Disability Perspectives: The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

Here’s another paper I wrote for my Masters Degree course on special education for students with disabilities.  It analyzes the perspectives on disability expressed in The Junkyard Wonders, a children’s book written by Patricia Polacco.  You can find the book at a library or bookstore near you.

Trisha had hoped to be able to keep her dyslexia a secret, but unbeknownst to her, the school’s exclusionary policy on students with disabilities mirrors the one at her old school, and as a result her fellow students have already been made aware that there is something different about the new girl.  Overwhelmed by her new surroundings, Trish asks two girls for help getting to class.  They take one look at her class card, and contemptuously inform her that she is in Mrs. Peterson’s class. (Polacco 2010).  From the outset, the author makes it clear that the general student body holds a negative attitude towards students with disabilities.  Based on the illustrations and the level of Mrs. Peterson’s instruction, Trish and her schoolmates are approximately twelve or thirteen years of age, old enough to have internalized society’s harmful prejudices regarding individuals who fail to meet normalized standards of appearance, intelligence, and speech.  In the opening paragraph, Trish reveals how her self-concept had been damaged by her interactions with the kids in her old school, “In my old school in California, the kids all knew that I had just learned to read….that I used to be dumb.  Everyone knew that I was always in special classes.” (Polacco, 2010)  Trish’s conflation of dyslexia and her level of intelligence reveal the extent to which she has internalized the negative cultural attitudes towards disability.  Unfortunately the stigma associated with being placed in segregated classrooms all her school life has, to a significant extent, caused Trish to unconsciously assimilate the culture’s perception of the medical model as essentially faultless in describing and classifying her condition.  As a result, she is determined to hide it from her new schoolmates, since doing the opposite can only result in more of the same ostracism, bullying, and discrimination.

Trish’s new teacher, Mrs. Peterson, sets a rather auspicious tone to the first day of class by defining the word “Genius”, asking that the students memorize it, and finally proclaiming that “The definition describes every one of you.” (Polacco 2010).  According to Mrs. Peterson,

“Genius is neither learned nor acquired.  It is knowing without experience.  It is risking without fear of failure.  It is perception without touch.  It is understanding without research.  It is certainty without proof.  It is ability without practice.  It is invention without limitations.  It is imagination without boundaries.  It is creativity without constraints.  It is….extraordinary intelligence!” (Polacco 2010)

