Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Giver, Special Ed.(ition) II

Despite the bizarre-o nature of "The Giver", one thing I enjoy about teaching it is the surprising application points. I love seeing the students freak out trying to grapple with a world of incomprehensible rules and limitations. They just refuse to accept such a society could ever exist, and the struggle keeps them constantly engaged in the story.

The injustices of the main character--Jonas's--hyper-controlled and ruthless society make the kids a little bit more grateful for the freedoms they experience, as well as how easily they get off the hook for mistakes or misbehavior. It's also an underhanded way for me to dig at them about the implications of their anti-social/defiant behaviors. In Jonas's world, so much as missing a homework assignment would be a serious offense, and those who intentionally commit crimes are released--or excommunicated--from the community. On more than one occasion, I've all but directly stated that were these students part of that alternative reality, they would have been booted years ago.

Harsh, Ms. T!, I'm sure you're thinking. But, it's only fact--a fact that even they have owned up to.

In The Giver citizens of the community do not choose their jobs. Rather, they are assigned by the Committee of Elders who decide the career path of each person by observing him or her from a young age to determine demeanor and aptitude. Children are assigned their jobs and begin vocational training at the age of 12, and they are destined for a lifetime under that assignment until old age. I used this concept in the novel as a platform to nudge my own 12-year-old students to evaluate the ramifications for their own (mostly poor) choices and behavior if they were in Jonas's world and facing their job assignment. Because, in Jonas's world, those who display intelligence, or promise, or passion have the potential for jobs like scientist, or caretaker for the elderly. Those who are not so bright or lazy or deviant are assigned much less prestigious jobs, like birth-mother (Huh, what? Yeah, that could be a whole blog post on its own).

My not-so-covert suggestions that my students would fall low on the totem pole were aimed at one of them in particular.

As far as a picture of the typical student goes, Brent would be the anomaly. From the past year and a half teaching him, and from the rumblings I've heard regarding his performance in previous grades, Brent has made it abundantly clear his aspirations for an educational career. Let me tell you, they are pretty small, if not non-existent. Bright, quick-witted, and perceptive, Brent is completely cognizant of the damage he is doing by making his own daily schedule at school, which doesn't often align with what the teachers have planned, and more often than not involves sabotaging their plans. If his approach to school is any indicator of his approach to life (which grows more likely the older he grows), Brent's future will be a troubled one.

Feeling particularly frustrated with Brent the day we stumbled upon this disturbing stipulation of the "utopian" society, I very much meant to infer that were he not released for his disobedience, he would end up a menial laborer of some sort. Of all the outspoken, unfiltered mouths in the classroom with the potential to state exactly what I was thinking, but couldn't say, I didn't quite expect Brent to be the one to do the job for me.

"Poop cleaner. I'm pretty sure I'd be the guy who ended up poop cleaner."

There was a round of consenting nods from the rest of the class as they settled on the very appropriate outcome for Brent. I opened my mouth to add my two cents, but realized that he had truly said it all.

If Know-er of the Cold Hard truth were a job assignment in The Giver, Brent might have found his calling in life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don't know what you got 'til...

When I found myself unexpectedly thrown into the ED/BD (Emotional Disorder/Behavioral Disorder) domain four years go, I tried to face the daunting task by convincing myself students of this nature afforded an opportunity I wouldn't find with other special education populations. That sunny view was that, unlike many "special needs" people, these kids had the intellect and social awareness to acknowledge what a positive influence I was in their lives, and that, once we had developed a solid bond and mutual trust, we would develop a lovely little classroom family based on their admiration and respect for me.

Clearly, I was having delusions of grandeur. By the end of the first quarter of my first year teaching, I had come to a grim understanding about my impact. The naivety to believe I could undo twelve years of dysfunction and transform these children into my little walking legacies in 9 months was, what I imagine, a classic rookie mistake that chases teachers who are weaker (or perhaps less crazy) than I from the field very early in the game.

At my second--and current--job, I found myself repeating the offense with a little less hardened, albeit still very challenging, community of kids. For all the blood, sweat, and tears I had put into lovingly disciplining them to be better people, many days it felt as if they might as well have never even met me. It takes a little air out of your balloon when you spend a week engaged in heart-felt discussions about bullying and then a day later you find out someone got caught doing just that.

But I don't go completely unrewarded in terms of expressed appreciation from the students. There is a specific formula which almost always guarantees the desired results, and here it is:


I've never found my students to be so captured and concerned for me than when I announce an anticipated absence. Where am I going? Why? How long will I be there? Who will be in my place? It doesn't matter how capable, self-sufficient, or in control the sub is. I inevitably return from being away to hear that something has gone awry in my absence, and even hear first-hand from the kids about the gaping hole in their day where I should have been.

This past week I had an unexpected meeting with a parent right before my 8th period class was to begin. Most of those students are with Annie during 7th period in our room when I have plan time, so they are very used to seeing me working at my desk, then watching me walk out of the room a few minutes early to where I teach them English. At the bell they head to 8th period class and find me there preparing and awaitingtheir arrival.

Knowing this impromptu parent-teacher conference could go longer than just a few minutes, I warned the aide in my 8th period class that I may be pretty late and he'd have to hold down the fort. Fortune would have it I escaped the meeting rather quickly and ended up back at English class only five minutes later than normal.

But the reception I received when I walked through the door may as well have been a "Welcome Back" celebration from a year overseas. "Miss T!!!" a few of the boys screamed in unison, as the aide--John--approached me with wide eyes.

"Wow, Miss T," he exclaimed. "They sure were worried about you." I beamed and gloated inwardly a bit as I imagined their mild agitation at my unexpected disappearance and the confusion that ensued. All this seeming unnecessary commotion about being MIA for five mere minutes. Most middle school students think they're scoring the jackpot when their teachers go *poof*. But these are no ordinary middle school students (if you haven't figured that out yet).

Consistency--that's what it all boils down to. I bring to the table six years of undergrad and grad school teacher training, my clever behavior management strategies, my engaging lessons, my penchant for wit, and that's all good and fine. But, if there is one single most important thing I do to touch these kids' lives, it's showing up on a daily basis. For a group of boys and girls who are tossed from parent-to-parent, or see family members come and go through the proverbial revolving door, or often don't know what unpleasantries they will find when they go home each night, the simple promise that I'll be standing at the Smartboard first period hassling them about their homework, is a crucial comfort that sometimes they don't even recognize.

The result of this realization: a little less pressure, a little more humility. The former, because even on the days I feel like chopped liver to those kids or worse--the target of their anger and loathing--I know that just being there, and staying the course with them has done wonders. The latter, because I am suddenly reminded of my place. I have believed for a long time now, and still sincerely believe, that I was called to this profession for a purpose. But any faint expectations that it might elevate me to the sort of glory worth making into a motion picture (a la Freedom Writers), I've had to squelch. My purpose does not necessarily involve some major breakthrough in the teaching profession, or even major breakthroughs in the lives of children. Perhaps my purpose is simply a presence--a constant vigil over a classroom that brings some stability to my students and my school at-large.

So, it seems to me that my best chances at making an impact don't lie in going all Michelle Pfeiffer on my kids. It's all about my integrity and commitment--even on the days I'm not particularly feeling like Teacher of the Year.

And taking an impromptu day of absence every once and awhile can't hurt either.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Giver, Special Ed.(ition) Part 1

Oh, no. It's back. The collar-tugging-ly uncomfortable novel by Lois Lowry that reads like a kids movie with an R rating.

Why we chose to re-adopt into our curriculum a book which is often banned in middle schools, I'm not so sure. I mean, I'm all for a controversial text if it challenges students' perceptions of the status quo. But, it makes it really difficult to develop skills of literary analysis when the students are laughing nervously over the portrayal of a world where the "Stirrings"--in other words of pubescent children are suppressed with a daily pill. (Gosh, that was tough to even write.) My students have enough deviant thoughts already planted in their head without the notion of volunteer twelve-year-olds required to sponge bathe and towel dry naked elderly people. (Heck, I don't think I need the notion planted in my head.)

Still, there are some redeeming qualities of this unit. Such a twisted tale is guaranteed to engage the students. I love witnessing their shock and awe at the horrors of a supposed utopian society--one so uniform and regulated that any diversity, creativity, or passion has been virtually sucked dry from its inhabitants. At the time of its inception-1993-the aversion to such political structures was the hot topic.

My hope was to masterfully lead the students to the understanding that this story is a commentary on real-life societies with similar attributes and then bask in their collective gasp of amazement of what goes on beyond the borders of their comfy, cosy lives. Unfortunately, I didn't know who all I was dealing with.

Harry is new to the school, and has revealed himself to be quite the old soul. During a fiery meltdown with one of the aides, he expressed his distaste for the netbooks assigned to every student, by screaming: "What kind of a**-backwards school is this?! Why don't they let us use paper and pencils like everybody else?!"

When he joined my English class a few weeks I should have figured, then, that he would have plenty of old-soul wisdom to impart. After remaining silent and generally unparticipative through the first few chapters, I believe it may have been the mention of everyone in the community wearing the same, neutral colored tunic, that set Harry off in a good-natured, yet very similar fashion to his previous outburst.

"What kind of place is this?!" he began. "Soviet Russia, or something?!"

Though I pretended to remain unfazed, inwardly, my jaw hit the floor. I just had my first real education on communism from Eastern Europe tour this past summer, and I had a twelve-year-old intuiting mention of a political regime that ended more than a decade before he was born.

"Yeah, Harry. It pretty much is."

And here I thought I wasn't getting a student teacher until next spring...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cheers to my health

Of all the many blessings I take for granted on a daily basis, my health is definitely a list-topper. I'm in shape, I have the use of all my facilities, and I average a cold about once a year (knock on wood). Like Joni Mitchell , it takes losing my health to remind me how good I've had it.

I started off this week with a bang when a mere open blister on the bottom of my foot went from mildly irritating to debilitating pain in one school day. By the time I hobbled into my house at 3:30 P.M., an angry red streak was wrapping around the top of my foot and starting to snake up my shin. Having watched enough medical shows in my time (and harboring a functional case of hypochondria, I might add) I high-tailed it to the Emergency Room where once glance at my foot by the intake nurse was enough to let me bypass some other people in the waiting room. One more glance by the physician on duty confirmed I had cellulitis--or a skin infection. It was serious enough that I was warned if the infection continued to spread after being treated at the E.R., I would have to come back and be admitted overnight.

While I sat on the bed waiting for an IV of anbiotics and the excruciating draining of the wound, a couple things came to mind.

The first: This whole "being in the E.R." thing was really cramping my style.

Upending my original plans for the evening--making dinner, working out, and meeting up with someone--for a medical issue was a major bummer. That I couldn't go about life as usual, as I saw fit, seemed like a downright injustice. I was suddenly a heck of a lot more grateful about the 98% of my existence that runs at status quo.

The second, and what's really stuck with me this week: Miss T. can't be sick.

I envisioned, briefly, how things would have played out if my situation had been more dire and I had to be admitted immediately that night. My day's worth of emergency plans were out of date. I could contact Annie and relay her my plans, but having her or my aides collect the materials would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The best a substitute could do was attempt to keep the students busy with educational games or busy work, and that would probably only hold the fort down for the first ten minutes. Realistically, my absence for one or two days would not spell out doom for my classroom, but just imagining the inevitable unruliness that comes with lack of structure and my inability to control it, made me shudder.

Now, I'm well aware of my own neurosis regarding control, but I also know that the control gene is engrained in the greater half of every teacher who's lived. Teachers have historically been addressed as Master for a reason. Even the worst of them have some sort of command over their students, solely based on the fact they dictate kids' lives for 7 hours a day, 9 months out of the year. Couple this with a teacher's knowledge of every procedure, every rule, every lesson, every in and out of the classroom, and you've got somebody who's pretty hard to replace at a moment's notice.

If an educator has any sense of duty and responsibility, she's going to cringe at the thought of abandoning her post. I've seen countless coworkers dragging their feet down the hall a few shades paler than usual, eyes glazed over, coughing up a lung. Despite the urging of their colleagues to go home and and get some rest, they plow forward, determined to get to the end of the day in the name of finishing up the unit on verbs, or helping a failing student at lunch. They can't live with the thought of throwing in the towel, even if they're halfway dead. On the occasional days they face facts and surrender, it's not uncommon to see them crawling in at the beginning or end of the day, half dressed, to get affairs in order. Sometimes I think it would take detaching a teacher's head from her body (or perhaps a gangrene foot?) to stop her from coming in.

Sounds like a sickness all in its own, no? Ah, well. Right now I'm just thankful that I dodged a bullet and am on my way to another week of perfect attendance.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The legacy (or lack thereof) of a special education teacher...

Recently I walked past two of my delightful former 7th grade English students working at a table in the hall--one of them being Ryan of "Eggs benedict" fame.

I smiled and waved as I walked by, and though I wouldn't have been hurt or put it past Ryan to simply ignore me, he visibly perked up and tapped the other former classmate on the shoulder to point me out.

"Hey. There's...uhh...uhhh...uhhhh...."

Most teachers are familiar with the warm, fuzzy quote by Henry Brooks Adams: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

I think I just found out where my influence stopped.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Honor thy (students') mother and father

Parents are not the enemy. Parents are not the enemy. Parents are not the enemy.
This is the mantra on which I've been meditating lately. Nestling nicely into my fifth year of teaching, I've learned enough of the ropes to start fine tuning my practice. Now that I've got my ducks in a row, the confidence has come to open up my classroom and really start collaborating with the educational community. (Bring it on, administrator observation and evaluation!)

I've always said that my job would be great were it only the kids and I never had to come into contact with their parents. Yeah, it seems like a pretty cynical statement to make. But, to be fair, the population of kids I work with bring a whole different caliber of parents. When it comes to behavior and emotional disorders, popular psychology suggests that a large portion stem at least partially from nurturing and environment, and after interacting closely with dozens of students and their parents, the old adage, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" has pretty much become part of my educational philosophy.

But a relatively small percentage of negative experiences with guardians over the last 5 years has caused me to unfairly assume the worst about the whole bunch. The mere sight of the light blinking on my phone, or an e-mail message in my inbox makes my claws come out. And Lord forbid mom and dad feel their child is not getting the support he needs and want me to do something about it. Though I aim to please and always respond and act democratically, there is always this voice in the back of my mind screaming, "Listen, I had four-plus years of higher learning in education! You do your job and I'll do mine!"

The fact of the matter is, I'm a governmental employee and a public servant and my obligations go far beyond my snug, crazy little classroom. Furthermore, as much as I'd love to adopt some of these kids and give them the proper nurture to reverse the damages done, they belong to their parents. I'm not a parent myself, so I acknowledge I can't entirely resonate with the desire to protect and promote a child's happiness at any length. Maturity and experience is teaching me that 99.5% of the time, Mr. and Mrs. Smith aren't on a personal vendetta, aiming to destroy me; more likely, they are so completeld consumed in personal matters (such as caring for their exceptional child) they barely devote two minutes of their day to evaluating my work.

