Friday, July 7, 2017

Surface


Three things I’ve learned during my transition from special education parent to special education teacher:

1.      My family’s journey, as painful and soul-shattering as it was, is not even a little bit unique.
This is the rule more than it is the exception: A wily bright-eyed 5-year-old full of reckless intelligence and raw spirit shows up for kindergarten and can’t make the cut. His sensibilities get tweaked and twisted hither and thither, out come the behaviors, out come the adults’ baggage as they respond to those behaviors, throw in a diagnosis and a few dance numbers and in a year, give or take, the child is in a special ed program – maybe a program specializing in emotional/behavioral disabilities (EBD), maybe in a different school entirely. From there, it can get better or worse. Or both, from year to year. There’s no school or system alone that will wholly sustain a child. What matters, always, is how engaged and flexible and empathic are the adults in the classroom. But children are resilient. They can and do emotionally leapfrog a successful path across the adults who “get” them, sailing safely over the ones who don’t. It’s true, people. One person absolutely can and does make a difference in this respect.


2.      The discrimination I always suspected when I was just a parent is not only there; it is thriving and unapologetic.
The stories I could tell. I think what hurts most, though, is my own persistently na├»ve assumption that if you just reason with people, they will see the light and say “Thank you very much for the constructive criticism” and enroll in a series of trainings. Yeah. That doesn’t happen. I don’t know what the actual correct answer is, but I have learned the hard way that simply speaking up and shining a light in the dark ugly corners is definitely NOT the way if you want to survive in this biz for very long. But there are like-minded people here too, good people who’ve been at this a lot longer than me and have learned some wise and stoic ways around and through. Someday, I hope, I’ll find authenticity and effectiveness in navigating the cracks as they have.   

3.      My family’s experiences of 1 and 2 are the 5-star easy-peasy white privilege version.
Anything I’ve seen happen to white children with ASD, ADHD, or trauma is a trip to Disneyland compared to what happens to children of color with the same disabilities. Bias runs deep. I don’t have much more to say about that, because it’s not really my story to tell. But I’m constantly working to learn and unlearn and, most of all, to listen.

And now…

A change is coming. My whole career thus far has been me in the cracks, working simultaneously within and against The System to catch and strengthen any of the kids who slipped down there. I have, for the most part, found my strength in opposition. Standing by my students when they’ve been misunderstood or unfairly punished. Amending behavior plans that were little more than a laundry list of complaints about the student’s deficits. Empathizing with families, hearing and validating their complaints, helping them find their own voice and empowerment. I’ve kept my students company on those chairs outside the principal’s office, sat by them under tables and in corners of the hallways, struggled through inscrutable paper/pencil assignments with them, staffed “stay back” rooms during field trips and school dances they weren’t allowed to attend.

And now I’m moving on. A brand new school that’s opening in the fall chose me, in part, because of all these things I’ve done and stood for. This school aspires to be different. Its leaders and staff are driven by similar passions and sense of justice that drives me. Which means, in theory, anyway…no more cracks.

Welcome to the surface.

How very strange. Suddenly, instead of hunkering down and finding sneaky ways to thrive within a system, I’m standing with and for a system in broad daylight. How intimidating, really, because what if I’m terrible at it? What if all I really know how to do is fight? And then the fight gets taken away and….well….all that’s left are my own little shaky-legged inadequacies?

That’s the fear, anyway. And as fears go, I suppose the fear of being terrible at teaching is a pretty easy fear to have. Because, let’s face it, on some days we just are, and it’s never the end of the world. Just, you know, keep swimming. Keep working. Keep learning. Try new things. Try other new things. The Boy’s best teachers, after all, are never the ones who are unyieldingly The Best. They’re the ones who can flow and reflect and expand and absorb and change. As a parent on the verge of enrolling my then-2nd grader in his very first special ed program, I wrote:

But ultimately, what I want is something you can’t really legislate. I just want autism to be accepted from the ground up and build from there. And nobody officially does that. They either have it in them or they don’t.


So, you know. I have it in me, at least. This might not be easy, but it just might be the best year yet. Onward.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On This Day


I didn’t think I would cry. Or that it would be my students, some of the only people who’ve been keeping me sane and happy during these dark and dangerous times, who would be the ones to tip the scales in the direction of weep-fest. My 6th graders, joyfully returning from a walk-out organized by the neighboring high school to protest the dark and dangerous times. My 6th graders, bragging that they’d ditched the march and gone to 7-11 instead.

