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.....


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Always In A Happy Place


          She did not like being called "Little Jody". When she heard that name, she would stop right where she was, roll up her shirt sleeves, and show you her tiny biceps.
         Then Jody might shake her fist at you and say, "I'm not little! I could beat you up!" She always said it with a grin in her voice. Jody was a happy kid. She was fifteen and about 4'6" tall. That was as tall as she was going to get.
        Jody was intellectually challenged and looked like a little pixie....oops, like a pixie...leave off the part about being little, please. She had brown eyes that always were darting around, looking for something to do. Jody was able to read sight words, and was beginning to read with some basic phonics. She could tell time and count money. She was extremely proud of the plexiglass windshield scraper she made in shop class.
She was very slender and moved quickly. She loved to run, swing on the playground, and climb on the jungle gym. Jody was a tomboy, for sure; and she always would be. "Womanhood", as most of us know it, was not in her future.
         Jody's medical diagnosis was Turner syndrome. It is one of those rare genetic conditions that special education teachers learn about throughout their careers. They don't teach it in the college classes; you just learn as you go.
        Turner syndrome is a rare chromosomal disorder that affects only females (1 in 2500), and only 8-10% of those affected females are intellectually challenged. The symptoms of girls with this syndrome are short stature, abnormally loose skin on the neck, unusual eyes, a lowered placement of ears, a very small lower jaw, plus they often have heart and kidney problems. Girls with this condition have broad, shield-like chests and elbow deformities that make their arms hang awkwardly.
        The underlying cause of Turner syndrome is not known; it does not run in families, and it occurs in a random manner. In all cases, however, there is a partial or complete loss of one of the X (sex)chromosomes.  Turner syndrome can cause hyperactivity, gross and fine motor abnormalities, and language delays in those with normal intelligence. Jody had all these symptoms, besides her mental deficiency.   The picture here is not Jody, but it is of a girl who has Turner syndrome and looks a great deal like Jody did thirty years ago when I had her in my class.     
         Jody would remain extremely short, never develop breasts or develop sexually, and be infertile, due to ovarian failure. Basically, she would always be a little girl. It is like the "Peter Pan" syndrome, only for girls. However, there is nothing cute or romantic about Turner syndrome. Jody had a bad heart. She had folds of skin on the sides of her neck that made her look different enough to be teased in her neighborhood. Her lower jaw deformity made it difficult for her to chew. She was restricted to soft foods, as there was concern she might choke on improperly chewed food. She grew up with those restrictions, She didn't yearn for caramel apples or popcorn balls at Halloween. She loved Milky Way bars. She didn't drool over a juicy cheeseburger. She loved sloppy joes. Jody was one of those people who made the best of everything.
        Fortunately, her energy and enthusiasm for life had enabled Jody to overcome most of her physical awkwardness. Despite all her medical problems and mental obstacles, she was a naturally joyful person.  She was one of my students who simply was not intelligent enough to know she was not intelligent. That was probably a blessing for her. Without any hormonal development, Jody did not have any attraction to boys. It was not in her chemical make-up; there was no future male/female drama in her life. She had two caring parents and a couple of siblings; she spoke lovingly about them. She appreciated all the friends she had at school. In her world, Jody had no worries. She was always in a happy place! Wouldn't that be a wonderful place to live?
       For Jody, that was her reality. In the rest of the world, as we all know, life is not that simple. Take the fifteen-year-old girls who are in my class at this moment, for example. Wow, they would all be light years ahead on the happiness scale if they did not feel attracted to boys!  Regularly and unfortunately, their happiness depends on other people, boys in particular. I endeavor daily to help them find contentment and satisfaction within themselves, but it is a monumental uphill battle. They have trouble focusing on anything but boys. Wait, you say, that's normal for teenage girls!  Sure it is, but in the meantime, it causes these particularly mentally unbalanced girls even more angst than normal. I have a job for life.
       In reflecting on the reality of our own adult existence, I would be remiss not to mention your bills, your car in need of repairs, your illness, your aged parents, your rebellious teen(s), your failed diet/exercise program,  and your general stress about almost everything. Feel better?
       So, as you think about Jody's multiple permanent limitations and her contentment as I have  described it, I have a few questions for you.  What is the root of your happiness? Are you happy with what you have? Do you know where your joy comes from? Are you afraid of losing it?  Are you still searching for contentment? Does it come and go, depending on your "mood"? Does your bliss depend upon someone else? Just some things to consider.
       So now to get to the lesson learned from Jody. For me, Jody confirmed the belief that one is about as happy as one makes up their mind to be. Half empty/half full. According to Jody's limited but naively wise perspective, the glass was half full of water and half full of it was FULL. My own perception of her permanently pleasant  demeanor remains, in my memory, as the perfect example of someone making lemonade out of lemons. Her paradigm was always from a viewpoint of natural positivity. She had not taken a Dale Carnegie class or listened to any inspirational speakers. She was naturally happy. Yeah, that's it....I'm sticking with that....and  that's my story. I'm going to be happy. All things considered, I really have nothing to complain about. Because I said so, and Jody showed me how.
FOOTNOTE of interest: For all you NCIS Los Angeles fans
Linda Hunt: A Celebrity with Turner’s Syndrome  

