The Real Test of Education Policy

What happens when a profoundly unusual individual student runs up against a school system designed for "most" kids?


Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality, by John Schwartz, Gotham, 304 pages, $26

John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon knew that their third child, Joe, was off-the-charts intelligent: He had read through all the Harry Potter books before or during kindergarten. He was also learning disabled—unable, for example, to master the mechanics of basic handwriting. "There is," Schwartz writes in Oddly Normal, his engaging, informative memoir about his son, "an abbreviation for this: GT/LD, for 'gifted and talented/learning disabled.'"

Schwartz and Mixon also had a strong sense early on that Joe—flamboyantly girly from the moment he could talk—was gay. Even in an ideal world, raising a GT/LD kid who's also LGBT would be a challenge. But the New Jersey public-school system—like all school systems, even the most well-intentioned, well-funded, and well-designed ones—made it especially tough. Despite their school district's investment in therapists, highly trained teachers, and policies aimed at protecting and nurturing students who are a few sigmas out from the mean, Joe Schwartz found himself consistently misclassified and misdiagnosed by professional staff, and alienated from and bullied by some of his fellow students. The opening passage of Oddly Normal telegraphs the stark result: Joe, who had just come out as gay at age 13, attempted to kill himself with an overdose of the nonprescription drug Benadryl, apparently in response to other students' reactions to his revelation.

The subject of education is sufficiently fraught on the macro policy level (Should we privatize public schools? Add market incentives through vouchers? Support them through taxes at all? And what about homeschooling?) that it's easy to give short shrift to issues at the micro level, like what to do with an outlier kid. But just as the real test of civil liberties may be what happens when an individual citizen meets a bad policeman, the real test of education policy is what happens when a profoundly unusual individual student runs up against a school system designed for "most" kids.

There was no glib, easy answer for Schwartz, a New York Times reporter, and his wife Jeanne Mixon, a former state legislature staffer turned full-time mom. Because they already had two children in school in their New Jersey suburb, they couldn't move Joe to another public school somewhere else; for precisely the same reason (two other children) they couldn't afford to send Joe to a private school or to homeschool him. What they did instead was engage in a multi-year, wearying struggle to help Joe navigate the New Jersey public schools, all while supporting his emerging sexual identity and attempting to find out why this dizzyingly intelligent and creative child had deep, perhaps intractable problems—or at least find ways to help Joe cope with those problems. Their campaign was not so much to get the boy special treatment (although he did need some as a learning-disabled student) as to make sure he wasn't ground up by the system.

Full disclosure: I have known Schwartz for more than 35 years, and Mixon—formerly my high-school girlfriend—for 40. (I also know their two older children fairly well, but I know Joe only from this book. I appear briefly in the book's early pages.) I can attest that Schwartz is particularly well-positioned to write this book: He is both a veteran science reporter and a veteran legal reporter, and is thus able to cast Joe's story against a thoroughly presented background of both scientific research (sexual identity, cognitive development, drug therapies) and legal context (the evolving recognition of LGBT rights, legal attempts to deter school bullying). So while the personal narrative is affecting, it's Schwartz's journalism that makes Oddly Normal shine. If you have a school-age child who is special in any way—or, like Joe Schwartz, special in more than one way—you'll find that the book is packed with resources and references that you will want to have at hand.

Schwartz and Mixon have not been perfect parents, as they would be first to admit. When Joe attempts suicide, his parents didn't even have the small comfort of knowing they had consistently been supportive of their son's very-early-manifested sexual identity: "Jeanne had taken one precaution before the [kindergarten] school year began. 'I had quietly put all of the Barbies and their magnificent wardrobe away.' She worried that Joe would insist on taking his fashionable dolls to school for show and tell, and 'I didn't even want him talking to the other kids about Barbie and her fabulous wardrobe.'"

Schwartz and Mixon rightly recognized that "even kindergarten can be a tough room and that early labels stick," and they didn't want Joe (in Mixon's words) "making a mistake in kindergarten in a school where you were in the same building with the same children for six long years." But in retrospect, and in light of Joe's suicide attempt, Joe's parents have been rueful about a decision that may have communicated somehow to Joe that he had something to hide. In putting Joe's Barbies away, Schwartz writes, they "had built his first closet."

Still, I think most readers will agree that Schwartz and Mixon have done an exceptional job so far in navigating Joe past the shoals of childhood and adolescence. The evidence is the final chapter of Oddly Normal, a children's story written by Joe as a class assignment: "Leo, The Oddly Normal Boy." Joe's writing, you'll find, displays the same creativity and sensitivity that I've seen in the writing of his parents. It plants a seed of anticipation—someday soon I expect to read Joe's own version of his story. I can't wait.