Carving out a space in my classroom and heart for parents is definitely a work in progress on an exceptionally difficult road. In four weeks, my co-workers will be showered with $50 Starbucks giftcards and cute coffee mugs for Christmas. I will be lucky if I hear the words, "Thank you for all you do" by the end of the school year. If my aim is to please in order to receive love and adoration in return, then I'm going to be sorely disappointed with the outcome.

If my aim is to serve and do what is right and just, then I know a reward awaits me. It just probably won't be in the form of 10 free venti lattes.

Your assignment:

Who are your unavoidable "enemies" in the workplace? The boss? The cubicle buddy? Do your darndest to view them through a new pair of glasses. In the name of your job, in the name of saving yourself a tension headache, in the name of (gasp) love. What's the worst that can happen when you cut them a little slack? No, really, I'd like to know what's the worst that happens. Report back here!

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Sometimes, even better than bearing direct witness to a clip out of "Kids Say the Darndest Things--Middle School Edition" is hearing about it second hand in play-by-play transcript form. The following conversation took place between a co-worker and her student in the autism program.

Ms. U: "Are you wearing a rosary?"

Ian: "Yes. You are the first person to notice."

Ms. U: "Why are you wearing it?"

Ian: "I was baptized."

Ms. U: "When?"

Ian: "Last year. I am a Christian. Get it? Christ-IAN. Christ liked my name so much that he added my name to his religion."

Who says faith is prohibited in schools?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gossip girl

One thing I find grows in truth the more I contemplate it is, a teacher is what he teaches. No, I am not special because I teach special education. (Well, okay, that's up for debate.) It is not content, but grade level to which I am referring.

Elementary school teachers are prone to wearing pastel sweaters with animals and snowmen, get way too excited about art projects, and talk in cutesy, high pitched voices. High school teachers are sarcastic, apathetic, and prone to complain about the load of work their weekends hold--the result of the load they dropped on their students in the form of a five page paper assignment.

Middle school teachers are loud, silly, often bullying, clique-y, and booooy do they love to talk about each other behind each other's back. I am a middle school teacher.

I am a gossip.

To help support my thesis, I investigated the varying definitions of the word "gossip" on the web. And, gosh darn it, if Wikipedia didn't have the best, all-encompassing, description I could find. (And I go on and on to my students about how unreliable a source it is. What a hypocrite I am!)

"Gossip is idle talk..." One of the things that irks me most in life is idleness. In the rare moments I find myself idle, I immediately begin mapping out an action plan. When my students are idle, I do everything in my power to keep them preoccupied, even if it means burying them under a pile of meaningless busy-work as a last resort. Where there is idleness, trouble inevitably follows. It is when we lose purpose, direction, and boundaries that our weak minds succumb to our inherently nasty natures, and ugliness surfaces. Degrading talk is a venom we spew in such moments.

"...or rumor." He said, she said. Sometimes life appears so unfascinating, sometimes our personal circumstances are so messy, sometimes we yearn so much to loathe others, that we are willing to receive, believer, or even manufacture information potentially detrimental to the reputation of another. We crave anecdotes--damning ones, in particular--about others to entertain ourselves, or bolster our own self regard. Self-talk like, "Man, I'm so glad I'm not her" or "I would never do what he did" convinces us we exist on some plane above typical human error and mishap. We are creatures who feed on the miseries of others.

"It is one of the oldest and most common means of sharing facts and views, but also has a reptuation for the introduction of errors and variations." It is sort of terrifying how much of our knowledge these days comes from highly unreliable resources: celeb magazines, radio talk shows, and social networks. Even the nightly news is severely swayed by the need to entice viewers before relaying the facts. If Brian Williams can't even give it to me straight, what are the chances that I'm getting the full story on my fellow man from my personal resources? In the Information Age (more aptly titled the Stalker Age), being up in everyone's business without even consulting him or her for the truth seems like a God-given right. It also means that the chances for misconception are extremely high. I find myself, every now and then, slipping into slimy conjecture with others about the attributes, and faults, and MO's of people that I have hardly every carried on a conversation with. Often we get so full of ourselves, that what we think and feel towards the person becomes gospel. The next thing I know, I've arrived at a conclusion about this person that determines the way I speak to the person, look at the person, act around the person, and generally regard the person. It's that simple. And assuming I share this glib propensity with other humans, I have to wonder what misguided conclusions have been made about me. Sometimes I'm just that prideful that I carry on gossiping in the assumption that not a single soul could possibly find reason to gossip about me.

I don't really need a multi-paragraph comprehensive study of the word "gossip" from the world's favorite semi-reliable source to remind of the black nature of gossip, nor do I need it to convict me of my responsibility for perpetuating it in the workplace. The good news is that, unlike actual middle schoolers, there is a very grown up part inside of me which has developed only with time and experience and divine , that churns inside of me every time I hear or partake in gossip. Sometimes the churning makes me feel so sick, rotten, and exhausted inside I find that I can't bear another moment of it.

And I aim to act on those feelings. To stop the long, snaking journey of the malicious rumor in its path by turning a cold shoulder on the conversations of others, even if it makes me unpopular at times. To clench my tongue when it threatens to pour out of me. To disallow unfounded and unkind conjecture to become truth in my heart and mind.

I may live the life of a middle schooler, but I'm ready start playing college graduate.

