which bloats so much writing today.
If anyone claims Mr. Dijon was insensitive, he or she is wrong. You see, if you think about his plaque, it didn’t say that people who could not learn are dumb. It didn’t say that if learning a particular subject was really difficult it meant they are dumb. It used the words WON’T learn. Won’t means someone is unwilling. Won’t means someone refuses to try. Won’t means someone makes excuses not to learn.
In your mind, what is the difference between “can’t learn” and “won’t learn?”
Mr. Dijon obviously believed that everyone can learn, but not everyone will learn. Regardless of disabilities, talents, good teachers, bad teachers, advantages, or challenges, he believed you are ultimately responsible for your own learning. On one occasion, he turned a very embarrassing experience into an educational opportunity I never forgot.
Our elementary school had a tradition of a school-wide track meet shortly before the academic year ended. Teachers would enter their students in various races and competitions against kids in other classes. At the end of the day, winners of each event were announced and given ribbons in a formal assembly.
I was certain to win at least one of the few races I was signed up for. Mom had taken my brothers and I to Payless shoe store the day before and bought each one of us a brand new pair of running shoes. I was sure to have the edge on the guys racing against me.
Time for my race. The whole school watched. I walked to the makeshift track the teachers had set up with traffic cones on the school’s playing field. Three other guys (Patrick, Donovan, and someone else) came to the starting line. The gun sent us flying across the grass. The race was one complete lap around the track.
We stayed together around the first turn, then the second. As we came into the third of the four turns, my foot caught someone else’s and the tangle sent me tumbling to the ground. I landed on my hands and knees, shocked that such a terrible thing could happen.
I remember feeling defeated when I looked up and saw the other runners rounding the last turn to dash for the finish line. I got up and ran as quickly as I could…knowing there was no chance of winning or even placing. I think I was not so determined to show any resolve or courage by finishing. I wanted to get off the track and away from the spectators who had gathered for the race.
I crossed what had been the finish line but was, at that point, a mosh of people circled to congratulate the winners. I shuffled away, nursing my embarrassment and shame.
The races eventually finished, the assembly completed, and all the students returned to their classrooms. With a few minutes left before we dismissed for the day, Mr. Dijon, took the opportunity to recognize each class member who had received a ribbon in an event. When the winners had been acknowledged and applauded, Mr. Dijon asked the class, “Who saw what Steven did today?” Pure horror.
I thought he meant to revive my embarrassment, to pour salt into my wounds. A girl spoke up and said, “He fell down!” Mr. Dijon looked at me and said to the class, “Yes… yes, he fell down. But, he got up and finished the race!”
He motioned for me to come stand next to him in the chair behind the desk. I remember the lump in my throat and the tears forming in my eyes as I stood there with his arm around me. He took the time to explain to the class that it is not always about how we place, but whether or not we finish our races. He then encouraged my friends and classmates to give some applause for my decision to get up and finish the race that day. They all clapped and cheer. I cried, but in a good way. (Years later, I came across the poem, The Race, by D.H. Groberg and thought somebody plagiarized my experience.)
Mr. Dijon salvaged my self-esteem. He could have easily dismissed my experience as of no consequence, but his wisdom and the love his students moved him to transform a bad experience into a good one for me.
I could have chosen to only remember my failure and embarrassment that day. But with a dedicated teacher’s help, I chose to remember and believe what Mr. Dijon said.
Choose to Learn
The corollary to the saying on Mr. Dijon’s plaque is that anyone who is willing to learn is not dumb. It follows that there is no such thing as “can’t learn.” The most harmful learning disability then, is the unwillingness to learn.
Remember that the most important step in learning anything is making a choice to learn it. Another important step in learning is to share what we learn with others…it helps cement those lessons in our own minds. I’ve even made it easy for you…just use the buttons below: