Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Steep Learning Curve in Life and Death

I taught in Minneapolis from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s. There were many things going on in the world then, but my life mostly revolved around my two young children and starting my teaching career. Emerson School was an incredible place where a young staff of dedicated but fun-loving educators worked to optimize the lives of severely handicapped students.
Our crew was mostly women, except for the obligatory older male wood shop teacher, the outdoors-type rock-climber guy, and a first year teacher who was a very handsome single man. The girls hung out together on the weekends, went to the lake together in the summer, and held wedding and baby showers for each other.
Bride And Groom Stock PhotoCathy was one of our home economics teachers. She was about twenty three when she became engaged to and then married a nice young man. I went to her shower and her wedding, and one time, about a year into her marriage, I attended a St. Patrick's Day party at her new home. It turned out to be a combination house warming party as well.
Strangely, her husband was not at home. Even though he had recently been diagnosed with what she described as some sort of skin cancer, he had gone out partying with some of his friends. She told us he would join us later...his long-time friends had an annual St.Patrick's Day celebration that he really wanted to attend. We proceeded without him, and had our usual fabulous time together, but by the time we were all ready to go home, her husband had still not arrived. As we filed out the door, she assured us she would properly chastise him for standing us up.
Cathy lost her young husband to the cancer about six months later. She was devastated, and although she knew she had all our love and support the whole time he was dying, Cathy declined all offers for visits or assistance. She became more and more isolated from even her closest friends. We were really at a loss as to how to comfort her, and then she suddenly asked for an extended unpaid leave for herself.
We worried about depression and even her sometimes suicidal references. She would only let one person inside her shell. It was the other home economics teacher, and she maintained strict confidentiality, as a best friend should, but it was so difficult for the rest of us who really wanted to try to help.
Six months later, Cathy was dead. It was the same cancer that killed her husband. Kaposi's sarcoma. This was the cancer that had just recently, in the early 1980s, become known to be associated with HIV/AIDS. We were stunned to learn all this. AIDS was so very new back then. Little reliable information was available and scary rumors abounded. We felt so helpless.
A dear friend was gone so young and it would have been so easy to "blame" her dead husband. He was, after all, the sneaky undeclared bisexual who had lied and cheated on his young bride, and who had spread this horrible disease to our innocent, unsuspecting Cathy.
This is how we COULD have felt, but it wasn't. There were reasons we were not seething with anger at all of this. First of all, we all had recently made a new friend...a new gay friend. Tim, our new handsome teacher I mentioned earlier, came out of the closet. This was such a brave move for him, but he trusted us and he had proven himself a loving and caring friend and teacher. He was completely accepted, as we all experienced a very steep learning cure in alternative lifestyles. Also, this gay stuff was so previously unknown to us. It appeared to have stolen one very special person from us, but it opened a new door at the same time. Lots of people began opening doors.
It was not long after this that a cousin of mine, very close to me in age, who had married and had children, divorced and came out of the closet. I already knew that one of my husband's brothers was gay. All the while, our society was becoming more and more educated about AIDS, and brave souls were putting real faces on the crisis. This had not been possible before, as our society had always struggled mightily to keep everyone silent, and in their closets. 
 When something awful happens, it is human nature to look for someone to blame. I have a problem with that. It is such a negative assignation. I think there is a better way to deal with "bad stuff". I believe God has a purpose in everything; God participates actively in all parts of our lives. Having said that, let me hasten to add that I don't believe He makes bad things happen, or allows them to happen, or can stop them from happening. He is with us. How? That's the mystery and the faith part. So, for Cathy's situation, let's start with the fact that it happened. 
"Shoulda, coulda, woulda" does not matter. It was sad, it was unfair, and at that point in the history of American gay culture, it was most likely unpreventable.  Her husband was who he was, but he was not aware of the deadly disease which was barely on the horizon of medicine at that time. He didn't know what hit him. The doctors most likely had no treatment for it and no way of knowing he had passed it along to Cathy. I believe Cathy figured out what had happened after she became ill, and kept us all at a distance to keep us safe from what was at that time an unknown killer. Back then, there were multiple myths about how HIV was spread.
Cathy and her husband were two of the very first AIDS casualties in Minneapolis. Since then, the rich, the poor, the famous, the unknown, the young, the old, the addicts, the tea-totalers, the straight, and the homosexual...they have all felt its effects. Our society has changed, embraced diversity, and moved forward (or backward in the minds of some).  Everyone has their opinion and I have mine. It changes slightly now and then, as God tugs me in one direction or another, but I do know wins. Hate loses. We are all children of God, and God has a purpose in everything.

Monday, March 17, 2014

My First Muslim


"I led a very sheltered life", is what I tell people all the time. I say it because I grew up on a farm, my parents were extremely protective, and I attended a small high school (with about 300 total students...the only minority student was one-half Native American). My total environment was pretty much controlled. I was not allowed to date until I was sixteen. Boys were carefully screened, and strict guidelines were enforced. I had the same circle of friends since kindergarten, and the wildest parties I ever attended were my own slumber parties. Sure, I went to downtown Des Moines, such as it was in the middle of the twentieth century, but only on Saturday mornings and under the close supervision of my mother and older sisters. Let's just say, it was a VERY sheltered existence.
      When I went to college, at seventeen, I was allowed to live in the dormitory, but my parents had arranged for it to be the smallest dormitory on a campus that was only fifteen minutes away from my home. I was picked up for church every Sunday morning.
      At college, however, they really had nothing to say about the people I met. I had been taught by my mother to love all people. My father had a generous portion of ethnic biases. The bottom line is, I was simply not aware of the variety of people who were "out there". A girl from Hawaii lived across the hall from me. I met my first Bostonian. He was Catholic, which had been taboo for me to date in high school, so it was kind of exciting to have him ask me out on a date. It turned out he was a terrible kisser and I could barely understand what he was saying, so we only had two dates. The same was true with the young man from Africa. He was pretty easy to understand, but when he asked me to marry him after three dates (and we had NOT kissed), I knew I had overextended my emerging reach for diversity.
      So, I dated a few more guys and by the middle of my junior year in college, I finally settled on one to marry. We married and a few years later, after finishing college and living in several different states, we settled in Minnesota. It was a Lutheran haven, which pleased my parents, and I started my teaching career. My first year of teaching, I made my first openly gay friend, Tim.  I had a classroom associate who was Lakota Sioux.
        My principal, Dr. Sajaad Haider, was my first Muslim. I adored him, even after I personally observed him cheating on his golf score. It was really the only character flaw I found in him in the nine years I taught at his school.
      Dr. Haider, or "Saj", as he wanted us to call him, was totally devoted to helping intellectually challenged kids. He was in charge of Emerson School, which educated about 200 severely handicapped students. He originally had a doctorate in entomology and came to the United States to study agriculture, but when his youngest son was born with Down Syndrome, Saj obtained his doctorate in special education and administration. He was determined to improve the quality of education for all students with special needs. Saj was from Pakistan and had his quirky pronunciations of English words. My favorite was discipline, which he pronounced as "dah sip ah lin". He knew it was wrong, but eventually just gave up ever trying to get it right.
        Saj faithfully observed Ramadan, which is the Muslim holy month when there is no eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for 29-30 days. He made no big fuss over it. He was a humble man, and extremely patient with his young staff of teachers and associates. When I saw him at the shopping mall, his traditionally-dressed wife was dutifully walking the prescribed ten feet behind him the whole time. However, on the golf course, Saj and I walked side by side down the fairway.
         One time, Saj was in an awful car crash and had to have some surgery around his mouth. He walked around school holding either a newspaper or a folded white handkerchief in front of his mouth for more than a month, so none of us had to look at the mess on his face. He didn't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or uneasy.
        Saj always worked extremely hard to get us all the resources we needed for our students. He personally helped get Boy Scout uniforms for nearly fifty handicapped Scouts. He made sure "Santa" had nice gifts for all the students and all the staff at Christmas. He regularly brought us delicious treats from his home, always proud to tell us what a wonderful cook and loving mother his wife was. All of his five children, except the youngest, were either a doctor or a professor.
       I know Muslims are extremely suspect for many people these days. I understand. I just know that the first Muslim I knew personally was a wonderful, gentle, humorous man. When he walked through the halls at school or into my classroom, I felt his fatherly presence watching over us. I worked with him every day for nine years. I know there are extremists, who are dangerous. Saj would never have hurt a fly.
       Cheat on his golf score...yes, he did...but I imagine it was only because he thought he might lose to a girl...which probably had more to do with him being a man than being a Muslim.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sometimes It's Better Not to Know