Your homework for the day:

Aim to be a gossip killer for one day. Be on alert for idle talk, rumor, and harmful conjecture about others. Summon the courage to walk away from it, or even stop the conversation in its tracks. Examine the state of your heart after a day of only intentional and sincere interactions. You just may find it weighs a bit less.

Class Dismissed.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Healthy Serving of Perspective

Last weekend I served with my women's small group at a food packing event put on by Bright Hope-- a missions organization (for which my friend, works) that specializes in supporting impoverished nations (those where the civilians live on less than a $1 a day) by giving them tools (such as micro loans) to get on their feet and self sufficient. This packing event was part of the Hope for Haiti initiative--a project aimed at caring for the millions of women and children affected by the death, disease, and hunger which existed long before the fateful day of 1/12/2010 and was only expounded by the devastating effects of the earthquake.

In the minutes prior to beginning our volunteer stint, we were spoken to by the president of BrightHope and watched a brief video showing first hand the inhumane conditions which these innocent people are forced to live in, and more than 315,000 have died in since last year. To be honest, what I saw and heard--obviously intended to pull on the heart strings--didn't affect me too deeply. Perhaps my general temperament, or learned emotional detachment for my job, was to blame. Perhaps it was even a hard heart towards serving or distasteful apathy. Any way around it, I just wanted to stop talking about it and start doing something about it.

Donning a stylish hair net and sweaty plastic gloves, coming off a long and tiring school week, visions of the thankless lunch lady position higher education had helped me surmount danced through my head. Clutching two long silver spoons, my appointed duty was to scoop two fourths of a one-person meal into a funnel. Which led to a plastic pouch containing all the contents. Which was then meticulously weighed. Which was fastened in a plastic sealer. Which was placed into a cardboard box with 35 other identical bags. Which was taped shut and joined the ranks of some 6,000 boxes on their way to the starving people of the island. 212,000 meals a little town in the comfortable suburbs of Chicago contributed to a destroyed country thousands of miles away.

Manning this labor line with the 7 other ladies of my small group was where reality set in. The meals going into each one of those bags had nutritional value, and had the potential to improve the health of many women and children within just days. But upon a glance, the meals hardly qualified as such. They were nothing more than powdered chicken and soy, dried vegetable flakes, and plain rice in 2 pound installments. Even the worst concoction served up by a 300 pound cafeteria lady with a beard would have been far more welcome a sight to the average hungry American. But not so for the much hungrier Haitians. The best eats they've seen in recent memory are dried up balls of clay and salt. For which they've been charged by whomever was lucky enough to have a monopoly on the edible clay industry. For them, this mixture added with water to make a mealy gruel, is a Godsend.

Somewhere between an overpriced meal at TGIFriday's that I was blessed to afford, and a late night snack to satisfy my sweet tooth, I got served up a healthy dose of perspective:

I'll never get it.Hearing about the plight of the Haitians made the situation real to me. Seeing the images made it more real. Preparing their meals made it even more real. Actually going to Haiti and experiencing the conditions firsthand would bring the reality home in a way I've never known before. But no matter what I hear, see, do, or where I go, I will never understand what it is to be impoverished. Despite my education on the Third World, I will continue to moan and groan over trivialities like the sound of my alarm, or having to do the occasional chore, or staying late at school. I will feel like my world is falling down over petty things like someone gossiping about me or tripping and falling in public. I will become engrossed in fear when my bank funds dip to a point where I probably won't be able to eat out or shop for enjoyment for a few weeks. Perhaps tragedies or devastation will one day make me genuinely thankful for the comfort in which I live. Until then, I'm only so capable of gratitude from my cushy, spinning office chair.
Perhaps there is something I can do, though, to instill gratitude in others. Every day I interact with individuals--children and adults alike--who have the gift of grumbling. Some of them, I will admit, have life situations which could warrant more complaining than my own: turbulent homes, unemployed parents, emotional challenges, etc. Some of them, I believe, have life situations which warrant nothing but counting blessings and exceeding joy. All of them, based on the trivialities they choose to lament for all to hear, are big complainers.
Just like I'll never truly understand the toils of the Haitians, I can't really put myself into the shoes of students and coworkers. But, I'm willing to bet none of them will go to sleep on an empty stomach tonight, in a deterioriating shack, on a cold, hard floor, their bodies ravished by typhoid and dysentery. And I want to remind them of that fact.
Recently, PBS aired an "Independent Lens" series called "Children of Haiti". It is film documenting first hand accounts of adolescence in the country following the earthquake. Today I began a short study with clips from the film in my Study Skills class.
Their classwork is your homework.
1) Make a list of everything worth complaining about to you right now. Don't be shy. Everyone, in their day, has an eye-roll/grumble/sigh-worthy moment. Some of us are more vocal about what peeves us than others. What's got your goat?
2) Watch the short clips from the film on (link above) reviewing your list as you do.
3) Compare your list of complaints to those of the Haitians. Reflect and allow the brevity of perspective to settle in. Chances are the words "lucky", "blessed", "fortunate", and/or "spoiled" will pop into your mind somewhere along the way.
Class dismissed.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


This past week I was delivered quite the blow when someone with whom I associate closely revealed a life philosophy that did not sit well with me at all.

