Tuesday, January 29, 2013

No Thumbs? No Problem!

       Richard had no thumbs. Yes, his hands looked exactly like the ones in this picture. He was a slight young man; only five feet tall and about ninety pounds at age eighteen. He seemed happy enough. We mostly judged that by the expression on his face, because he was totally non-verbal. Richard was one of the students at the special school where I taught in Minneapolis. He wasn't in my classroom, but he was in my Boy Scout troop and I saw him every day at lunch and recess. He observed everyone and everything around him, and was almost ninja-like in his movements. He would be standing next to me one minute, and then the next second, he was on the other side of the playground, but I never saw him run.
        Five fingers and no opposing thumbs made practically everything difficult for Richard. Imagine dressing yourself...zippers, buttons, belts....with no thumbs. To eat, Richard had to lace a spoon through his fingers, in an over/under manner like weaving; same thing with holding a pencil. Go ahead, try it. He had no use for a knife and fork, because he could not eat solid food anyway. Richard was born without a lower jaw, so he could not chew. All his food was pureed in a blender by the school cooks and he ate it with a spoon. Not even the best of school lunches can survive that in an acceptable form.
       No thumbs, no lower jaw; neither one of these obstacles seemed to inconvenience this amazing young man; and Richard was truly amazing.The most astounding thing about him, besides his unflappable pleasantness, was his ability to catch flies, bees, and hornets out of mid-air flight,. He could literally snatch them while they were flying past him. One of these insects would jet past and Richard would just swoop his hand after it...ZAP....the little critter would be hanging helplessly by their wings, between his second and third fingers. It happened so quickly, I kept wishing for a slow-motion film of it.
        He was not born with this skill....he learned it, practiced it, and perfected it. He did not do it to show off, although it sure was entertaining to watch. It seemed to be done for amusement and to fill his time at recess. This was in the before "handicapped adapted" playground equipment era. Richard could not grip the chains from which the swings were suspended. He could not hang onto the merry-go-round or climb up the ladder to the slide. Sitting on the teeter-totter and not being able to hang onto the hand grips would have been dangerous, unless we had tied him on like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. We had tried many times to hold onto him to enable him to do these normal kid activities, but he did not like being held as closely and tightly as was required to be safe. So, he made up his own playground game....bug-catching.  He never hurt the ones he caught. Richard always took great care in studying them for a minute or so and then letting them go. I never saw him get stung, either.

       What might be the life lesson to be learned here, from this severely physically deformed young man?

       For me, it has become so plain over the past 30 years since I spent so many recesses with Richard.
It's really true: a weakness can be transformed into a strength. A negative can be morphed into a positive. Serious life obstacles CAN be overcome and turned into advantages.  Lemons can be made into lemonade.
I do not believe I have ever seen a better example of this in my entire career than Richard. He is a glowing example of taking an obviously distinct and crippling disadvantage, and using it as an opportunity to reframe it and develop an exceptional skill. Even with his significantly diminished intellectual capacities.
       Are there students you know who think they have something so horribly wrong with them that it will ruin their lives? Tell them about Richard. Tell them to stop complaining about the school lunch.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Silence Is Not Always Golden