 Where do I start? Should I tell you what a handsome, intelligent, and charming young man he was twenty years ago? Or, should I describe his photo I saw yesterday on the county jail website?
         The edgy and harsh face staring at me from my laptop screen almost escaped identification, but then I glanced at the name. A former student. I see a few of them every time I log onto the site, but yesterday was different.
         Having taught in "out-of-the-mainstream" classrooms for the past thirty-some years, I sometimes give in to the temptation of searching the county jail web site for former students. Invariably, I find the ones who were the most sure that all the adults in their lives were just trying to "spoil all the fun" of being a teenager. They were the kids who kept using drugs, kept drinking, kept fighting, kept stealing, and kept running away from home. Their fathers, if they were known, would threaten them. Their grandmothers would sit in my room during parent/teacher conferences and cry. Their Juvenile Court Officers would lock them up for a weekend, let them out after receiving promises of improved behavior, and then lock them up again a month later. For too many of my students, mostly boys, it simply turned out to be a rehearsal for adult prison. Truthfully, some of them really needed to be incarcerated.
         This was not true for the young man on the website yesterday. He had wonderful parents. His mother was a fellow teacher in the school district; she and his father were happily married. There was an older sister who was a successful student and a cheerleader at a nearby suburban high school. However, their picture perfect family was not complete. Their son had teenage-onset schizophrenia.
        When a teenager acts lazy and unmotivated, talks in a dull voice to his parents, and complains that everyone is picking on him..what's new? Those behaviors might seem normal, and they just might be one of those "difficult stages". On the other hand, those behaviors can also be early signals of one of the most serious metal disorders...schizophrenia. It's a downward spiral, headed towards hallucinations. delusions, and complete disorientation.
        I worked with this young man, who was helpless in the grips of this illness. He could be happy, friendly, and cooperative. Most of the time, sadly, he was forgetful, depressed, and unpredictably out of touch with reality. It was nearly impossible for him to learn anything. He was in high school, but really not educable. When he came to me, he had been in an adolescent mental health treatment center, and just recently released. His time in my classroom lasted nearly nine months, but at the end of that time, he had to be readmitted to a treatment facility. It was winter and they took away his shoes so he could not leave. He left anyway. They found him, wearing his paper slippers, before he was seriously injured.
      I have seen his mother several times over the twenty years since he was in my class. Each time I inquired about him, and discovered he was being shuffled from group home to group home. His story was one of a lost soul who was experiencing serial supervised living, as he went through his young adulthood. She invariably appeared frustrated and fatigued as she told me his latest update. I saw her about two years ago at a staff in-service day, and the story continued. This time, he was having an especially difficult time with finding the right mixture of medications, and things were not going well. It appeared to be fairly certain that he was going to have to transfer to yet another facility.
         After seeing his photo on the jail website, I did a quick internet search. He had been arrested several times. Once for 5th degree theft, probably shoplifting. He had been arrested for buying cigarettes for a minor. Some offenses resulted in jail time and some received fines. I saw nothing I would consider "dangerous", but I did see a "committal" hearing. All I could think was that it was probably all very frightening for him.
        So, when I saw his mug shot on the county jail website, it was jarring. I remember seeing him smile sometimes in my room, with a little twinkle in his big brown eyes. There was no twinkle in the mug shot. His eyes could best be described as "wild". I remember his wavy black hair as stylishly long back in high school, and always impeccably combed away from his impish face. The jail photo showed straight spiked hair, cut quite short and looking a mess. He had remarkably clear skin for a teenage boy, but  his jail face looked dull and blotchy. He's thirty-five years old now, and looks like he's at least ten years older.
       I just checked back on the website tonight, and he's no longer on the list. He's out of jail, but who knows where? 
       With many of my other posts in this blog, people have asked me if I know where any of those former students are today. Do I ever see them again? Do I wonder about them?  I tell them, "No, I haven't seen them again, but yes, I do wonder about them."
        My new reply?  "Sometimes it's better not to know." It hurts my teacher heart. It hurts my mother heart. I hurts my human heart. It just hurts.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Worst Mom Competition


       Tim's mother filled the doorway of my classroom. "Get in here, stupid! You're in this room every day. Are you getting dumber AND blinder?"
      I was about to meet the woman Tim called his 'mean ma'. I could be trite and call her a proverbial 'piece of work", but that would be too kind. She was the absolute worst mother I ever met. In the past twenty-two years, since she first crossed the threshold of my classroom, she has not been topped. I have met drug-addicted mothers, stripper mothers, prostitute mothers, and even two mothers who actually moved out of the state while their child was at school, but Tim's mother gets the prize.
      She was just plain mean. I am not going to dignify her by naming her...truly, I have forgotten her name. Any of my readers who know me also know that I pride myself on being able to 'forget bad things'. I have dragged this abomination of a human being out from the depths of my bad memories and shall recreate her here, only to serve as an example of how much damage a bad parent can do to a child.
       During this parent/teacher conference when I first met her, we discussed what the plans were for Tim's transition to adulthood; he was going to be eighteen in a few months. Her contribution to that conversation was simply, "I can't wait until he turns eighteen and I can be rid of him."
       So, it was shortly after I met Tim's mother that I started giving my students a standard message when they brought their parents to a school conference with me. I'd say, "You really need to be thankful you have parents (or a mom or a dad) who care so much about you." Over twenty years later, I continue to deliver this message at every parent conference, to every student I have. Sometimes, I really mean it.
      Before I reveal just how horrible she was, let me tell you that my daughter has a son with autism. I have always said that God knew what he was doing when he gave Emmett to Jenipher and Scot. They are the world's most perfect parents....for him.
       Tim's mother was at the opposite end of the parenting scale...she wasn't even on the scale. I have no idea what God was thinking. They say that some people are on this planet for the sole purpose of being a bad example for the rest of us. Tim's mother.
       Tim had just moved back home, from a residential mental health/medical center for youth. He had serious mental health issues, being bi-polar and depressed. He was mildly mentally challenged, and he was going blind. He had about a year of limited vision left, then he would be completely blind. With the cards stacked against him like that, the last thing he needed was a demeaning and loveless mother.
        When I called her to ask about putting clean clothes on Tim, her answer was, "He can't tell. The dummy is pretty much blind, don't you know?"
       When I mentioned he seriously needed some new shoes, her answer was, "What for? All the retard does is sit on his fat ass all day." Yes, she actually used the "r" word.
       When I called and asked what he might like for Christmas, her answer was, "Don't waste money on him. He ain't worth it."
         She fed him, but he was starved for affection. She clothed him, but he was stripped to his bare soul by her biting words. She put roof over his head, but sent him out into the world knowing there was no shelter for him in his mother's love.
         Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, his mother sent him to school with his packed suitcases.
         Blessedly, for Tim, Iowa Department of Human Services stepped in, and he found his way to an adult living situation where he was prepared for his sightless future, given appropriate rehabilitation services and counseling, and supported by caring staff.
         Let's fast forward twenty today's crop of parents. Some of my students' parents are quite young. Other "parents" turn out to actually be the students' grandparents. A majority of both categories of parents are single. Almost ninety percent of them live in poverty.
        The kids all have more expensive phones than mine. They have designer jeans and shoes, pricey weaves in their hair, and a sense of entitlement that makes me wonder if they are incognito children of politicians. I have heard them scream at their parents on their phones, and tell their grandparents to "shut up!" at our conferences. They use the free breakfast and lunch program, but have money to spend on cigarettes and drugs.
        They pretty much all say they hate their parents.
         I feel just as badly for these kids as I did for Tim. Their parents are abdicating their responsibilities and neglecting their children. Stylish possessions are no substitute for heartfelt affection and watchful parental oversight. Allowing teenagers to have unlimited privileges while having no responsibility is harmful and stunting to their normal development.  With no accountability for their self-indulgent choices, I see students hurtling towards adulthood with no idea of the reality wall they are about to hit.
        They are as blind as Tim and they don't even know it. Most of their parents and guardians have not given them the necessary tools to thrive, or even survive in the post-graduation world. A lot of their parents expect the schools to teach their children everything, while the same parents are too busy to be bothered with helping us. According to popular belief, that is supposed to be "our job", as educators.
       No, it isn't. Tim needed his mother to step up and be a decent mother. As a teacher, I could not also be his mother. Today's students also have parents who need to step up and be real parents, not pals.
        Tim's mother still is the worst one I have ever met, but there are some serious contenders out there for second prize. And their children are headed into your world.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

I Not A Quitter...I Keep Walking

     So, have you ever had a blister on the bottom of your foot? On your heel? On your toes? Ever had blisters on the bottom of your foot, on your heel, AND on your toes, all at the same time?
     Well, if you haven't had this misfortune, just imagine it for a moment.....would you try to take all those blisters on a ten mile hike through the woods?
      This blog is about a student we called Rebby. He was in my class of students with intellectual challenges....about 30 years ago, so he would be 45 years old now. He lived in Minneapolis and Rebby was in the Boy Scout troop at our special school. Rebby had Down Syndrome. One of the characteristics of Down Syndrome is a gait characterized by foot shuffling/scuffing .....whatever you want to call it. Rebby did not pick up his feet very well when he walked. He got all the way to fifteen years old, and this gait never caused him many problems...maybe an occasional trip on a sidewalk crack, but nothing serious....until it came to the Many Point Trail badge that Rebby made up his mind to earn at Boy Scout camp..
        Every summer, I took about a dozen of our special needs Boy Scouts to Many Point Scout Camp in northern Minnesota. During the first two week trip up there, we learned a lot about the activities and opportunities available to  the scouts. The one that all the boys wanted to do was the Many Point Trail. This badge could only be earned by walking TEN miles on their special trail, in one day. Ha! Most of my students usually walked no further than from their house to their special school bus, which was parked right out in front.
        That first year, we did not attempt the ten mile hike. We knew we had to talk to parents and doctors first. Rebby was adamant. He wanted that badge. He pestered his parents; he got clearance from his doctor; and he was eager to go back the next summer.  We usually went scouting in August, because my students had five day a week of summer school/day camp in June and July. We decided to use those two months to build up some endurance for our attempt at the Many Point Trail  Badge. Rebby was pumped!
        Sadly, after the first day of summer school, with only a one-half mile practice walk, Rebby had a blister on his heel. The next day, he came with a big smile and a box of bandaids in his backpack. We went another half-mile, and Rebby had another blister on the bottom of his big toe. After about two weeks, be had worked our way up to a full two miles, and Rebby had bandaids all over his feet. Mom and Dad had purchased some hiking boots, and those really made an enormous difference. It really helped and his blisters slowly healed. He smiled all day long. He brought his water bottle with him every day. He had a bandanna in his back pocket, which he used for all the sweat that dripped from him as we plodded along in the bright sunshine. He just kept smiling. "Gonna earn my badge!" was his mantra, as he dragged those heavy boots farther and farther every day.
        By the time the we loaded the bus with our twelve Boy Scouts and four staff members, we felt they were ready for the Many Point Trail. It was about a six hour bus trip, by Greyhound, from Minneapolis to Detroit Lakes, MN, which was the nearest town to camp. Then we took one of those old, rickety scout camp school buses to our campsite. The boys were all tuckered out, so we sorted them out in their tents, prepared a simple meal of hot dogs with "fixings", gave them their night-time medications, and zipped them into their sleeping bags.
       Rebby was the first boy out of his tent in the morning. He was already dressed in his tan Boy Scout uniform. "Gonna earn my badge!" was the first thing out of his mouth. It was difficult, but I had to explain to him that we needed to have one practice day, and then we would take on the Many Point Trail on Wednesday. I told him to go put on his hiking boots, which were quite broken in by now, very comfortable, and ready to carry him the required distance.
      "No boot in my bag. Think they at home, on bed."  Oh hiking boots for Rebby. How was he going to hike ten miles in his tennis shoes?  He had blisters after one-half mile in June!
      "Well, we will practice today in your tennis shoes and maybe Mom can send those boots up here tomorrow," was my immediate suggestion.
       That did not work out at all. Mom and Dad had left for a vacation, and were already out of town. They would not be able to send the boots. Rebby was going to hike in his tennis shoes....the ones that gave him blisters on long walks.
       In Minneapolis, we had been walking on sidewalks and bike paths around the lakes, and they were pretty level. I had assumed that the trail at camp would be along the dirt roads that wound through the many acres of northern woods. Nope. At Many Point, I learned that we were going to be walking ten miles on paths through rugged woods, up pine tree covered inclines, along the slippery banks of the lake, across little creeks, and over rocks. The route had been set up many years ago, and was designed to be "challenging".
       We had pumped up the kids for this hike during June and July. We had to at least attempt it! The Scoutmaster who was helping us with all our other activities at camp said he planned to send two college-age Eagle Scouts with us on our hike. They would have a first aid kit, extra water, and moleskin with them.
       Moleskin? What was moleskin? It sounded creepy to me...but I was relieved to learn that it is a valuable treatment for dealing with blisters. It is sort of like a thick padded bandaid, with a hole cut in the middle. It surrounds the blister without covering it, and cushions it from further rubbing. We knew that Rebby would develop blisters and would most likely also refuse to quit until he finished the whole ten miles and earned his badge. Rebby was a pretty stubborn kid. He was otherwise cooperative and very sweet, but once he made up his mind about something, he stuck with it to the very end.
       So the day of the hike arrived. We started right after breakfast; about 8AM. Each boy had his lunch in his backpack; we expected to be finished in time for dinner, hopefully by 6PM. It was going to be a long day. Fortunately, the weather was going to be 70 degrees and overcast, neither heat nor rain were going to be a concern. Still, we estimated it would take us ten hours to walk ten miles.
      I cannot give you a blow-by-blow, mile-by-mile recollection of our hike. It was a long time ago, but I very plainly remember Rebby's statement as we reached each mile marker, "I not a quitter...I keep walking." Each mile, he repeated it. The Eagle Scouts kept a close eye on him, and at least five times they had to stop the group, remove Rebby's shoes, and apply more moleskin to newly formed blisters. Both feet, by the time we were done, were plastered with multiple patches of moleskin.
      Rebby was limping, but he never quit. Between the two final markers, Mile 9 and Mile 10, Rebby's fellow scouts cheered and sang to Rebby. They chanted and laughed; they were all dirty, exhausted, and sore, but they all marched on...every single on of them finished!
       When we got to the ten mile marker, the two Eagle Scouts picked Rebby up, using a four-handed "fireman's carry", and transported him all the way back to his tent. It was about a quarter of a miles from the finish. The camp nurse came and checked Rebby's feet. None of the blisters had broken, thanks to the moleskin.
       After dinner, we all gathered around the campfire and the Scoutmaster held a ceremony, presenting each scout with his Many Point Trail badge. Rebby cried. I cried. The Eagle Scouts cried. Rebby's friends cheered for him, and for themselves. The Eagle Scouts and I received many hugs from all the boys. Within fifteen minutes after the ceremony, however, all the boys had received their bedtime medications, and they were all asleep on their cots. I needed no medication... I just collapsed on my cot; I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
       To this day, the hike on the Many Point Trail is on my life's Top Ten Moments list.
       To this day, I remember the lesson I learned from Rebby on that trail. Never give up on yourself.
       I have always had "Never Give Up On Anyone" printed on my teacher business cards. It's a tag line on my email signature. I have a poster of it hanging in my classroom. Rebby did a little change-up on my motto! He changed "anyone" to "yourself". What is the difference? Doesn't "anyone" include yourself?
        For me, I had always been focused on others; my friends, my family, my students. I had been through a divorce, my mother was very ill, and I had a stressful job (even though I loved it, it was very challenging). I was constantly going to the wine bottle in my refrigerator. That part was a little scary, but I was more worried about everyone else.
         I don't know exactly how, but going through this experience with Rebby changed my life. I felt more confident. I made mental lists of all the things I was doing right. I discovered I could manage my life and not feel twinges of panic all the time. I was able to relax, without the wine, but when things got tough for a while, I found I mentally braced myself and got strong enough to deal with it all. "I not a quitter" echoed in my brain.
        It still does. Thanks, Rebby!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"LuLu Down Now."

