Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Chicken or the Egg...ceptional Child

Last week, just two days before the start of Christmas break, Adam (of "go **** yourself" fame) saw his last of BMS for what will most likely be the rest of the year. A mild bout of physical violence, followed by a nasty verbal threat earned him a trip out the door.

While sad and a tad surprising, his removal from the public school setting isn't really unexpected. Adam has displayed resistant and unruly behavior which might warrant outplacement for some time now. It's just, in the past the behavior came in stints much fewer and farther between. The work refusal, horrific language, and even physical violence has steadily escalated from the beginning of 6th grade until now--his 8th grade year.

Adam has had a lot of things working against him from the start. While incredibly intelligent--and even brilliant in some respects--he has been diagnosed on the Autism spectrum, the Oppositional-Defiant spectrum, and the Attention Deficit spectrum. Any one of these eligibilities is not very conducive to a successful middle school career, but all three together seem like a recipe for disaster. That is, without the proper treatment.

On the educational front, Adam has been offered every choice, therapy, accommodation, indulgence, enrichment opportunity, learning method, and approach known to mankind. Small classes and big classes, hard-line and humor, traditional and progressive teaching; sensory approaches, counseling approaches, interest-based approaches, social approaches. I would put my two cats' lives on the line (due to the fact they're being really annoying at this second) to say that our educational team has exhausted every possible strategy within the realm of human possibility to prevent this boy from having to leave the public school system.

So why is it that we failed? Well, the fact is the answer to that question simply doesn't lie in the school. Nor does it lie in the school he'll be shipped off to next. It doesn't lie in any school. It lies in where he spends 66% of his day--HOME.

I wouldn't dare to start theorizing about the source of Adam's dysfunctionalities. It's about as futile as the debate regarding the chicken versus the egg. I suppose, however, going any further makes at least touching on the matter inevitable.

The one thing that practically everyone (teachers, counselors, psychologists, outside psychiatrists) agrees on is the fact that he needs to be medicated. No amount of punishment, bribing, talking, or silent treatment is going to remedy the crazy collision of chemicals in his brain. Adam has said as much, eloquently describing his inability to combat his lack of focus and violent mood swings. If it were up to any one not of blood relation to this boy, he would have been popping the pills years ago. But the ultimate decision rests with the parents and, for reasons which are completely unfathomable to any of us, they absolutely refuse.

Annie, who was primarily responsible for Adam's education for the past two years after 6th grade, posed the rhetorical question of what his life may have been like had his parents made the appropriate choice and sought out medical treatment. Of course we're not naive enough to believe some little pill would work magic and shape him up into the student of our dreams. But from what we've observed and from the accounts of professionals, it's more than likely he wouldn't have demonstrated the same obstinate behavior which ultimately scored a ticket to an alternative school.

What is really sad is the potential this guy had if he could just sit in a seat, pay attention for a little while, and generally mind his P's and Q's with teachers. His academic aptitude is through the roof, his grasp of math, vocabulary, and science incredible. He could have ended up a marine biologist or engineer. Lord knows plenty of revered specialists in these areas aren't playing with a full deck of cards.

If only his parents would have agreed to the meds....but in order for them to make the intelligent, well-informed decision staring them in the eyes, this would have required levelheadedness, stability, and clarity on their part. And if they possessed these to begin with, would Adam be the same poor, mixed up creature in need of the meds at this juncture? Or was it the unfortunate circumstances of his inborn characteristics that ultimately drove his parents to irrationality? Is it all one big, vicious cycle of madness?

I had a conversation with someone recently about the circumstances of our upbringings: the composition of our families, our relationships with parents and siblings, our socioeconomic status, our faith, our moral standards, our rules, etc. After discussing the highs and lows, the blessings and the challenges, we both arrived at the conclusion that we were very fortunate that all of these factors played in just the right way to produce seemingly well adjusted, spiritually mature, social, confident adults. Just one little event--or absence of an event, could have totally made the difference in how we turned out. I've seen it first hand in children and adults alike.

I guess my fascination with behavioral psychology and my strong belief that most of my maladjusted students are products of their environment makes me more a Aristotle/John Lockean than a Plato/Descartean (oh my gosh, I can't believe I'm channeling my sophomore year AP European History class), and this knowledge is both an encouragement and discouragement to my profession. If kids are a product of nurture, then there's hope that I might have some small, isolated influence for the better on their lives. The downfall of this is, again, the 66% of the nurture coming from the home--the environment which has the potential to erase any headway I might make with the kids. I fear this may be the case with Adam. He was beat when he was born.