In delivering this message, Mrs. Peterson presents a unique challenge to Trish.  Up until this point, she has been socialized to regard her disability as the blight upon her existence for all the reasons which society has dictated.  While not de-emphasizing society’s treatment of her students as outside the normal realm of existence, Mrs. Peterson clearly seeks to improve their self-concepts by encouraging them to view their disabilities in a positive light.   In the eyes of her teacher, Trish and her classmates are unquestioned geniuses as opposed to dumb disabled kids.  I find this characterization of the disabled person as a “genius” to be somewhat problematic especially for the impact it might have on children who read this book.  One of the hallmarks of the American educational system is its emphasis on competition.  Our nation’s students are socialized by the demands and expectations of this system to view their peers as competitors in a race to get the highest marks.  I do not favor adding another layer of competitive sentiment into this destructive culture by encouraging children without disabilities to view their disabled peers as inherent “geniuses”.  Nor do I advocate for the flip side of that same coin in which students with disabilities regard themselves as superior to their non-disabled peers.  It is well-understood that the students who perform well in school and by that standard are labeled “geniuses” are sometimes resented by their peers.  Anything which enhances the competitive nature of American education today is also likely to enhance these feelings of resentment and disdain.  By labeling one groups of kids as inherently blessed with extraordinary intelligence, the author unwittingly encourages children who read her book to develop this pre-conception thereby laying new groundwork for the germination of a harmful stereotype similar to the one that prevails today regarding Asian-American students.    Upon first seeing the use of the term “Junkyard” by Mrs. Peterson to describe her classroom, “Welcome to the junkyard, I am your teacher,” (Polacco 2010) I was quite repulsed and thought it derogatory towards students with disabilities.  However, this is not the understanding of “Junkyard” that the author seeks to convey to her readers.  Rather, she juxtaposes her image of the junkyard with Mrs. Peterson’s long and triumphal definition of the word “Genius”, and so I can only assume that she wants me to agree with her positive connotation of the term.  That positive connotation is revealed by an exchange between Trish and Thom, one of her new classmates in which Trish inquires as to Mrs. Peterson’s motives.  Thom responds, “Because we are….didn’t you notice…all of us are…different.  You know…odd.  Like stuff in a junkyard.” (Polacco 2010).  The junkyard is a repository for odd and different items, items that fall outside the accepted definition of normal.  The junkyard classroom is a repository for odd and different students, students who fall outside the accepted definition of normal.  Rather than challenge the accepted definition of what constitutes a normal student, students with disabilities should embrace their segregated status by asserting themselves as geniuses.  On the individual level, this strategy may work to improve a child’s self-concept.  As the author once was a young girl with dyslexia forced to attend school in a series of segregated classrooms and her purpose in writing this book was to portray Mrs. Peterson’s classroom in a comparatively positive slant, one can conclude that this strategy improved her self-concept in light of her disability.  Nonetheless, on the societal level, it remains woefully inadequate as are all attempts to remedy structural injustice by focusing on the initiative of the individual or group of individuals who suffer injustice.  As stated by Baglieri and Shapiro, “Negative attitudes, prejudice, and discrimination are rooted in lack of information, lack of experience with people with disabilities, and stereotypes.” (2012)  Polacco posits no solutions to these structural problems.  On the contrary, I have already pointed out how in many respects she reinforces longstanding stereotypes of students with disabilities.  Her image of the junkyard as well as her definition and application of the term “Genius” promulgate this idea that students with disabilities are so unequivocally different from the rest of a school’s population that it’s reasonable to say that they belong in segregated classrooms.  In addition, Polacco describes numerous situations in which Trish and her classmates are bullied and shunned by the other students, yet Mrs. Peterson provides them with no useful strategies for attempting to reverse these negative attitudes.  One day at recess, Trish is verbally and physically assaulted by a boy named Baron Poole for wearing a badge which identified her as a member of “The Junkyard Wonders”. (Polacco 2010).  Fortunately her classmates come to her rescue, but back in the classroom, one of her rescuers, Gibbie, expresses his frustration to Mrs. Peterson, “We’re all junkyard kids, even though you try to make us feel better about it.  We’re throwaways, junk, and everyone knows it.” (Polacco 2010)  Certainly by grouping students with disabilities together and segregating their classrooms, one can argue that certain schools do condemn these children to a metaphorical existence as homogenous and unremarkable scrap.  However, Mrs. Peterson disagrees and poses an alternate definition of the junkyard as “a place of wondrous possibilities!  What some see as bent and broken throwaways are actually amazing things waiting to be made into something new.” (Polacco 2010).  I have one question for the author: How is Mrs. Peterson going to change the fact that the rest of the school treats her students as “bent and broken throwaways?”  As stated by Baglieri and Shapiro, “Activities designed to build accurate knowledge about disability can be helpful.  Helping children to have experiences with persons with disabilities is also useful.” (2012).  However, Mrs. Peterson does not propose a project to achieve these goals.  Instead she instructs the students to step into the scrap yard and “collect everything that you think could be made into something new.  Forget what the object was…imagine what it could be!” (Polacco 2010).  The message is clear.  Students with disabilities can overcome discrimination merely by redefining themselves in opposition to the dominant culture.  Certainly this constitutes a fine overall strategy for building positive group identity and encouraging the students to escape the restraints of the medical model by viewing themselves as full and rounded individuals.  Nonetheless, the truth remains that all students with disabilities who read this book still have to venture out into the world everyday and unfortunately the author posits no solutions for altering that world’s negative attitude towards disability.

