I wondered aloud if perhaps the difference for Mary was that she was born with the skills needed to succeed. She showed us in the book repeatedly how she set goals and made plans and carried them out . She was persistent and organized, with good impulse control and kept her end goal in sight. Why was she the only one in her family who could do those things? I explained how I had been coming to understand that children, often very smart children can have under the radar learning disabilities or lagging skills that hold them back from success. If a child is smart, but has no goal oriented persistence or organization, if he is impulsive, or disorganized and loses work he already completed, he will not succeed in school without some kind of intervention, a caring teacher, parent or other advocate who can give support where lagging skills would otherwise keep him down. This situation is often the case for children who have ADHD, Aspergers or some other spot on the Autism Spectrum to name but a few, and often runs in families. Another group member pointed out Mary's siblings all had different father than she did, she did not share paternal DNA with any of her siblings. Could that be it?
From a teaching perspective I found this very hopeful. If we know that some children struggle with these skills we can help them, we can scaffold, we can teach the skill or work around them. And we know they do, because research has been done and bright lights like Ross Greene have illustrated the effects of lagging skills and how to help children who have them, in books like The Explosive Child, and Lost at School. Right now it is in vogue for schools to have a social curriculum that teaches children explicitly how to handle certain social interaction. Not long ago the idea of schools teaching these skills was ridiculous to many people. Probably still seems foolish to some people, but not to me. Social skills, actually are just one segment of the group of skills that can hold kids back in school and life.
I truly believe the key to school reform that we read about everywhere we turn, is a deep understanding of our childrens' strengths and challenges, and figuring out, as educators, how to work with them or around them. Another key is not to allow low expectations or stereotypes cloud our vision of the learner. If teachers, even unconciosly, think a child's homelife, or parents are the block to learning, it is like saying, "There's nothing I can do about this." We need to be concious and cautious about assumptions, and instead look for solutions to the problems and skills we have in our power to fix and teach.