HENNIKER, N.H. — In June of 1985, a diploma arrived by certified mail at Karen Morse's home here, signifying she had been graduated from Henniker High School.
This seemed the logical conclusion to a sparkling high school career. Morse in her senior year was class president, student council president, editor of the school newspaper and--by vote of the teachers--a member of the National Honor Society.
But to Morse and her parents, the diploma seemed entirely inappropriate. For despite her accomplishments, Karen Morse could not read at even a first-grade level.
Knew Only Nine Letters
Specialists who tested Morse before her senior year found she had only the scarcest knowledge of the written English language. She could identify only nine letters of the alphabet. She could not be examined on her ability to construct sentences, since she failed to recognize any of the required words. She wrote in a coded system of word fragments largely undecipherable to others.
She had, the specialists agreed, a severe language-based learning disability, one that often gets described as dyslexia. Morse could not perceive or process visual symbols. Letters on a page were to her meaningless markings.
How, her family wanted to know, could she be graduated from high school if she could not read?
The family called a lawyer. Soon after, they filed suit in federal court, arguing that the school district was obligated to provide or fund special education for Karen Morse.
Extended Debate Began
So began an extended debate, now unfolding in a federal courtroom and in the local community here, about the purpose and responsibilities of the public education system. Lawyers and educators across the country are watching the case with interest and some apprehension, for the questions it raises and the precedent it promises touch countless other students and school systems.
Although the terms of the discussion here remain largely on the moral and philosophical plane, the conflict begins as a question of law. The federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and corresponding state law in New Hampshire, require the state to provide a "free and appropriate" education to all handicapped children between the ages of 3 and 22, or until such time as they are graduated.
Just what, both sides in this dispute ask, is an "appropriate" education? And what should be the criteria for a diploma?
"The law doesn't say we have to teach students to read," said Cynthia Mowles, the Henniker school district superintendent. "We don't cure blind children or deaf children, and we don't cure those with learning disabilities. It's a lifetime, incurable thing. We try to prepare students for living independent lives, to function in society. That is our goal."
Karen Morse's father, Wallace, sees it differently.
"The issue isn't a cure," he said. "I know you can't cure this. But just as you teach the blind to read with Braille, so can you teach the dyslectic. You just have to teach in a different way. . . . I feel the system has to teach you to read and write. If you give a diploma without that, it's a crime. It's educational malpractice. It means a diploma is not worth anything."
If there is any common ground in this dispute, it is a general regard by everyone for Karen Morse's ability to negotiate her way so successfully through school.
The specialists at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston who studied Morse expressed amazement at her feat. They noted her "constant desire to achieve" and saluted her "ability and perseverance." They filled pages of their evaluations marveling at what they called her "coping skills."
'My Sleaze Tricks'
But Morse herself, when talking of her success in school, more often credits "my sleaze tricks."
She was aware from an early age that she had a problem. "I just didn't know it had a name, or that it was a disability. I just thought I was different, that I was stupid."
Other students began learning to read and write in the second grade. For her, the letters remained just meaningless marks on a page. She told neither her parents nor her teachers, not wanting to appear stupid.
Instead, she scrambled. Friends helped at times. She cheated on tests, cribbing from classmates. She took other students' papers and wrote her name on them.
"I did whatever I had to do," she said. "I was trying to survive."
In the seventh grade, when she crossed the street from the elementary to the secondary school, cheating gave way to more sophisticated techniques.
When she had to write something, she obscured her deficiencies by scrawling illegibly. Her words began with two letters, then unraveled into meaningless wiggles.
Learned to Manage People
In class, she learned how to manage people.
"I had trouble understanding what people said to me, so when I was asked a question in class, I would act like a comedian, be really obnoxious. They wouldn't call on me after that."