The remainder of the book focuses on Trish and the attempts of her class tribe to rebuild a wrecked model airplane they found in the junkyard into one destined to fly all the way to the moon.  The intention is to enter the “Junkyard Wonder” into the school science fair, an event in which the local university’s science department, the local media, as well as the entire student body will be in attendance.  Various trials and tribulations crop up along the way including the tragic death of one of their classmates, but eventually Trish and her group realize their goal.  The book closes with this reflection from Trish, “Even though the science department from the local university was there, along with the school board and the newspapers, for all of us, it was only Mrs. Peterson that mattered.” Polacco 2010).  Again, the implication of this statement is that the author does not care how the dominant culture views students with disabilities.  The question of whether or not it is even capable of significant transformation is rendered irrelevant through this final reflection.  At the beginning of the story, Trish’s self-concept is profoundly damaged by the negative attitudes of her classmates and her initial perception of Mrs. Peterson’s use of the term “Junkyard” to describe her class, “Just as dad was tucking me in at bedtime, I finally burst into tears.  ‘Oh daddy, I’ve been put in a special class again.  It’s called the junkyard.” (Polacco 2010).  By the conclusion of the story, Trish’s overwhelming feelings of resignation and defeat have been replaced with this recognition for the necessity of defiance in the face of unrelenting odds.  Mrs. Peterson teaches Trish and her new friends to defy society’s labels and prejudices by recasting their relationships with their disabilities in a positive light.  Once again the author favors a strategy for raising the self-concept of the child that fails to appreciate the importance of the structural discrimination which caused that diminished self-concept in the first place.  With this in mind, one can assume that the issue of medical model vs. sociopolitical model never consciously entered into her mind in the process of recounting this personal experience through the fictional medium.  Although I am quite certain that if I were to ask Patricia Polacco whether or not she favors inclusive education and a sociopolitical orientation towards disability she would answer affirmatively, these questions are not addressed in the course of this book.  Consequently, I am reasonably certain that she does not intend it to be read by students without disabilities.  In fact, I remain highly pessimistic about the effect that this book will have on a child who has had little to no prior experience interacting with students with disabilities.  The prevailing characterization of such a student is one who is free to ridicule his disabled peers without facing any consequences.  In addition, I have already indicated how the “Genius” label may serve to engender feelings of competitive disdain among non-disabled students by furnishing them with the impression that the primary job of the teacher of students with disabilities is to teach them how to overcompensate for their  negative self-concepts by convincing them that they all possess extraordinary intelligence.  These feelings may be especially enhanced among students who are victims of low ability school tracking policies, and, as a result, already view themselves as intellectually inadequate as compared with their higher-tracked peers.  With regards to the potential effects this book will have on readers with disabilities, I am simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic.  By portraying Mrs. Peterson as the maternal savior of this marginalized yet immensely gifted group of students, Polacco unwittingly promotes the stereotype of the holy innocent or eternal child to describe students with disabilities.  As stated by Baglieri and Shapiro,

“Disabled individuals seen as holy innocents were generally considered to be “harmless children” no matter their chronological ages.  As a result families, caregivers, and professionals who work with disabled persons frequently acquire the “Albert Schweitzer” or “Mother Theresa” syndrome, and characteristics such as having outstanding patience and are “doing God’s work” are attributed to them.” (2012)

This stereotype becomes readily apparent with the use of the possessive word “my” in this statement by Mrs. Peterson, “Every one of you is my wonder!” (Polacco 2010).  It is also apparent on the day of the model plane launch when Trish, who is the narrator, says, “It was only Mrs. Peterson that mattered.” (Polacco 2010).  Children with disabilities who read this book might internalize this stereotype and, as a result, start to believe that their only hope for raising their self-concepts lies in seeking out an authority figure who will bless them with confidence.  Polacco also reinforces a variation on the “Superhuman” stereotype by posing Mrs. Peterson’s junkyard project as the means by which Trish and her classmates will vindicate themselves.  In order to compensate for their low self-concept, they must demonstrate to the entire community that they are capable of achieving extraordinary feats such as building a model airplane which can fly all the way to the moon.  By internalizing this stereotype, children with disabilities may start to believe that they have to achieve some unbelievable feat in order to prove that they are worthy of respect and humane treatment.  Of course, the sociopolitical model is correct in saying that these children are already worthy of respect and humane treatment, and it is incumbent upon society to change its negative attitudes as opposed to forcing the child to prove his or her worth by conforming to an arbitrary standard of “extraordinary” talent.  Finally this book does contain one redeeming message for children with disabilities.  By filling the book with images and descriptions of the inspirational sense of community permeating the atmosphere of Mrs. Peterson’s class, Polacco emphasizes the need for developing group solidarity and positive group identity in coping with discrimination.

References

Baglieri S. & Shapiro A. (2012). Disability Studies and the Inclusive Classroom.    New York, NY: Routledge

Polacco, P. (2010). The Junkyard Wonders. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

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