         LuLu was a real sweetheart. She was a slightly built, seventeen-year-old girl with Down Syndrome, who had a most charming and delicate way of gesturing with her hands. Many times when I watched her, she almost looked like a ballerina posing. She mostly used sign language to communicate, but she did have a few simple words and commands to make her needs known.
        Whenever we had to go somewhere in the school building, or even outside the building, if LuLu went with us, we always had to allow quite a bit of extra time to get where we were going. Most of the severely intellectually challenged kids we taught moved slowly, except for John (in my previous post), so we usually crept along....... but eventually got where we were headed.
        LuLu made the treks even longer. Serious heart problems plagued her frail body, and she had amazingly developed an automatic compensation strategy. When her body figured out that her heart was not able to pump enough blood to her upper body, she instantly dropped to a squat. I would hear, "LuLu down now!" and know we were all going to stop in our tracks until she felt ready to proceed.
        The school nurse explained that this response was most likely LuLu's body recognizing it did not have enough oxygen for her to keep going, and perhaps she even felt a little dizzy. By folding her body up in a squat, LuLu was able to better utilize the limited oxygen, reserving less of it for her lower body and more of it for her upper body and brain. Many times, several of her friends would squat next to her and pat her on the back, their way of showing their support and human compassion. A group of students squatting on the sidewalk always got a few puzzled looks from strangers, if we were on a hike over to Loring Park, but it never really bothered us.

          It was usually less than five minutes and LuLu was upright and moving forward again. She always had a smile on her sweet, little pale face and never failed to add, "Thanks, all better."  Depending on how far we were walking, she might have to squat one or two times, but she always knew when it was time. LuLu knew her limit. She was in touch with her body, or maybe LuLu's body was in touch with her.....either way, when it was time for a break...she took one. She would just drop to the floor. Bam. Squat.  "LuLu down now."

          LuLu was a genius, really. We should all be as wise or in tune with ourselves as LuLu was. What if we could automatically know when it was time to quit?
         Too much work or stress? Take a break!

         Got your energy back? Get busy again!

         Too much fun? Had enough to drink? Stop!

          Too much to eat? Go for a walk!

          Angry...going to explode?  Take a break. Say a prayer.

          We all need something to aspire to, I suppose. I am going to keep trying to take a lesson from LuLu. I used to over-do a lot of the time. I'd just keep going and keep going, until I was completely exhausted. I'd like to think it's maturity and wisdom that has made me slow down, but it's probably just old age. Either way, "Terri down now."


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Upside Down On The Trunk Of A Police Car

        John was another student of mine, at Emerson School, who had come out of a Minnesota state institution. He had a strange last name; a French name. You don't hear many of those in Minneapolis; just lots of Olsons, Johnsons, and Petersons. John smiled a lot. His skin was a very yellowish color...he did not look like a healthy fourteen-year-old, but the special group home where he lived assured us it was only due to all the prescription medications John took.

         Cognitively, he was quite low-functioning. What he lacked in natural intellect, however, he more than made up for in energy. He was the epitome of perpetual motion. Even when John was medicated, and on his best day, the 1:1 classroom helper assigned to him was constantly on the run. Literally, on the run. John was quick and he was cagey. If something caught his interest, he would find a way to get to it; the fastest way possible. My daughter had been like that, and when she started walking at the age of nine months (running at ten months), I bought a cute little pink canvas harness for her, with a leash on it. I was already expecting our son, so it was the only way I could keep up with her and make sure she was safe. Hindsight tells me that we should have had a harness for John.

         One of the best things about teaching in Minneapolis was all the lakes and parks. There was a beautiful lake in Loring Park, only a block from our school, but it didn't have the ice cream counter and fishing dock like Lake Calhoun did. So, our end-of-the-year picnic, with the class of my teacher-friend Brian, was always at Lake Calhoun.

        About thirty teenagers with intellectual challenges and pretty close to a dozen staff headed to Lake Calhoun in a caravan of school vans. We had fishing poles in the back of one, along with our picnic lunch and some outside game equipment...including the large colorful parachute the kids loved to bounce playground balls on. It was our first public outing with John. Just to be sure we could keep track of him at the lake, it was decided to have Brian and the associate "double-team" John.

         Everything was going quite smoothly and as planned. After all, Brian and I were experienced picnic planners; we would play some games, do a little fishing, eat lunch, get ice cream, and then load a bunch of exhausted kids back into the vans.

         I was in line with some of my students to get ice cream, when I heard a big splash, then another big splash immediately followed. I turned around, towards the lake, just in time to see John's 1:1 associate flailing in the water on the south side of the dock, and Brian was on the north side of the dock...also in the water. He had pushed them both into the lake! John was running back up the dock, towards the ice cream stand. As he approached, I could tell he was not going to stop; he appeared to be rushing straight past us..... toward a busy four-lane Lake Street, a well-traveled thoroughfare going past the north side of the lake.

          I grabbed an ice cream cone from a nearby student and ran after John, thinking I could convince him to stop his escape by offering him a treat. It worked! He heard me hollering. "Ice cream, John! Ice cream!", and screeched to a halt at the entrance to the parking lot. I caught up with him and handed him the drippy cone.

           John had just started licking it when he saw Brian and the associate, dripping wet, striding toward us. He started to run again, but I quickly grabbed his shirt. Brian used his most soothing voice to assure John that he was not angry. We really didn't want him to take off again. I transferred my grip from his shirttail to his belt, just to have a little better control. John seemed to settle down and once again he became intent on consuming the ice cream.

