Last month, three of my classes were treated to a visit by our Student Assistance Counselor, Mr. Jason Grabelsky, a social worker whose role is to offer students support and counseling.
Fiction Helps Us Confront Discomfort
Though I’ve taught Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men for nearly ten years, I’ve never been comfortable with how my students talk about one of the main characters, Lennie, who is cognitively impaired.
Steinbeck introduces Lennie in a comic fashion—he gulps water from a pond so excitedly that he dunks his head underwater, “hat and all” (p. 3)—so it’s natural that students are amused by his childlike behavior. Students often ask if Lennie is “all there in the head,” “stupid,” or “special.” My students were doing exactly as I’d trained them to do: reading closely and analyzing the character’s words and actions. But I had not equipped them with the appropriate language to talk about Lennie’s deficiencies in a sensitive way.
Giving him this context, I invited Mr. Grabelsky to my classes to help us learn how to talk about Lennie honestly and with sensitivity.
My students were doing exactly as I’d trained them to do: reading closely and analyzing the character’s words and actions. But I had not equipped them with the appropriate language to talk about Lennie’s deficiencies in a sensitive way.
Talking about Mental Disability in a Sensitive Way
After a brief introduction, Mr. Grabelsky asked students to share the kinds of words and phrases that people use to talk about people like Lennie, reassuring them that for the purpose of this exercise, they could use language that they might not ordinarily say aloud. Inevitably, the word “retarded” came up. When students snickered, Mr. Grabelsky reassured students that it’s natural to laugh or chuckle when we’re uncomfortable. He then explained that the word “retarded” used to be a clinical diagnosis, which is why it was commonly used, but today, it is no longer a polite or appropriate word to use. Today, we would refer to a person like Lennie as “cognitively impaired” or “intellectually disabled.”
Mr. Grabelsky asked the class to consider whether or not Lennie can tell the difference between right and wrong—a question that becomes important as the book progresses. Students offered compelling arguments for both sides of the debate, broadening out perspectives on Lennie’s capabilities and limitations.
Mr. Grabelsky challenged students to empathize with George, Lennie’s best friend and caretaker, which brought a new layer to the text that I had never fully explored. After describing the extensive training for caretakers of adults with cognitive impairment, including de-escalation training for calming someone down and learning how to safely operate restraints, Mr. Grabelsky asked the class to consider whether or not George is adequately equipped to take care of Lennie.
To close the presentation, Mr. Grabelsky offered some important tips for how to interact with someone who is cognitively impaired:
- Being kind goes a long way
- It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when you encounter someone different (it doesn’t make you a bad person)
- Don’t stop and stare
- Appreciate all that you have
- Empathize with the person and their caretakers
After this introductory lesson, I’ll be curious to see how my students respond to Lennie and George as conflicts develop.
Just as it’s important to help students develop multiple perspectives, our guest speaker, Mr. Grabelsky, challenged me with a refreshing take on a classic text I’d taught many times before.