The good news is that my faith holds the promise that the bad luck of the draw in family for Austin can still be overcome. That who nurtures us is in fact, NOT just the luck of the draw, but apart of an incomprehensible master plan. Now, there's the encouragement I need for students like Brent, who would probably be normal if his incredibly selfish and childish mother didn't yank him out of school without warning for weeks at a time to go gallivanting about with her boyfriend of the month. Man, I don't think I'll ever gripe about how my mom used to yank me out of the T.V. room when the Power Rangers were on ever again.

Due to the holiday break, there will be no homework assigned. Enjoy your family and friends during the blessed season.

Class dismissed.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I end my school days on a rather delightful note teaching English to a group of boys who fall more on the autism spectrum than the behavioral. Though they certainly present their own behavioral challenges, somehow you just can't get as frustrated with a student who isn't following directions because he's still pondering if a double-spaced paper requirement means he should hit the space bar twice between every word (my resident Amelia Bedelia), or one that's not paying attention because he's dying to discuss last night's re-run of Star Trek with his friend. Even laying the law down in this class can end up a lot of fun. At the beginning of the year, finding that I had a rowdy class that constantly spoke out of turn, I decided to declare myself a radio tower which could only be reached by raising one's antennae (hand). Any interference (talking out) would interrupt the connection and therefore the radios (students) and tower(me) could not communicate.

Characteristic of many people with autism is above average abilities in categorizing and analyzing technical information. Thus, one of the areas of English in which these students excel is root word vocabulary practices. This past week the root was "Dict" (yeah, whoever had the hot idea of making a teacher say "dict" 20 times in a period to a class of 7th graders must have been in an evil mood). While working with common words like dictation, predict, contradict, etc, one of the students, Tommy, was so astute as to observe that the name Benedict contained the root. Being the Word Nerd I am, I launched into a mini lesson about the combination of Latin roots to form meaning. "Dict" being the Latin root for "speak" and "bene" the Latin for good, the name Benedict can actually be understood as "Good speaker".

Legitimately impressed with this information, Ryan--the most emotionless, expressionless, black-and-white kid I have ever met in my life--pointed out that he had once eaten something called Eggs Benedict. Very familiar with the linear minds of my students at this point, I could have guessed easily what was coming next. In fact, as I recall, I'm pretty sure I had already opened my mouth to say "And no that doesn't mean..."

But Ryan beat me to the punch.

Ryan: "Does that mean when I'm eating Eggs Benedict it means I'm eating eggs that are good speakers?"

Having predicted this response didn't make me laugh any less along with the rest of my very easily amused class. I suppose the fact I lost it merely picturing eggs spouting off Shakespeare, makes me just as easily amused.

The icing on the cake was the pride Ryan demonstrated in having entertained the class. I don't think he even cracked a full smile as he followed up in perfect monotone with,

"Heh heh. I just made a funny."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Smile like you mean it

Last weekend was my staff Christmas party at a local establishment and among the attenders were the head custodian, and one of the after school janitors, Alex, who cleans my classroom. I admittedly dodged the two at the beginning of the night, especially Alex because I felt inexplicably shy seeing him outside the four walls of the school for the first time. My partner teacher, Annie, who shares my room, is more the social butterfly between the two of us, so I let her chat them up to make them feel welcome amongst the sea of very homogeneous all-teacher crowd.

Some minutes later, Annie and I happened to meet in the bathroom where, finding we were alone, she shared with me what Alex had told her during their conversation: "Annie, you and Miss T. are the only two people in your hallway who talk to me. Most people don't even say 'hello' when I come into their rooms to clean. You don't know how I appreciate it!" Reflecting on this shocking revelation, Annie and I got sort of melt-y for a second,then resolved to get Alex a nice gift for Christmas to return the thanks.

Before you go thinking this is the essay portion of my application for Mother Theresa of the Year Award, let me just say that the one thought I've been entertaining on this matter throughout the week is this: When it comes to random acts of kindness, I'm a total fraud.

You know those lovely people you pass on the bike path who you've never seen in your life, but light up at the sight of you and greet you like they're reuniting with a long lost friend? Yeah, that's not me. I'm the one with head down, pretending to fiddle with her iPod, avoiding eye contact at all costs. I'm not bubbly. In fact, I'm quite the anti-bubble. Just ask my close friends.

But a few years ago I became quite the con artist. When I started working at BMS, I made a point of greeting every person I passed in the hall by name and with a smile that could give face cramps. I'll openly admit that, as Fresh Meat in a very cuthroat work environment, it was for the sake of getting some leverage with others. Some six months later, I felt much more at home and no longer needed to put on the facade to make a good impression. By this point, however, I had picked up on the constant tension, negativity, and ill-will fueled by certain individuals and blanketing the entire school. Floored by the unbelievable gall and nastiness that seemed contagious in this environment, I decided I'd be darned if I let myself succumb to it. The best way to combat the disease, I figured, was to keep on smiling.