         We started walking him back to the group. I let go of his belt so he could hold hands with the associate. They were a great match of student/staff and it was a child/parent sort of hand holding. We three adults were talking as the four of us walked; John was closest to the parked cars. I looked over at John, and the ice cream cone was gone. I looked back and did not see it on the ground, so I figured he had wolfed it down. Wrong.

          Just as we got back to the curb of the parking lot, we saw a Minneapolis police car back out a space in the lot. John also looked, screamed, "WAIT", and broke free from the handhold of the associate. The officer did not hear him, and proceeded to pull out of the lot and into the street. That was when we saw what had happened to John's ice cream cone....for some reason, John had turned it upside down on the trunk of the police car!                              
          John broke into a record-breaking sprint to retrieve his cone...right down the street! Brian was the fastest of the three of us, so he took off after John. The associate and I ran to get one of the vans, in case Brian was not fast enough to catch John. Luckily, Brian was able to catch up with John and once again gain control of him by grabbing his belt. Our staff had all been trained in safe ways to restrain students who were in danger of hurting themselves or others, so Brian switched from the belt grasp to a cross-armed type of bear hug from which even a very squirmy John could not escape.

        When I pulled up next to them in the van, Brian had been able to lower John onto the sidewalk, and was trying to get him to relax, but John was becoming more and more frantic, screaming loudly for his ice cream and thrashing all over the sidewalk. The associate and I joined Brian in trying to soothe John and quiet him down.     

        It was just after noon, and the Uptown area of Minneapolis was bustling with folks having lunch in the cozy cafes and sidewalk patios. We were quite a spectacle. After about five minutes, it became apparent that we needed to get John into the van and back to school. He was totally out of control.

         Then I remembered the parachute…maybe it was still in the back seat! I retrieved it, with its rainbow of brightly colored panels. We unfolded it as quickly as we could, scooted one edge under John, and rolled him up in it like a taquito. His head stuck out of the end. He was bundled as tightly as a nursery-blanketed newborn and in less than a minute, he went from screeching to calm; then to a smiling serenity.

       “Ice cream?” he asked sweetly.

      “We’re going back to school, John. We’ll get ice cream there. You just relax, okay?”


      We heard a smattering of applause from the street side bistro tables. All I could think about was how long it was going to take me to write up the incident report for this fiasco. Brian drove the twenty or so blocks back to school, dropped off the three of us, and then drove back to the lake to help retrieve the rest of the students. The policeman must have been oblivious to what was going on behind him, because he never stopped. I have always wondered what he thought when he found the ice cream mess on his trunk.

        So, the lesson is all about preparation. Two things I always try to have close by: a good team and a big parachute. Not literally of course, but figuratively, for sure. Everyone needs a few other people they can depend on, and they also need a "Plan B". Plan A does not always go as planned and sometimes the result takes more than one person to clean up.
       Also, if you are lucky, the police don’t get involved.



Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Chocolate Milk and Burning Garages

"No legacy is so rich as honesty." - William Shakespeare 

           Dale, one of my students in Minneapolis, appeared to be the freckle-faced red-haired boy that my mother always said she wanted when she had a son. That didn't happen; she got me, a blonde, blue-eyed girl. I told her about Dale once, and she confirmed for me that she was glad she didn't give birth to him. Together, we prayed for Dale's mother.
           Reflecting on this young man, I have recently decided that the school year I spent working with Dale was the equivalent of an extra year of a college education. He helped me prepare for so many of the students who followed him into my classroom in the future. Lots of people who are not in education assume that all intellectually challenged students are pretty much the same. They assume that these kids are not as smart as other kids, so even though they may be "more work" in the classroom, they probably are not as complicated as your average teenager. FALSE!
          Dale was one of the most complicated students I have ever had. He appeared to be an average sixteen year old. He wore braces, walked fast, talked fast, and ate like a pig. He wasn't overweight, but still had a thin layer of "cush" on his body and face. His round impish face was often red and flushed, like he just ran a mile, or was terribly embarrassed. He dressed quite neatly, usually in jeans and the plaid shirts that were so popular in the mid-1970s.
          Where do I start? He fidgeted with his hands incessantly. They were always moving, as were his eyes. Dale looked like he thought he was being watched every minute, and he wanted to see who was watching him. He behaved as though he was afraid of being accused of something....and he looked guilty all the time. When something suspicious would happen in my room, I often wondered if it could be Dale, but I never was able to pin anything on him. He always denied it and usually had a good story to back up his pleas of innocence.
         The first time I actually caught him doing something is a moment I will never forget. I can picture it in my mind like it happened yesterday, not thirty years ago.
          Our school cooks kept all the cartons of milk for the students in a large cooler, in a small room off the kitchen. This room had a door going into the kitchen, and another door going into the school gymnasium/cafeteria. The cooks were in the kitchen all day, from the time school started until about an hour before the students went home. They had been noticing some of the cartons of chocolate milk were missing, and figured out that the only time someone could be stealing the milk was in the hour between the time they left and the time the school buses came to pick up the students. We lined up all the students in the gym to wait for their buses every afternoon, and somehow one (or more) of them was sneaking into that room and getting into the cooler to take the milk. That should not have been hard to stop. But it was. Dale was clever.
          Dale would line up for his bus with other kids from his side of Minneapolis. He would slip out of line by asking to use the restroom. The restroom door was just around the corner from the cafeteria, so he would be allowed to go on his own. Apparently, he never actually went to the restroom. He would go out the door to the hallway, run down the hall and come back in the door at the other end of the cafeteria. He would pinch or hit one of the non-verbal students, lined up waiting for their bus, at that end of the cafeteria, and they would begin to yell. Dale would then duck out into the hall again, race down to the kitchen door, and cut through there into the room with the milk cooler in it. He would gulp down a couple of cartons of chocolate milk, and then come out to line up for his bus again. With the staff distracted by the pinched student at the other end of the cafeteria, Dale could get back in his bus line without being seen. Quite a devious plan.
           I only figured this out because I had stepped out the back door of the cafeteria to look for the buses one day, so I missed the commotion Dale created at the far end of the cafeteria. When I walked back into the school, I observed Dale in the milk room, with chocolate milk dripping out of both corners of his mouth. Confronting him was one of the most disturbing and surreal events in my career.  I think it is in a three-way tie with The Salad Meltdown Lesson (3/21/13) and Rosemary's Shower (2/23/13).
          "Dale, what's in the hand behind your back?"
          "Dale, please show me what's in your hand."
           He showed me the empty chocolate milk carton. He insisted he did not take it. He insisted he did not drink it. When I asked him about the mild dripping down his face, he used his sleeve to make it disappear, and kept insisting he did not take or drink any chocolate milk.
          Yes, I had caught him, practically in the act. There was no reasonable explanation for how the carton got in his hand and how the milk came to be dripping down his face, except the observable fact that he stole the milk and drank it. Yet, he denied it.
         "I didn't do anything," he said. He put the carton down on the cooler and walked out to his place in the school bus line.
         "Dale, I saw the carton. You had milk in your mouth. You took the milk."
         "I didn't do anything."

