My heart skipped a beat when I saw your face on the front page of the newspaper, my mind racing back to the day that photo was taken at school. Your smile is so brilliant. Your eyes have that mischievous look I remember well. You would use that smile to charm yourself out of trouble so often. But that smile won’t charm the warden when you join the prison population this week.
Many within that population have something in common with you. 77% of them had learning disabilities when they were at school.
When I first met you when you entered high school, I remember how hard you struggled to pay attention in class. You could not sit still! Your body wanted to move and so I let you leave the classroom whenever you needed to. But you could not do that in all your classes in high school where paying attention means sitting still.
I remember all those drawings you made instead of writing notes. The creatures you drew were fantastical, the products of a very creative mind. But for some reason, that mind could not make sense of what you read, no matter how hard you tried.
Your learning disability had been recognized by teachers while you were in elementary school but that was at the time when the new funding formula for school districts was starting to have an impact. With cuts to the number of school psychologists, waiting lists got longer and longer. And when choices had to be made between you and a student exhibiting violent behaviour in the classroom, your suspected reading disability was seen as less urgent. After all, you were funny and kind, not violent.
You were well-loved by your friends who helped you with your school work more than they should have. But they were also charmed by that smile and all the cartoons you drew. Your skills were always in demand whenever there were group projects that demanded creativity. That was something that you could do even if you could not write an essay.
With the help of your friends and your teachers who did what they could, you struggled through each year of high school, without any support, without an Education Assistant to help you, without a Learning Support teacher, without an IEP ( Individual Education Plan) which would have helped your teachers to know how best to help you.
Your parents too were at a loss with what to do. They could not afford the costs of having you assessed by a private psychologist, the only alternative to the long waiting lists in schools. They both had minimum wage jobs and tried the best they could for you and your siblings.
You seemed changed the last time I saw you when you were in Grade 11. You were waiting to see a Vice-Principal, after being caught smoking marijuana. Your eyes had lost their sparkle, and you only smiled ruefully in response to my question about why you had been doing drugs. Later, I wondered if it was a way you found to numb your frustration.
What else was numbed in you on your journey from student to armed robber? Was it a part of you that needed nurturing while you were still at school? Would your journey have been different if you had had the support you needed to learn? Could we have prevented your role as an armed robber if we could have prevented your becoming a school drop-out?
As a prisoner, taxpayers are going to spend $117 788 on you each year.
As a high school student, you were funded at $6900 per year, $988 less than the Canadian average
During the 2014 labour dispute, the government of Christy Clark maintained that funding students to the Canadian average was outside of the affordability zone for taxpayers. Could taxpayers have been spared having to pay $117 788 each year for your housing as an inmate if your school district had been able to provide the help you needed to learn to read and to write?
It’s a pathetic irony that you’ll likely get more help for your learning disability in prison than you ever received in school. But perhaps it will be in prison that you will finally be freed from the frustration you felt whenever you tried to read and write in school.
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