In our rough-and-tumble society, smiling has almost become a sign of weakness. Smiling when there's no seemingly no good reason to, may suggest one is simple or even mentally deficient. The right to 0utwardly express the emotions we feel on the inside has become so socially acceptable that the notion we might force an expression to change what we feel on the inside seems silly.

In my high school AP Psychology class, I remember learning about various researched theories suggesting that our facial expressions can affect our emotional moods through physiological changes in our body, feedback from those in our environment who perceive our expressions, or both. The linked article below summarizes some of those studies which all lend to the idea that, even if we aren't feeling particularly cheerful any given day, smiling in spite of the fact may actually work some magic.

After day-in, day-out of grinning and greeting everyone in my path at BMS, I definitely began to see the fruits of my labor. Not only did I find myself in much better moods during the school day, but I found that the reputation I was building served my relationships with others. While internal feuds were constantly waging between staff, I found myself blissfully removed from most of them. In the rare cases where I happened to come into the middle of a conflict, I had enough alliances that my name was quickly cleared. All of this served as ample positive reinforcement to keep the smile strapped on even when my thoughts were the farthest thing from smile-worthy.

So it was that these hurried, mechanical, obligatory greetings I tossed Alex's way whenever I happened to cross paths with him were received as expressions of respect and high regard. This knowledge, as a result, made me want to reach out to him in a more sincere and heartfelt manner to affirm someone really deserving of respect. Just a pleasant face and some effortless "Hello's" did all that.

All of this is by no means a call to faking it through life. In fact, one of the most unbecoming character flaws in my book, is insincerity. What I am suggesting is that perhaps we might give a pleasant disposition a bit more of a chance for the sake of (if nothing else) some more social harmony and goodwill towards men (Something many Asian cultures got savvy to long ago).

In Pastor Rick Warren's 40 Days of Love DVD study, he discusses the realities of carrying out the command to "Love thy neighbor" with those who don't make us feel particularly warm and gushy inside. In one segment, Warren clarifies that loving others is not always hugs, kisses, and showering them with pretty words. Bare minimum, it is the ability to desire their wellbeing and to at least want to like them. In many ways then, fulfilling the commandment starts with a forced change in mind...and perhaps a forced change in attitude.

The beautiful thing is if you work hard enough to change your mind, Someone might just change your heart in time.

Your assignment for today:

1. Choose one day and make a concerted effort to warmly greet those around you with a smile or "Hello" that entire day. (Yes, even if it kills you.) Observe the responses of people around you and the general state of your mood. Notice anything different?

2. Eric Hoffer, American social writer, once said, "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength." Attune yourself to some of the particularly rude and nasty people you come into contact with on a daily basis and attempt to put yourself into their shoes for a moment. Are they just people with pensions for pure evil, or might they have some unfortunate life circumstances (marital problems, poor self-esteem, etc.) that might make their behavior explainable?

Class dismissed.

Everything happens for a reason...

I can remember very plainly my first interaction with a student at the middle school where I have been employed for three years now. It was the middle of summer and I was in the school's main office scrambling through records, attempting to gain some semblance of control over my newly acquired role. The social worker, Brandon, passed by to introduce me to one of the incoming 6th graders on my caseload--Adam*. Brandon, with a covert smile, alluded to the fact that the pleasure of Adam's office visit was owed to behavioral complications in his summer school rocketry class. Judging by the venomous look on the squat, marshmallow-shaped boy's face, he was definitely out of sorts; so, I made sure my greeting was laced with a buttery voice and over-stated smile.

"Hello, Adam. I'm Miss T. and I'll be your teacher in the fall. How is your summer going?"

Adam's mumbled response was inaudible to me at the time, but I knew it must not have been pleasant when Brandon whisked him away hastily.

It wasn't until weeks into the school year that I learned exactly what my young student had uttered.

The first three words ever received from a student there:

"Go **** yourself."

Not exactly the way I imagined my career at BMS would launch.