         What kind of circumstances or life experiences lead up to such an exchange? The term 'pathological liar' popped into my head. Actually, that term can be interchanged with 'compulsive liar' and 'habitual liar'.
It has been defined as "falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and complicated, and happen over a period of years, or perhaps a whole lifetime."
          Dale may have been aware he was lying, or he may have believed he was telling the truth. Not a lot of research has been done, but one study supposes a rate of one in 1,000 juvenile offenders. Dale did not have a criminal juvenile history.....yet. The average age of onset  for this kind of chronic lying  is sixteen years. Forty percent of cases also involved some central nervous system abnormality, and I would suppose Dale's intellectual disability fell into that category.
           It's a mental illness. Uncommon, difficult to explain, and most likely it was going to create lifelong problems for Dale. We would just have to watch him carefully. Very carefully. The social worker agreed, and Dale was escorted everywhere he went in the building.
            Then the fires started.
            They were always early in the morning, always a garage, and in Dale's neighborhood. The police, the fire department, and the neighbors were stymied.
            Then one day, after about eight garage fires in a three week period, Dale came into my classroom, with a distinct odor of gasoline on his clothes. He said he was helping his dad at the gas pump and over-filled the tank; some gasoline had splashed out onto his pants. I knew he was lying about it, because he lived with his mother. His father didn't even live in Minnesota.
            It just made me sick. I had a horrible feeling that Dale was involved in the fires. They were so dangerous. A flaming garage could set a house on fire. Eventually, someone was going to get hurt.
           I took Dale down to the social worker's office. I explained to her what I thought was going on. She called the police and she called Dale's mother. Officers came to talk to Dale. They took him home, spoke with his mother, and searched Dale's house and garage. They found evidence in Dale's bedroom and outside his window that indicated Dale had been crawling in and out of the window. Dale's mother confessed that she had seen him sneaking back in the window on two mornings when there had been garage fires. Dale was arrested. Of course, he completely denied everything, and he had elaborate stories to explain it all.
           His mother's testimony, along with the evidence from the house and the garage, convicted Dale. He was tried in juvenile court, not as an adult, because of his severe mental disability. His mother agreed to have him sent to a state mental institution. Dale was going to be held there, at least until he was twenty-five, or until it could be declared that he was no longer a danger. He was sent to a place where he was going to be able to get some help that he desperately needed.
           I have wondered for many years about Dale. His bold, blatant lies still haunt me. We have probably all been told lies, to our face, that we immediately know are not true at all. It is frustrating, but we deal with it by ferreting out the truth and shining the light on it. Still, even with the truth exposed, it hurts our hearts that someone would try to deceive us. With Dale's "condition", it seems like he was not really capable of telling the truth. It doesn't sound right to me, but Dale couldn't help but tell lies. Some of his lies were to keep himself out of trouble. Some of his lies were to make himself seem more grand than he really was. Dale told some lies because he opened his mouth and out came anything but the truth. On top of all that, he was a pyromaniac.
         Could he have told the truth if he had wanted to? Why keep lying if there is nothing to be gained by it? How frustrating is it to hear a lie that you know is a lie, and you also know that the person lying will get absolutely no benefit from lying to you? Are they lying just to lie? Just to get one over on you?
           If the only answer was, "It's a mental illness. There is no understanding it," then it was even worse. In my mind, it was like having a doctor's note for lying. "Please excuse Dale. He has a good reason for lying and you cannot hold him responsible. Oh, and he sets fires, too. Can't help that either." What?
           OK, I can deal with the mental illness part...I am older now. It seemed like a lame explanation for despicable behavior when I was younger. Lying was already one of my pet peeves, and then I met Dale, who had a doctor's note to do it. Grrrrr. Lying was a serious flaw in your personal character....that's how I was raised.  Experience has now taught me there are cases like this, and I cannot waste time fussing over them. He couldn't help it. Over the past thirty years, I have had many students with a variety of mental health issues in my classroom. They have enough problems without being blamed for their mental illness. No one chooses it.
         However....lying is harmful, no matter what the circumstance. It harms the person who tells the lie and it harms the person who is told the lie. The argument has been made repeatedly for "little white lies" being allowed.. Ugh.

          A person who will lie about the little things will lie about the important things.
          Honesty in little things is not a little thing.
          Just tell the truth.
          I REALLY try to impress this on every student I get in my classroom.

          This is when I wish everyone was older, like me. If I were to tell a lie, I would probably forget that I told it, and also forget WHO I told. The trouble would start then. Who did I tell? What did I tell them? What did I tell this other person? Oh my memory is just too poor to tell any lies. I couldn't possibly keep them straight.
        One of the richest men in Des Moines spoke at a Drake University graduation that I attended. He said the NUMBER ONE RULE in life, is to tell the truth; in your personal life, in your professional life, in all your relationships. Tell the truth.
        Try hard. Unless you are one in 1,000, you have no doctor's note.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Lead, Not Diamonds, on the Soles of Her Shoes

            Remember those ridiculous inflatable punching clowns you bought for your kids when they were young? They were so much fun because they never stayed down! That goofy red-lipped clown would bounce right back up in your face, ready for the next punch! Hold that image in your mind while I tell you about Bonnie.

        Bonnie was a student in my Minneapolis classroom. She was born with cerebral palsy and was also intellectually challenged. She was a tall and very slim wisp of a girl. When she wore green, she resembled a blade of grass...that's how thin she was. And the height, from my point of view, is always an advantage. At 5'9", I always tell people I would rather be taller than shorter.
       For Bonnie, her height was a distinct disadvantage.  It made her beanpole-like frame even more unstable than it normally would have been. Her muscular control, because of her condition, gave Bonnie a wobbly and teetering gait. She had been unable to walk without tipping over until she was about five years old. Her wise parents decided to try a technique that would keep her out of a wheelchair for the rest of her life; they put lead weights on the bottom of her shoes.
      As you know, lead is extremely heavy. One cubic inch weighs over one-third of a pound. So, a piece of lead about the size of a standard dry-erase marker would weigh a pound. That's a hefty marker! Now, imagine having someone put about four pounds of lead on the bottom of each of your shoes. It would surely slow you down, but it would also be terribly difficult to tip you over!
       Picture this tall, very thin girl, taking slow steps with heavy weights on the bottom of her shoes. She still rocked side to side, appearing as though she might tip over, but she never did. The way Bonnie was able to drag her iron-soled saddle shoes across the floor made it seem as though the floor was magnetized. Gravity was her friend as she lurched forward. Bonnie never complained, even though each step was obviously a monumental struggle. She was upright and independently mobile; mission accomplished. To paraphrase Paul Simon's song:

She's got lead on the soles of her shoes.
Well, that's one way to lose 
These walking blues.
Lead on the soles of your shoes. 

       Problem solved! End of this brief blog?  Not quite.

       The heaviness of Bonnie's shoes make me think of the weight of whatever it is that holds each of us in our "place"; our "anchor", so to speak. What keeps us from toppling over and crashing to the floor? I like to think I'm "grounded", but when I really pause for a moment, I start to consider the possibilities. Am I?  It feels like it.
        Seldom, if ever, do I get that overwhelmed feeling that used to come when I was younger. When I thought I had to say "yes" to everyone else. When I thought I had to do everything by myself and when it all had to be done perfectly. Oh yeah...that kind of thinking is not an's more like a ball and chain. Now, I have become more like that silly clown who never stays down.