Without going into too much detail, Person X voiced intentions to proceed with a personal situation in such a way to suggest X believes A) The occurrence of disabilities in the human race is something to lament B) People should not have to be born into this world with defects if it can be helped.

My first reaction when I caught wind of this person's intentions second hand was extreme defensiveness. The more I pondered the connotations of such a choice, the more saddened I became.

I don't wish to go on a rant to plead my case on the value of all life. But, let me make it clear that my stance on ethics, as well as the foundations of my faith, both plainly contradict X's view on Point B.

Jesus says, "Blessed be the meek for they shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5)

Isaiah 11:4 says, "With righteousness he will judge the needy."

The scripture pertaining to the "humble" and "needy" says nothing of their unfortunate circumstances and the need to eliminate them from future generations. In fact, quite the opposite. Most scripture points to granting the utmost regards to these people--therefore putting extreme value on their livelihoods.

That being said, what concerned me more about the connotations of X's statement was Point A--Children and adults with disabilities are walking, breathing tragedies. They are chromosomal errors, neural malfunctions, physical deformations, helpless victims of terrible environments. They turn their parents' heads gray with worry and care. They require endless time, resources, and people just to function in the home, school and society. They will miss out on some or all of the rituals and rites of passage and landmarks of a normally developing individual. Their lives will ever reflect unanswered "What if's".

As a special education teacher, I acknowledge I have a skewed outlook on this population. I can concede the fact that disabilities are abnormalities in the science of human composition and/or exceptions to typical social development. I can also concede that my first experiences interacting with and working with people with moderate to severe disabilities were very uncomfortable situations, and that I have seen first hand the pain and frustration their disabilities cause those who love them and care for them every day. I certainly get my daily dose of challenges attempting to work with and mold these children, and there are certainly many days I entertain the thought of how much better this child's life (and my life--who are we kidding, really?) would be he didn't carry the burden of disability with him.

Perhaps it's my years of experience with these type of people that has allowed me to see the silver lining on the cloud, and even the blue sky peeking out behind it. But, that doesn't mean everyone else in the world is excused for their lack of understanding about the blessings people with disabilities are to the world.

There's no excuse for failing to see the way they remind us not to take life so seriously because some things--like getting through the grocery line as quickly as possible, or hitting all green lights on the commute to work--don't really matter in the end.

There's no excuse for failing to see how they add welcomed diversity and variety in a sea of people who rely so painfully on fitting in and being accepted, that they are actually happy with melting into a faceless sea of anonymity and apathy.

There's no excuse for failing to see how interacting with them can teach us patience, love, courage, determination, and many more virtues we yearn to attain.

"Wow, Miss T," you might be thinking. "You've just listed off a ton of ways other people benefit from the sufferings of that person. What about the exceptional person's happiness?"

Well, I can't say that I really have a good answer for why people with disabilities are allowed to suffer emotional and physical angst beyond the normal allotment for the rest of the world. I've certainly seen these individuals struggle with their limitations and mental tribulations, and it is certainly heartbreaking. But, I also find in them a courage and lust for life--the simple things--that I don't think "normal" people are even capable of. When I see the student with down syndrome in our school at the lunch table laughing wildly (some might even say "inappropriately") to herself, I wonder if she's in on a joke that none of us can be attuned to. When I marvel at the student with autism rattling off math facts at a superhuman rate in a corner all by himself, I wonder if the joy he is experiencing from escaping the rest of the world and entering his own provides him more joy than being surrounded with 100 friends. Perhaps these individuals are much more blessed than we can ever understand from our vantage points-- outside looking in.

Small victories. For anyone who seems incredulous about the prospect of teaching or caring for a person with disabilities, this is the basis for my response. While the rest of the world celebrates Olympians and geniuses and beauty queens, I celebrate a child finishing his homework by himself, greeting me at the door for the first time, or making a friend. And unlike the epic victories celebrated by the rest of the world every once in a blue moon, I experience mine every day--sometimes many times a day. I am so fortunate for this perspective only a select few will have in their lifetimes. I have to believe that parents or caretakers or even the people with the disabilities themselves, all have to resonate with this sentiment on some small level.

Small victories, Person X. Not sweating the small stuff, seeing the blessings, and lauding the humble and the needy, Person X. It's what life is really supposed to be made of. So, why not let it live?

Your homework for the night:

Who are some of the people with challenges--or--challenging people--you have in your life? Stop and see through the frustrations and pain to reflect on the blessings being in this person's life has granted you.

Class dismissed.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Edwin is one of the 6th graders on the top of my secret favorites list for the year. Some of that may have to do with the very limited amount of time I spend with him since he attends mostly mainstream classes and is monitored by my paraprofessional (God bless her).

Though he comes with an ED (Emotional Disorder) label stamped on his forehead, it's hard not to like the kid from the moment you see him. Under four feet tall with giant doe eyes, he is generally a very sweet child--considerate, reflective, and very intelligent. Upon first meeting him, you may find no traces of a behavioral issue.