Linda Hunt was born on April 2, 1945 in Morristown, New Jersey by the name of Lydia Susanna Hunter. She began her career at a young age as an actor and singer because her mother was a music teacher. She debuted in Hollywood in the 1980’s film version of Popeye as Mrs. Oxheart. She is currently known for her role as Hetty Lange on NCIS: Los Angeles. She has also stared in movies such as Pocahontas as Grandmother Willow, Mrs. Munion in Yours, Mine, and Ours, and Shadout Mapes in Dune. Throughout her career, she has won thirteen different awards, such as the 2012 Teen Choice Award for her character on NCIS: Los Angeles and an Oscar for “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” in 1984 for her movie The Year of Living Dangerously. She has happily lived with her partner, Karen Klein, since 1987. Not only is Linda Hunt an actress, but she also has Turner’s Syndrome.
Hunt’s condition has caused her to only grow to be four feet and nine inches tall. Despite living with Turner’s Syndrome, Hunt has grown to be a well-known celebrity. She did not let her condition inhibit her career as an actress. She is considered an inspiration for women with Turner’s Syndrome that aspire to achieve their goals in life.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Failing As A Teacher

This is about how one of my biggest failures as a teacher
turned into one of the most important lessons I ever learned.

           I'm not sure everyone understands what is actually taught when you teach severely intellectually challenged students. What I thought I was supposed to be teaching my students thirty years ago was simply very elementary or pre-school skills. Shoe tying, counting, colors, telling time, counting money, days of the week, months of the year, writing their own name and address, and basic Dolch List words (sight words and safety words, like: to the, he she, danger, stop, closed, exit, etc). I also taught grooming and self-care skills, like brushing teeth, nail care, applying deodorant, matching clothing, and hair care. We taught manners: please, thank you, excuse me, how to use the elevator and how to ride the city bus. Instruction also covered how to answer a phone, including copying down a phone number to call back. Remember, these things could not be taught just once, and then we'd move on to the next skill. Everything had to be demonstrated, modeled, and repeated many, many times, and then taught in various settings, so the skills could be "generalized" to different situations. That was one of the hardest parts. One of the statistics we used then was, "Tell a normal child fifteen times; tell one of our kids forty-five times."
        I had a rambunctious student, Eric, who was fifteen years old, and an eager learner. He had prematurely white hair, cut in an old-style flat top. Eric wore thick Coke-bottle like glasses that were so heavy he was always having to push them  up; even having a heavy black strap securing them around the back of his head did not prevent them for being down at the end of his nose most of the time.  
       This young man was motivated to be employed. Someone had thoroughly impressed the benefits of having a job on him, and Eric really wanted to "get to work" as soon as possible. He even walked like he was on his way to a job he couldn't wait to get to; he strode everywhere with purpose. His functioning level, unfortunately, was going to put him in a sheltered workshop. Those workshops were reserved for students who had reached the age of eighteen. Eric had a few years to wait.
        Because he simply did not yet understand the calendar, the months, and the years, Eric asked almost every day "how soon" he would be able to go to work. He accepted the answer, "As soon as you get everything on this Working Skills Checklist checked off."
       Eric would always reply, "Then let's get busy!"
       He was making steady progress on his counting and money skills. Telling time was going to be more difficult, but would be easier once he improved his number skills. After all, we had nearly three more years to work on it. However, the terribly difficult hurdle for Eric on that checklist was learning his basic colors.