And then immediately taking it back upon seeing the disappointment on my face.


I shouldn’t have been surprised, because OF COURSE they ditched the march for 7-11, being basically children and all...children who no longer get recess or much of anything beyond endless paper/pencil tasks and ample opportunities to feel bad about themselves; children whose teachers pull me aside in the hallway to scold me for being such a bad babysitter (where are the consequences? how are they being held accountable?! ); children whose case manager teacher is sitting motionless at her desk, staring into the computer screen while the tears stream and stream and stream; children whose new president, the one they were supposed to be protesting while they were sneaking off to 7-11, is about to appoint a leader who doesn’t even want this teacher here protecting them from 15-day suspensions and a grading system that punishes – sorry – holds them accountable – for their disabilities.

“You’re giving me a negative vibe, Ms. Floor Pie!” scolds a student, not wanting to hear anything more about freedom equaling responsibility, and storms out of my classroom to play with the other kids cutting class in the hallway. And that’s the tipping point. Here come the water works.

The principal shows up and is thankfully, surprisingly, supportive. Looks into the kid’s face, the kid who’s surely going to give me playful hell on Monday for calling the principal on him, but who still needs to hear that principal say THIS teacher will fight for your education when no one else will! And you want to mess with THIS teacher?

Finally I’m able to sniff and apologize. “I’m sorry you had to see that. But now you know that teachers aren’t robots. We have feelings too, and our feelings get hurt just the same as anyone else’s.” They get it. Because kids, in general, are simply better human beings than adults are much of the time.


Earlier that day, I’d spent my prep period on the phone with the school psychologist who’s doing The Boy’s 3-year reevaluation. She’s beyond amazing, this woman. The school psychologist I’ve been waiting for. She’s got some harsh truths and concerns and hypotheses for me, but my Zod she sees the nuance, too. She sees what I’ve been seeing all along, what I’ve tried to express to blank stares glancing anxiously at their watches around too many conference room tables over the years. Not this time. Even his classroom teachers have written complex, nuanced, frank-but-strength-based whole paragraphs about him in the drafted reevaluation. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Then, as if to underscore the hilarious absurdity of my work/life balance these days, my classroom door opens and in walk three of my boys, my “high flyers” as we say in the biz, deep in conversation with each other while I continue to talk to my son’s school psych as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening. A moment later, an administrator comes in, radio in hand, urging them to return to the cafeteria where they’re supposed to be. All four of them vanish as quickly as they appeared.  “Isn’t it great that they felt safe coming to your classroom?” asks a colleague as we laugh about the absurd situation over a small Special-Ed-Supporters-Only happy hour. Yes, I think. It is.

We say our goodnights, I turn on my cell phone, and there it is all over my social media feed like a bitter orange cherry on top, marching into power to gleefully piss on my very livelihood and everything I’ve ever cared deeply about. And I’m crying again, silent and stoic, seemingly endless cascade of tears down my face.


Today, though, my social media feed is all pink hats, ferocity, and inspiration. Driving Little Grrl to her Japanese class this morning, the streets of Seattle are packed with freedom fighters of all descriptions, waiting at bus stops, walking, biking, gathering for group photos before heading off to the march. And when I pick up my phone again it’s full of texts from various pink-hatted family members – not just the ones who live in DC but from all over the nation, taking a stand.

I’m finding this all incredibly encouraging as I plod through my usual Saturday routine of trying to catch up on paperwork while special education is still even a thing. And I’m reflecting on the brightest moment of my teaching yesterday…first period, right after the principal’s lengthy announcement detailing the rules for participating in the walk-out.

“The United States of America is still a free country,” I told them. And even though they’re not supposed to get this information until 8th grade, I drew the Three Branches of Government triangle on the board. “He’s not the king,” I explained, to many students’ relief, and I wrote the names Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, and Pramila Jayapal on the board under the “Congress” point of the triangle. “You don’t have to be 18 to call and email these women,” I said. “Tell them what YOU want from your country. It’s still your country, too.”

And I saw their faces brighten just a little.



Related Posts with Thumbnails