        What grounds me now is simple....a family I adore, a job I love, and knowing I am a child of God.
It's just that basic. Although your "lead" may be something different than mine, usually simpler is better. 
Almost as easy as putting lead on the bottom of a teetering young lady's shoes. Who knew?  What anchors you?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Looking Past The Scars

      I debated with myself about whether or not to include a photograph with this post. I settled for Mel Gibson in the movie, The Man Without A Face. I looked online for images of burned faces and I found some that were less scarred than Mel and some were more scarred....more like the face of my former student Jeffrey. Jeffrey's facial features were barely recognizable, and his whole head was scarred; he could not grow hair on his head. He was a teenage boy wearing a terrible wig.  There was one image I found online that looked very much like him, a wig perched on top of the scarred skull, but I simply could not force myself to represent him like he looked on the outside. His "inside" was what was really exceptional about Jeffrey.
     Jeffrey was a physician's son. When he was four years old, there was a fire in their house. A frightened little Jeffrey hid under his bed, was difficult to find, and although he survived, he was grotesquely scarred for life...on the outside.
       On the inside, he was the "Jeff" in my earlier post about Wendy,  I'm Going to Marry Jeff, & We're Going to Get a Poodle! , posted 4/7/13.  Wendy, as I wrote (and I hope you have already read), did not live long enough to marry Jeffrey, but he was definitely the "marrying kind". He was wonderful kid who had a seriously life-changing bad break. His intellectual functioning had been normal for a four-year-old before the fire, but that changed drastically. There seemed to be no definitive explanation; it could have been post-traumatic stress, or perhaps brain damage due to lack of oxygen to his brain during the fire. His diminished capacity could have been a combination of factors, but whatever the cause, Jeffrey was in my special class in our special school.
      Many of the students in my class did not look "normal", for a variety of reasons. Kids like Scott, in the post "Silence Is Not Always Golden", or Troy in the post "Wanna See My Fried Egg Face?",  are two examples. Scott looked average, but his disability caused him to present himself in an out-of-ordinary manner. Troy was a student with Downs syndrome, so he appeared physically different. Well, Jeffrey didn't look intellectually challenged, just horribly disfigured....on the outside.
      However, the inside of Jeff was charming, kind, and very gentlemanly. He took school seriously, but he knew how to have fun. His scarred limbs somewhat inhibited his full physical inclusion in Special Olympic athletics and regular playground activities, but he always made a sporting effort to participate as much as he could. He was curious and had a tremendous work ethic. He took much pride in achieving all his IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) goals. He loved working in the woodshop as much as his beloved Wendy did.
       My fondest memory of Jeffrey is from one of the weekly trips that a fellow teacher and I took to the Minneapolis Farmer's Market. This market was held daily, Monday through Saturday. We would leave pretty early and walk our students nearly a mile from our downtown school to the market on the near north side of town.  Farmers would back their trucks up to the long, raised cement slabs and put out boxes of their fresh produce. It was always a busy place, and in the fall, there were almost always several elementary school groups there for a field trip.
        One fine fall day, we got to the market and there was only one shiny yellow school bus there. The children getting off the bus appeared to be kindergartners...also fresh and shiny, very new to school, and probably on their first field trip. They seemed a bit unruly, compared to our experienced and well-trained adolescents.
        As the little students lined up in their field trip "buddy pairs", I noticed a couple of them were pointing at Jeffrey. They weren't laughing, just pointing, and actually looking a bit frightened. Jeffrey's looks could have that effect, especially on young children. On our other trips to the market, it was not unusual for students to stare, but that day it was more serious than staring. Jeffrey also noticed them eyeing him.
       He made a U-turn and walked right up to them. Their teacher was at the bus door, and suddenly realized that she was farther away from her students than she wanted to be. I quickly followed Jeff, not knowing what his reaction might be. He had never been confrontational before. The two children took a step back, and Jeffrey stopped in front of where they had been standing. By now, many of the other "buddy pairs" were observing him.
         What came out of Jeffrey was amazing.
         In a strong and clear voice he said, "It's OK to stare at me. I look awful, but I can't help it. When I was little like you, my house caught on fire. I hid under the bed. If you are ever in a fire, make sure you get out. Get out fast. Don't hide under your bed."
         One of the pointers asked, "Does it hurt?"
         "No, it just looks bad."
         "I'm sorry."
         "It's OK, just don't hide if your house catches fire. Get out. Bye." Jeffrey turned and walked away, to catch up with our group.
          By this time, the kindergarten teacher had arrived. She just looked at me as I stood there. Jeffrey was gone.
          Kindergarten teacher asked, "Was there a problem?"
          "No problem", I proudly replied. "Jeffrey just gave some of your students an important lesson in fire safety. They can tell you about it."
         Kindergarten teacher said, "I don't know what to say."
         I answered, "Just promise me you'll make sure they remember this,"
         Kindergarten teacher, "I promise. Thank you."       

         I always took my two oldest children, Jenipher and Charles, to Emerson School during the school year, for occasions such as field days, open houses and Special Olympic activities. They were exposed to those two hundred intellectually challenged kids from the time they were about five and six years old, until we moved back to Iowa when they were twelve and thirteen. Jenny and Charlie played with them, talked to them, and spent time getting to know them. It didn't matter that they looked different, or spoke funny, or sometimes did just plain strange things. I taught my children that those students were so much more LIKE them, than they were UNLIKE them.
        What was important was what those students were like on the inside. They were adored by their parents, just like Jenny and Charlie were. They liked to tease and be teased. They laughed at jokes, and played jokes. These kids liked hugs, just like Jenny and Charlie. They were sad when their pet fish died. They liked to learn, and they liked to tell what they learned. That is exactly what Jeffrey did. He may have appeared to be the "r" word, but he had a very important lesson to share. And he did it very well.
        When I reported the farmers market incident to Jeffrey's parents, they were justifiably impressed. They already knew they had a very special kid; what Jeffrey looked like on the outside was gruesome to some, but not at all to them. What Jeffrey looked like on the inside was beautiful to everyone who took the time to get past the scars and get to know him. 
          That's all that really matters...with anyone...  Our "scars" might not be as obvious as Jeffrey's were, but we all have them. And we have lessons to give others, if they take the time to get to know us.
          I'm so glad I had time to get to know Jeffrey.



Friday, May 10, 2013

Robert Ate His Zipper Again!

    Kids do strange things. We adults laugh, make videos, and sent cute emails all the time about a myriad of weird situations children get themselves into. Here is that classic photo of the young man who got himself stuck in his school desk:

         But, sometimes kids do things that are not funny. I don't have a picture of Robert to post, but there is a picture of him scorched into my memory. It's not funny. It is heart-wrenching and haunting. Out of all the students I had in my classes at Emerson School in Minneapolis, Robert is probably the one whom it hurts the most to remember. I taught there for nearly ten years and his is the face I can picture most clearly. Too clearly.