       Most four year old children know their colors. All we expected was red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, pink, white, black, and brown. We started in September. Eric struggled mightily. He would scratch his head, shake his head, and even pound his forehead, while thumbing through all the photographs and color cards. We would play easy matching games; pairing color cards with objects and word cards. Eric could not even match the word "red" with an red circle and a red apple.
       He had learned only the sight words for red, blue, green, yellow, and orange by Halloween. Two months into the school year and I had taught him only five color words, and none of the colors. This was disappointing, but I did not let Eric in on my frustration. We met every day with high energy and encouraging words. "You are going to learn all these colors, Eric, and then we will have a color party!"
        In the meantime, we played every game and used every visual and tactile strategy in the arsenal of the occupational therapist at Emerson School. Colors and Eric did not mix.
        The first weekend in November, I drove to the southside Minneapolis house of a friend, who was a fellow Emerson teacher.  Her neighbor was having a very late-season garage sale. As my teeth chattered, I started poking through a stack of the neighbor's old Discover magazines. One of them had an article on color-blindness. I jokingly said to my friend, "Maybe this is Eric's problem!"
        I bought the magazine and took it to the school nurse on Monday morning. She ran over to the Minneapolis Schools district offices and borrowed a test kit from the Nursing Supervisor. She would get Eric right after lunch and test him. The color test used numbers and shapes, hidden in pictures that had different colored bubbles in them.
Sample test item....Can student see the red square and/or yellow circle?

        Eric knew his shapes, but he could not find the square or the circle. He failed the test,  He had Deuteranopia…this type of color blindness is characterized by loss of green vision and color distortion in the red-green-yellow part of the spectrum. The red and yellow "bubbles" appeared to be the same color as the rest of the bubbles.  Almost everything Eric looked at appeared to be either brown, muddy gold, or tan. He could detect a few shades of dull or dark blue.
      Red looked like camouflage green, bananas looked tan, grass appeared to be brown or gold. This made me the most sad for him...can you imagine NEVER seeing green grass? Poor Eric!

                           WE SEE:                                                          ERIC SAW:

       So, I had spent (wasted) all of September and October, two whole months of Eric's education, trying to teach color identification to a colorblind student. I felt like a complete idiot, and utterly ineffective as a teacher. Now, in hindsight, I can chalk it up to my youth and inexperience, but it does not diminish the obvious failure of my instincts. We switched gears. Eric had to learn to compensate for not being able to see colors; no amount of remedial instruction was going to teach him his colors. Instead of labelling colors, Eric needed to be able to identify items by size, shape, function, and texture. "Bring me the book with the kitten on the front", not "Bring me the red book."
      This was also going to make it more difficult for Eric to function in a sheltered workshop environment, where many tasks are color-coded on purpose, so clients are not required to have a high level of reading. It would still be possible for him to succeed there, but he would have to be taught ways to compensate. "Compensate" was going to be an important skill for Eric the rest of his life.
        I guess that is my lesson from Eric. In my early years of teaching, I thought about just TEACHING kids everything I could. That's not completely wrong, but it's not always possible. I had to accept that I was not going to be able to teach Eric his colors. I had to teach him how to make up for, or how to live successfully with, not being able to see colors.
        Being able to compensate for lack of something is an important skill for everyone. If you can't do triple digit decimal division in your head like my husband, you adapt by getting out the calculator.  I have girls in my class right now who have no father in their lives. How do they compensate for that? Well, there are good ways and not-so-good ways. We try to teach kids positive ways to compensate. We try to teach about balance in their lives. So many things missing; and how to make up for them all? It's what gets me up every morning.