Edwin also scores major points for the comical nature of his ADHD which, depending on whether he has taken his medication or not, determines who he will be for the day: Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. The code amongst adults to indicate it is a no-medication day is: "The Great Cornholio has arrived". I gave Edwin the moniker after observing the astounding resemblance between him and Beavis (of Beavis and Butthead fame) on a sugar high. When Edwin arrives at his school without ADHD meds in his system, he has been known to roll on the floor, sit in trash cans, ramble in Spanish, make inexplicable screeching noises, smart off to adults, and in true Cornholio style, put his shirt over his head. When the school is fortunate enough to have an extra supply of his medicine, we shove the pill down his throat, take him to an empty hallway to run off some energy for 30 minutes, and then watch in amazement as the maniacal Dr. Jekyll transforms back into the polite, civilized Mr. Hyde. I never believed in the true medical nature of ADHD until I met this boy.

Edwin has another more unpleasant side, however, which rears its ugly head from time-to-time. He harbors some anger and hostility towards adults because of environmental factors, and from time-to-time he makes the unwise decision to say things and act in a very disrespectful way. This first week back from the holidays suggests that something unknown is really eating at Edwin. Either that, or he's forgotten how to be a student. He's been yelling out in classes, refusing to do work, and smarting off to teachers when they consequent him.

And, still--perhaps because I'm a bit removed from the situation--it's hard not to like the kid. Yesterday he was kicked out of two consecutive classes by two different teachers. Today I got wind of the circumstances which landed him a seat in the hall. In Language Arts class, Edwin was being quite the pill--yelling out intermittently in a smart alec tone attempting to play the class clown and steal a few laughs from his peers. Ms. Andy, his L.A. teacher, was at the end of her fuse, so she addressed Edwin, saying:

"Edwin, if you speak out of turn one more time, you're going to get the boot."

I can just imagine Edwin's response with his high voice, slight lisp, and semblance of a Hispanic accent.

"What kind of boot? What size is it? It might be too big. I only wear a size 3."

When this smart remark earned him his ejection from the class, Edwin exited in true Ricky Ricardo style, firing off a rapid slew of indecipherable expletives in Spanish.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Death and Taxes

If someone were to ask me what was the one ability he or she would have to possess in order to be successful at my job it would not be any of the following: Patience (the commonly assumed requirement to handle such special little boys and girls), courage, determination, love (oh no, you have to work at that one ), knowledge, a commanding personality, or a little insanity (yeah, you can't be a completely normal person to want to do this to yourself 7 hours a day, 5 days a week).

The answer, at least as far as I'm concerned, is FLEXIBILITY. Definition: The ability to shrug, kick back your heels, and say "What the hey!" when half your class is absent, when the lesson plan you prepared meticulously for math blows to pieces, when a crisis prevents you from even teaching math, when you get kicked by an unwilling student during standardized testing, or when you are greeted with expletives. If any of these circumstances would easily blow your fuse, you're probably not going to last too long in the profession. On the other hand, if you are able to acknowledge that they occasionally add spice, variety, and even laughter to your life, you may be just the person for the job.

Though there are certain aspects of my life with which I have a hard time relinquishing control, I have to say that the flexibile nature I've acquired on the job has bled nicely into my personal life. Rather than cause conflict by asserting my personal desires over others', I concede and try to "go with the flow" when it's not worth the fight. It takes a lot of pressure off of me and I take joy in seeing others get their wishes met even if it's something as simple as a friend getting to pick the place we eat dinner.

Some circumstances, however, require a lot more flexibility and a lot less choice as to whether or not I'm going to practice it. The last part of 2010 truly brought my inborn teacher skills to the test.

In August, after a great reunion trip to the Bahamas with my best friend who has moved out of state, I decided I was going to visit her in Portland over winter break. Knowing that the December weather in Oregon is typically pretty cruddy, I thought I'd be short changing myself if I didn't throw some sunshine in there. Back in March, My Uncle Tim, from California, had been wonderful enough to come out to Chicago and surprise my mom for her 60th birthday, so I thought I would return the favor and take him up on his always-standing offer to go visit his family in San Diego while already on the left coast. I booked the trip for the second week of winter break and Uncle Tim, always the planner, jumped into action with an itinerary to maximize my experience.

Then, at the beginning of October, my family was blindsided with some staggering news. Uncle Tim was diagnosed with a massive frontal lobe brain tumor. The tumor was quickly removed but it had spread rapidly through his brain and, even with top-notch chemo, radiation, and infusion treatment, the prognosis was grim.

While the first few weeks were uncertain, Uncle Tim bounced back quickly from his surgery. With the love and support of family, friends, the congregation of his church (where he serves as worship pastor), and his hope in the Lord, he immediately assumed a rosey and determined outlook on the future. His first round of chemo was scheduled so that by the time I arrived in San Diego, it would be complete. And Uncle Tim--always the planner, always the determined host--declared that we would try to follow through with our plans (such as a trip to Palm Springs) as planned.

I was not quite as optimistic that things would pan out exactly as planned, but ever the flexible one, I resolved that I would be completely happy checking into my own hotel and sitting on the beach basking in some rays all by myself for 3 days.