       Robert was average height for a teenager, very thin, and had a shock of short blond hair that stood on end. With one hand, he ran his long bony fingers through his hair constantly, from all directions, so it tilted at different directions on a minute-by-minute schedule. Neither his hands nor his hair were ever very clean, except on the days we went swimming. It's painful to remember how he looked in his swim suit; like a skeleton. The reason Robert was so thin was related to his hyperactivity. He was in constant motion. His hands, his feet; even his shoulders were always moving. He must have burned a million calories per day. His movement was a bit unusual, though, because he pretty much stood still and moved. That is, he stayed in one spot, but his body was moving all the time.
        By far, the most compelling part of his movement was the way his wild, bright blue eyes constantly swerved back and forth, racing from one person or one object to another. His wild-eyed contact with us was maintained only for a micro-second, and then his eyes would dart to the floor for another micro-second. Robert had most likely been on the receiving end of some physical punishment.  I think this is why he stood in one spot instead of bouncing around the room like many hyperactive kids would do. He was trying to be unobtrusive; straining to physically “stay below the radar” of any adult who might be annoyed by him and his perpetual motion.
        Robert's most unusual manifestation of his over-activity was chewing on his clothes. Yes, chewing on his clothes, while he was wearing them.
       About twice every month, I had to rummage through the social worker’s closet of extra clothes, and get Robert another jacket. We had three recess periods per day, and we were in Minnesota. During the school year in that northern clime, from September to May, it is not usually very warm in Minneapolis, and kids would need to wear a coat or jacket outside at recess.
        Zipped or not, Robert would begin at the top and literally chew the zipper right out of the front of his coat. He would start on the upper right side, pulling it in between his teeth, gnawing at the stitching until he worked the top loose. Working his way down the right side, all the way to the bottom, he would furtively glance around to see if everything going on around him was safe, and then he would gnaw some more. His feet would be moving, one hand would be going through his hair, and the other hand was stuffing his jacket into his mouth while he chewed, chewed, and chewed.
        It usually took him a week or ten days worth of recesses to decimate the zipper. Then we would get another jacket for him. Why keep giving him another coat when we knew what he was going to do to it? Why not give him something else to chew on? Feed the kid, for crying out loud, if he was so skinny! Can't you teach him not to do that? Wasn't it wrecking his teeth?
       Well. of course we worked hard with our behavior modification specialists to teach him not to do that. Fail. We gave him plenty to eat......there seemed to be no acceptable substitute for the satisfaction he got from removing those zippers with his teeth. He absolutely would not tolerate a hoodie being pulled over his head. He was always so remorseful once his newest jacket was zipperless; he was always sincerely disappointed. Fortunately, his chewing was pretty much on the threads and fabric of his outerwear, so his teeth were fine.
         All this was complicated by Robert's lower intellectual capacity. His disability was severe. He could not help himself, and try as we might, we could not help him either. Everyone loved him. He harmed no one with his coat chewing. Robert was one of our most even-tempered students; he was cooperative in class. He waited his turn in lunch line; his peers liked him. His idiosyncrasy was distracting, but manageable, as long as the coat donations kept coming in.
        I'm not even going to try to describe what happened the time someone came up with the idea of putting him into a "snowmobile suit" for recess. As long as you know that those garments have a zipper that runs from the neck nearly all the way down to the knee, I will let you imagine how Robert dealt with that!

      Regardless of this interesting habit, Robert did everything else in pretty much the same fashion as all our other students. Sure, that one behavior was quirky, but it made interesting conversation. It became a challenge that we would present to new staff, as they joined us, to see if there were any new ideas for helping him. Regrettably, when he turned twenty-one, we helped him transfer to the group home/sheltered workshop program without solving this puzzle. He would be nearly fifty years old by now, and perhaps he is still chewing the zippers out of his coats.
       Robert reminds me of other people that I know, they don't gnaw their zippers....but they have quirky habits that usually harm no one but themselves. If I start listing examples, you will not take the time to think of your own, so I'm not going to give you any clues. You know these people; perhaps you are even one of them. You (or your friend or family member) do something odd, for some known or unknown reason, but it's dramatically different than the rest of the planet. Perhaps it has become a joke to tell at parties, or a family story, or a giggle at the water cooler in the office. It's just crazy...why would they do it like that?  Or maybe it is something that they DON'T do, that most of the rest of us do.
        If you take some time to think about these people you each know...does that really make them all that much different than the rest of us...or that different from Robert? Robert had lots of "different" things about him, but he was really more LIKE most kids, than unlike them. I want you to realize that this is a real truth. "Special" kids are really just kids. No matter what they chew on. So now, quit thinking about all those odd people you know...and appreciate everyone for how special they are.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Muscles On Top Of Muscles

          Steven was non-verbal. The year was 1976 and he was seventeen. He had come out of a state institution for the “mentally retarded” in Minnesota in 1975. In 1975 there was a federal law passed, called PL94-142. It protected the right of individuals like Steven to have a free, public education. This public law emptied out many large impersonal warehouse-like state institutions full of intellectually challenged children, and created countless numbers of group homes where those children could have a more “normal” life.  This happened all over the United States. Another student I have written about in my “Overalls and Wonder Bread” post, Jeff, also came out of an institution.
         Steven was not in my classroom. He was in a room on the first floor, where Miss Harriet was the teacher. Her class was the six lowest functioning students at our special school. She had four classroom assistants. That made five adults helping six children. Several of them were wheelchair-bound. None of them were able to be toilet trained. Their IQs were way below 50. They needed a lot of help, believe me.
          So, I would walk past Miss Harriet’s classroom and see Steven several times every day, as I took my class to gym, to lunch, to the playground, or to shop class or the home economics room.
          Steven was not toilet trained, did not use eating utensils, and sat on the floor. He didn’t like chairs. He barely tolerated clothing. No shoes, please. Strangely, although Steven spent most of his days sitting nearly motionless on the floor, this very dark-skinned African American young man was almost always glistening with sweat.
            When walking past Steven, you absolutely had to look at him.  He had the physique of a champion bodybuilder, but he spent most of his days, for most of his life, just sitting. Sitting on the floor. That is not much of a fitness program. Was he pumping iron at home every night?
            No..... but Stephen did have his own special way of building muscle. 
           Flexing his muscles, over and over and over and over. I'm quite sure he acquired the habit at a very early age, and was, I'm certain, too low intellectually to even know what he was doing. I don't know how or why he would have started, but while researching this style of muscle building, I have discovered a wide variety of opinions about it. The problem is, there are no studies about a person doing isometrics, every waking hour, for years and years.
           All I know for sure is that Stephen's days consisted of thousands upon thousands of muscle contractions. Stephen's movements were pretty much imperceptible, but his results were obvious. After all when you do anything enough times, something happens.
           I'm reminded of other such repetitive and subtle actions that have created  dramatic results:
          I wonder how many times "Sarah" heard her mother promise to stop using drugs, before Sarah's trust in adults was totally decimated.
 I wonder how many times a child has to hear, "You're stupid." before they just quit doing homework and abandon trying to be a good student?
           I wonder how many times a young person hears, "You need to get a real job", before they give up on their entrepreneurial or artistic dream?
           On the other side of the coin, does it really take that much effort to encourage a young person?  "You can do it." Those four simple words, or variations of them, can make a phenomenal difference in the attitude and success of an aspiring, or struggling, young person.
           My own father's version of those words was always, "Go get 'em, Tiger!"  So I did. After all, I had the full faith and backing of Dad and Mom. That's all it took. Sure, I had encouraging and inspiring teachers who reinforced my parents' biased urgings. I even got a fan letter after a great basketball game from one of my father's business associates, so I knew Dad was bragging about me. It was a little embarrassing, but down deep, it felt good. It kept me pushing myself to be better.
          So, what does this have to do with Stephen's bulging biceps? Everything! If you are going to do something over and over and over again, try to make sure it has a positive end purpose. Stephen couldn't help himself. You can!
         I could give all kinds of examples, but you know exactly what I'm saying. For teachers, and parents especially, the repetition of positives is essential. The more the better. The students need encouragement; just not the fake kind. They need to do something, or at least to try to do something to earn it. And eliminate the put-downs, and the sarcasm.  To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, "Sarcasm is anger's ugly stepsister."
        The potential strength of Stephen remained untested. Who knows what he could have done with his strength? His low intellectual capacity prevented him from ever being able to use it. However, there are students in classrooms and children in their homes every day who have plenty of potential and intellectual capacity, and they are not being encouraged. If these kids are going to be productive citizens and happy self-supporting people, they need to practice repetitive success!
         Flex those muscles! They might be poetry muscles, math muscles, public speaking muscles, science doesn't matter...flex them! Smile at these kids, say "Good job!", pat them on the back, put a sticker on their shirt, call their parent and praise them, put their work on display in the hall or classroom.
         Beyond this, teach those kids how to praise themselves! When I left for college at age seventeen, my father wasn't right next to me anymore. There was no one saying, "Way to go, Tiger!", so I started talking to myself. "Good job, Terri!" ,"I can do this!" It worked. I still do it. I motivate myself. Children need to learn to do this. Over and over and over and over.....