A Mind At A Time

by Mel Levine

Published by Simon & Schuster

352 pages, 2002

Buy it online





Normal and Different

Reviewed by Daphne Gray-Grant


As a young medical student at Oxford, American Mel Levine knew all too well the seriousness with which the English took their anatomy. Each week -- joined by his examiner, his taciturn lab partner and, of course, his accommodating cadaver -- he suffered through the trials of an oral anatomy quiz.

That Levine survived the experience and went on to become a professor of pediatrics and an international expert in learning is, in part, the result of his native intelligence. But, as he tells it, it was also a happy accident:

My lab partner, Malcolm, a very quiet dignified Eton graduate, never said much (in retrospect I'm sure he had trouble with expressive language), while I never could be muted. His superb visual motor abilities and my two left hands led to the tacit concurrence that he would do most of the dissecting. When we had our oral quiz…Malcolm pointed out each blood vessel to the professor while I named it. He could never remember their names, and I absolutely could not picture where any of them went. We both got honor grades in anatomy. He's now in some operating theater in London, and I'm at home writing a book. I'm pretty sure there's a moral to that story.

The moral of the story, of course, is not just that no one is good at everything -- but that it's not important to be good at everything. And that dictum is the comforting thread that runs through the surprising bestseller A Mind at a Time.

For any parent who has faced a child who can't read, can't write, can't do math, can't get organized or can't make friends, Mel Levine has written a self-help book that not only offers help but that redefines its genre. Sophisticated rather than simplistic and outward looking rather than self-absorbed, it teases apart the functions of the mind and explains in riveting detail why some people have lots of problems learning -- and why most of us have some trouble, some times.

Take, for example, Max. He's a kid everyone likes -- widely popular at school, and a gifted cartoonist who is known for his large vocabulary and his incisive comments in classroom discussions. Yet for all his obvious gifts, Max does poorly in school. He tells Levine: "I know I'm good at thinking but there's stuff in school that I can't ever remember. I'd rather figure out something than have to remember a whole lot of things."

For Levine, this is a telling clue: Max likely has a problem with his long-term memory. Step 1 is to let Max know about his challenge (Levine calls this process "demystification"). Step 2 is to give him a bag of tricks for dealing with it. Step 3 is to bring his teachers into the loop and ask them to consider other ways of evaluating Max.

Says Levine: "too often in the past kids like Max were given only diagnostic labels, told that they had LD or weren't studying hard enough. It's only in recent years that we have been able to go well beyond the labels and identify specific obstructions to success."

Intellectually, Levine comes across as a curious sort of academic hybrid -- blisteringly intelligent like linguist Noam Chomsky, kindly and accepting like television's Mr. Rogers, whom he slightly resembles. One can imagine recalcitrant children -- and their anxious parents -- melting in relief in his clinic. (And, in fact, one can observe this in a recent and compelling PBS documentary on his work.)

But perhaps it's more apt to call Levine the Warren Buffet of learning -- for he is an undisputed and largely self-taught expert, confident enough to challenge conventional wisdom. On that account, most teachers and some doctors should be rightly scared of him -- for he questions their most cherished notions.

Some children are just lazy? No, he insists, "I have come to the unequivocal conclusion that there is no such thing as a lazy kid. When a child is manifesting low levels of productivity, there are substantial underlying reasons for the phenomenon."

Drugs are the answer? Only for a select number of children, for the shortest possible amount of time, he argues. "There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that medication is prescribed too liberally and with inadequate diagnosis and follow-up."

Labeling kids is helpful? "I worry when we try to make every little cluster of traits into a syndrome, ignoring the toxic stigmatizing effects of being so designated, which can last a lifetime."

Instead of having children adapt to school, Levine urges schools to make accommodations for the rich variety of minds they face. Schools, he says, should reduce the amount of memorization required (many, many children have memory difficulties), not insist on speed at the expense of thoughtfulness, allow students multiple options for evaluation (not just traditional tests) and recognize that treating kids fairly does not mean treating them all the same way.

A Mind at a Time is ostensibly meant for parents of children with learning difficulties, and it does the job admirably. But that's not why it's a bestseller. As Mel Levine is smart enough to know, we all arrive in this world with a unique blend of strengths and weakness, talents and liabilities -- and these don't disappear when we head out into the world, graduation diplomas tucked nervously under one arm. "In truth," he says, "it is normal to be different."

In truth, anyone who reads this book will find him or herself lurking in its fascinating pages. | September 2002


Daphne Gray-Grant is a Vancouver writer and editor.