The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

School was painful. So what did he do? He decided to fix things.

High school automotive technicians take part in a 2002 skills competition.
High school automotive technicians take part in a 2002 skills competition. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Paula Lazor’s son John was smart but found school homework torture. He slept in class, was labeled learning disabled and quit high school. So how is he now a master auto mechanic, a successful business owner and about to marry an energetic young woman who shares his love for the outdoors?

Special-education stories are often full of frustration and disappointment. A student has fallen far behind in his or her studies. No one knows quite what to do. Thankfully, the long arc of such tales can lead to pleasant surprises if watched over several years.

I learned this while writing about John in 2006 and again in 2013. But my efforts to describe what happened to him don’t come close to the depth and usefulness of a book his mother has just written about his long and complicated journey.

John was designated learning disabled in first grade. He managed to keep up until seventh grade, when the workload got too heavy. His disability was slow processing speed and audiovisual integration. It made note-taking difficult. He also had an unrelated neurological disorder that caused him to fall asleep in class.

In high school, he became interested in welding after watching the Jesse James reality show, “Monster Garage.” The schools in the Virginia suburbs of Arlington County had a terrific automobile repair course, but that class did not take students with learning disabilities. Exasperated, John dropped out of Washington-Lee High School.

That led him and his parents to discover, to their surprise, that because he was no longer enrolled in school, he was eligible for the auto repair course. He did well enough to enroll at the Universal Technical Institute in Exton, Pa. That school did not care that he had no high school diploma, but it did charge about $20,000 for the 51-week course.

He had a tough time taking the next step, admission to the Volkswagen academy, also in Exton. But he kept asking, and the school let him in. He was charming and persistent. A job at a dealership in Tysons, Va., came next, followed by his development of a European car specialty and eventually becoming co-owner of an auto repair business in Colorado. Things are looking good for John, about to turn 32.

Paula Lazor provides the details in a way helpful to parents and children with similar challenges. Her book is “Beyond The Box: How Hands-On Learning Can Transform A Child and Reform Our Schools — A Mother’s Story.”

It is one of the most convincing defenses I have ever read of the century-old work of John Dewey. The philosopher and psychologist argued that children learn better if they are actively involved in projects, such as making things by hand. Many educators love Dewey, but most high schools still stick to teachers talking and students taking notes and reading.

In her book, Lazor calls her son Matt. She and he permitted me to use his real name, John. The most important lesson of his tortuous learning experiences was that he “only truly succeeded once he could make the connection between his education and a future vocation and learn by doing in his auto technology courses,” she said.

Arlington County has one of the best-run school systems in the country. It proved that again by eliminating, at the urging of John’s parents, the rule that kids with learning disabilities couldn’t take auto mechanics. Its career center now offers more than 20 courses that earn dual credits both in high school and at Northern Virginia Community College. Lazor called the 2016 creation of Arlington Tech high school as part of the career center “a giant positive leap.”

A typical student project at the center is engineering a small, drivable toy car for young children who cannot walk. “The students had to examine the existing vehicle, interview each child to understand his or her individual disabilities and determine what modifications were necessary,” Lazor said.

What was key for John was the chance to test-drive careers, as Lazor puts it. He was shown the real world of work. That still does not happen much in American high schools, despite all the talk about Dewey. Some great journalists benefited from working on high school newspapers, but that’s an exception.

We are still wedded to traditional math, English, science and social studies, sitting and listening, doing our homework. Maybe creative mechanics like John could be unleashed to re-engineer that.

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news