The second unexpected came at the end of November. My Grandma had not been well mentally for some time now, but a sudden stroke shut her body down completely causing her to reject food or drink. She passed peacefully the day after Thanksgiving and her memorial service was held at the beginning of December. My Uncle Tim, determined to be at her services, flew straight from chemo treatment to see us all. He was tired, undoubtedly, and could only stay a short time before he had to return for his church services, but it was a blessing to see him an additional time in the month. He was smiling, good humored, and so full of energy that I believed perhaps we COULD manage to fulfill our previous plans made a lifetime ago.

Two weeks after that, a third tragedy struck. My Uncle Larry, who had suffered some years with a neural condition, had a seizure, stroke, and heart attack in quick succession, cutting off oxygen to his organs. He passed less than a week before Christmas and memorial services were planned for the week I was to fly out to the coast. There was no question my Uncle Tim was going to fly to Nashville from San Diego to be apart of the services, but that meant he was leaving the day I was coming in to his hometown.

New arrangements were made for me to stay the night and spend the first full day with my cousin, Tracy's, family. I would end up only staying one full day with Uncle Tim and Aunt Teddy. And that day would be dedicated to traveling to his infusion treatment. For the first time, my teacher's flexibility seemed to fail me because I was not feeling so "go with the flow". Things had changed so drastically from my expectations . I felt I was going to be a burden on Tracy and I feared I would just end up sitting around so much that I might as well have been doing it from the comfort of my own couch. Had I been a bit more selfish and inconsiderate I would have asserted that I was just going to stay out of everyone's way, get my hotel, and have some quiet alone time in order to make the most out of my Cali experience.

I didn't, though. I forced myself into the situation and played Miss Down for Whatever, and I found that my heart actually followed. Even when it downpoured relentlessly that the first whole day in San Diego, I made the best of relaxing time watching a movie and perusing books at Barnes & Noble. After all, it was my time of rest and I aimed to make the best of it.

There was still more unexpected to come, though. My aunt and uncle arrived from Nashville very late that second day, battling through unfavorable flying weather and delay after delay. On only a few hours sleep, they drove me to beautiful La Jolla where my uncle gets his infusion treatments. As I was given the grand tour of the cancer treatment facility my uncle has come to for months now--often on a daily basis--I couldn't help but think how bizarre it was that I spending a day of my vacation in a hospital. Still, I counted myself fortunate to be apart of this experience and thought I'd make the best of the 2 hour waiting process time by touring the grounds in the awesome sunshine. When my aunt and I returned to the infusion room from a run to the cafeteria to check on Uncle Tim, however, we were stunned by the news that someone had carelessly dropped the vial that held the chemical treatment my uncle was supposed to receive. So, that was that. An hour trip designated for this day a complete waste, the infusion schedule completely thrown off because of the long mixing process required to make the cocktail. Though clearly unhappy with this misfortune, my uncle handled it with astounding grace, leaving all the nurses with smiles and "Happy New Years". We continued on to the coast for a delicious lunch and walk along the beach as planned.

During the drive home I had some time to reflect and began to truly grasp how chaotic life had been for me and loved ones around me these past few months. "Not one more thing," I thought to myself. "We couldn't handle one more unexpected and unfortunate thing." But I knew in my heart this was just the weakminded mere human part speaking from me. In my heart I know that it is equally as likely that one of my lesson plans tomorrow will go awry or I will receive more surprising/staggering news about someone in my personal life. So, why do I deny the probability of the latter? My inflexibility is only setting me up for heartbreak, panic, self-pity, and frustration.

This brings to mind the sweet reassurance uttered to Laura Linney's character by her new lover in my favorite movie, "Love Actually", when their romantic night is interrupted by her mentally ill brother: "Life is full of interruptions and complications."

That it is. So what is it in me--this spoiled, middle class, incredibly blessed American girl--that makes me believe that I should be immune to trials and troubles? The fact is that my earthly life offers me no guarantees. Just as I may easily face the fact that one of my students will completely refuse to do the work I have planned, I should be able to face the fact my house may burn down, another tragedy will strike the family, or I will lose my job.

Sort of morbid, isn't it? Well, it's reality. But, you see, hard reality is incredibly cushioned by some guarantees not of my earthly life which I can rely on just as solidly as death and taxes. Living through loss after loss lately--as painful as it was, I couldn't begin to imagine the excruciation of the experience if my family didn't all rest in the one Promise this world can never guarantee. For us, death would be final, and therefore all pain and suffering during life a miserable waste. No amount of practicing the mantra of "C'est la vie" could extinguish the impending sense of doom if we didn't know there was something more.

So, I'm walking into tomorrow with a new willingness for flexibility. "What the hey" if class doesn't go as planned (usually never does on the first day back from Christmas Break) and "what the hey" if my material world falls down around me. I've got a 100% chance on ultimate joy. Life's customer service guaranteed.

Your homework for today. Reflect on the following:

1. What are areas of your life you could stand to be a bit more flexible? Your daily routine? Your say in matters of the home? What things are just not worth holding the reigns on that you could defer to others?

2. Complete this sentence. "If I lost my job tomorrow, came home to find my house burned down, and learned that someone I loved deeply had passed away, at least I would know...."

Class dismissed.