Then again, I suppose that's been somewhat of a recurring theme in my life: Fantastical visions of grandeur squelched by cold, hard reality. I longed to be the thin, pretty, wildly popular belle of the school, but ended up the overweight, pimply, semi-reject, who was the butt of one, too many jokes. I longed to share my affections with a princely, drop-dead-gorgeous man of my dreams and live happily ever after. Instead, I spent the greater part of my adolescent and adult life painfully, and utterly single. I longed to be a teen queen, traveling the world performing on a stage to millions of fans chanting my name. Instead, I got paid $6.50 an hour to change the putrid diapers of disabled individuals who were far beyond the customary diaper-donning age. I longed to emerge from college into the teaching job of my dreams at a prestigious suburban school. Instead, I was resigned to a private establishment full of hardened criminals-in-training (young gentlemen who, when irate, went a step beyond Adam and offered to take my physical destruction into their own hands.)

In my more pathetic, self-pitying moments I used to look back on the cards I'd been dealt over the years and lament the fact that I'd been sh0rt-changed so many times. I mean, forget the food on the table and the quality education and parents who loved me. I just couldn't catch a break!

As time went on, however, and I gained the natural wisdom which comes with further years of experience, a revelation began to unfurl. As my life's direction and purpose became clearer and clearer, and the blessings began to flow, I finally understood that all these 'disappointments" and "shortcomings" weren't the knots in a string of bad luck. They were the happenstances which had melded together to form ME. The more I understood the world around me--including the shocking uncovering of the fact that adults are just as greedy, selfish and inconsiderate as children--I was grateful for what I had been spared. This included growing up with a silver spoon in my mouth, acquiring popularity, and possessing reasons to be vain. Through my so-called "hardships", I had learned a virtue which had the potential to open up the world to me: humility.

In Screwtape Letters XIV, C.S. Lewis offers these wise words about humility. "All virtues are less formidable to us once the main is aware that he has them, but his is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, 'By jove! I'm being humble', and almost immediately pride--pride at his own humility--will appear."

I wouldn't dare proclaim myself a humble person, for the very fact that that would signal an overabundance of self-centeredness. However, I feel justified in my gratitude for the life events which cultivated humility in me and, if nothing else, honed an acute sensitivity to pride and its damaging effects. Had I turned out beautiful, the object of every man's desire, a headlining Broadway star, would the "H" word even be my in my vocabulary?

I am still mourning the loss of my all time favorite show, LOST, which recently ended its glorious six year stint. In commemoration of the series finale, I purchased myself the Season Three promo poster featuring a tagline very significant to the theme of the show: "EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON".

This just happens to be one of--if not THE--taglines of my life. Sure, there are a few moments in my life if, offered the opportuntity, I'd hit the "Reset" button on and try again. Ultimately, however, there's not one instant in my past that I could pinpoint as meaningless or unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. The way the events of my life--tragedy and triumph, happiness and heartbreak, idleness and adventure--have all built into and onto each other in this incredibly complex, unpredictable, and brilliant way like the plot of a masterfully crafted novel; all of it leaves me no doubt that Someone has already written my story. As a result, not a breath, not a bat of the eye, not a word uttered from my mouth is random, and it all has ramifications for my future.

This knowledge can cause one to feel any number of things: comfort, fear, frustration. Above all, though, is overwhelming encouragement: to look back on the trials of my past and see they were imperative to bring joy and good, and understand--even during the most painful times--that some day I will look back again and feel the same reassurance. It's as if I can't lose.

So, what happened to the fat, semi-ugly duckling girl? Eventually she lost 70 pounds and can standing in the mirror actually pleased by the reflection. Having spent most of her life seeing a very different reflection, however, she never had the chance to develop haughty airs like the pretty school girls. What happened to the pre-gang banger patrolling employee? She got her prestigious suburban school job where she practices a healthful perspective, because even the worst of days aren't even a shadow of her BEST days teaching in the ghetto. What happened to the desperate, lonely and boyfriend-less girl? Well, Prince Charming may not have arrived yet, but man is it good he didn't five, three, even one year ago because she had a few lessons to learn--namely the stunning realization that the perfect Prince Charming will not never come, so she might as well stop looking for someone that doesn't exist.

As for Adam? Well he became my favorite person in the world. His outlandish (and more PG rated) statements in my classes became fodder for a quote book of one-liners that will get any reader rolling. I still tell the story about our first encounter, but with a smile, as I offer outsiders insight into the twisted world in which I work. A place where I keep on laughing because it's the only way I'll ever survive.

It's the lemons I've been handed and man, they sure do make some sweet lemonade.

So, class, your homework for the day:

Answer the following in complete sentences:

1. What are the trials you have faced or are currently facing?

2. Do you believe your life is organized into a sequence of pre-determined events which may lead to your ultimate good? Why or why not?

Spelling and grammar count.

Class dismissed.

*Adam's, Brandon's, and all other people's names in future posts have been changed for anonymity's sake.