    Scott was in my classroom for two and a half years. He was one of the first students I had as a special education teacher. Those of you who are teachers know how special that group of kids will always be. You know how you treasure the relationships that develop with them, as you find your way into the world of teaching and they loyally follow you down that path. Even now, many years later, you can recall a cache of the daily exchanges of information, encouragement, disappointments, and mostly wonderful adventures in learning new skills. Good communication skills are very near the top of the list for a rewarding teaching career. Verbal exchanges with children shape every school day.
      It was, however, a very long two years into my time with Scott, before he spoke a single word to me. He was fifteen when he came to my room, and before that, he had not uttered a single word to anyone in five years. This part is a hard story to tell. I will try to keep it simple. When he was ten years old, he had been stripped, tied down to a bed, and beaten with a 2x4 by an abusive stepfather. He stopped talking. Horrific trauma will cause that. The diagnosis was that Scott had become what is called an "elective-mute". He simply chose to quit talking. Scott had been taken away from his family, lived unsuccessfully in many foster homes, and was now living in a group home. The perpetrator being in prison was no comfort to Scott; he was damaged for life.
    Scott had been a normal ten-year-old, but five years later, he walked into my room as a teenager with the intellectual and emotional development of a ten-year-old. Frozen in time, he came into my classroom; a Level 3 special education class for severely mentally disabled students. His intellectual development had been stopped. He had what is called the "walking on eggshells" walk. Every step was slowly considered. It is common in elective mutes. They focus so intensely on not speaking (try it for a day), that their learning grinds to a halt.All their senses are heightened; touch, hearing, etc. His face was very expressive. It was with his smiles and grimaces that he was able to communicate without speaking. He was also able to describe many things with his hands. It was like having a mime in the classroom..
     I was supposed to do a complete functional living assessment on him. Can he tell time and do basic counting? Does he know the calendar,  how to read, or how to count money? Most of my high school age students were not studying academic subjects, but instead were learning these practical skills that get adults in a sheltered workshop through their day.
    It quickly became apparent that testing Scott was going to be a challenge. All his answers had to be in writing. He wrote in the same large primary printing that he probably used as a ten-year-old. If he made any tiny error in his writing, he would erase everything on the page and start over. It was a tedious process, but I finally was able to determine that he already knew pretty much everything that a "graduate" of my classroom should know.
      I realized the reason he was placed in my room was because I was the new young teacher; the administration felt that I would have the energy and drive to figure out what really needed to be done with this student. This was in the early 1970s special education era. Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) were brand new. IEP meetings were unfamiliar and the IEPs were all handwritten. Scott's needs were primarily in the mental health area, not academic, although he was functioning five grades below grade level. I consulted with my principal to let him know I needed help in finding the right resources for Scott's needs, and he set up an appointment for me with a specialist at the University of Minnesota. She just happened to be in the middle of a research project, where she had managed to find eighty elective mutes from all over the country. Talk about serendipity!
     She came to see Scott and brought with her an experimental strategy. Scott was at first encouraged just to blow air out of his mouth, in tiny short puffs. This was extremely difficult for him; he had not been speaking for five years and was unaccustomed to having anything come out of his mouth, even air. She worked with him three days a week, for about an hour each time. It took six months until he was ready to be pushed to more forceful puffs. Scott got pretty good at the harder puffs, and then she gave him a book, Tom Sawyer. He was instructed to make himself comfortable in the closed-in cubicle they were using, and to read the book. This cubicle had wooden walls about half-way up, and then glass, to a total height of about six feet. The glass had been painted black for this project and then a video camera lens was directed through a circle that had been left unpainted. It looked black, and Scott did not know these sessions were being videotaped as part of the research project. Sometimes I would look thruogh the camera and watch him. He worked well with her and enjoyed the individual attention.
     With the book, he climbed under the table that they usually worked at, and sat cross-legged, reading. The researcher asked him to just move his lips as he read, so she knew he was reading. He was not expected to make any sounds. Scott complied with her request and read Tom Sawyer, The Outsiders, several short stories, The Diary of Anne Frank (he cried, silently), and several Hardy Boy mysteries.
     This went on for an entire school year and the following summer. The children in our school required a year-round education, and summer school was a much appreciated source of extra income for most of the teachers. It was during the more informal summer school sessions that some of the other students on the playground began to tell teachers that Scott was talking to them. The staff all began to watch Scott more carefully at recess, in the lunchroom, and in the hallways; less structured times when he might be opening up to his peers. No one ever saw him do anything that remotely appeared to be talking to the other students. We eventually decided that the whole student body, mentally challenged as they were, had become aware of the project to get Scott to speak again, but were making up stories, competing to be the one who would first hear him speak.
      When school began in the fall, Scott had just finished a book, and wrote me a note saying he was ready for another one. As I was instructed to do by the researcher, I told Scott that there was a new plan; he would be given another book to read, but we were asking him to whisper it as he read it. 
      He wrote me a note: "I can't", it said.  I reminded him of how far he had come in the past year, and assured him that he could whisper if he tried. Scott did try, moving him lips more actively, but he was not able to push any words out.  He sat under the table and read three more books, moving only his lips.
Each book, he was encouraged to try to whisper. We modeled whispering. We explained whispering. We began to have other students whisper to each other, to us, and to Scott. It became a game. Christmas came and went. No whispering from Scott, but he was by far the most literate student in our building.
     The researcher developed a new strategy; we would require Scott to generalize his lip moving beyond the book reading. Whenever he wanted something, he could no longer write us a note. He had to ask us by moving his lips to 'mouth' the words. He normally had very simple requests, like using the restroom and getting a drink.
It was easy, after working with him for over a year, to know what he was asking without really having to be a lip reader. He had picked up some sign language and fingerspelling by watching us work with some of the other non-verbal children, but he wasn't allowed to use those. So, that was how we spent the late winter and early spring months. I became expert at lip reading, at least for Scott's simple requests. It was during this time that I realized how badly I wanted to be the first one to whom he spoke. He was standing in front of me many times every day, week in and week out, moving his lips, but not talking. It was very frustrating, but we knew from earlier experiences, anything that looked remotely like frustration or anger would send him to a corner, sitting on the floor, head in his hands, for an hour or more. So his requests were always met with compliance and a smile; with a "good job, Scott", and he would always smile proudly back at me.
      I finished my second school year with Scott, and my second summer with Scott came.With the help of the Viking Council of the Minnesota Boy Scouts of America, every one of our 200 intellectually challenged students was a Boy Scout. The girls could go to a day camp that we held just outside Minneapolis, but some of the boys were groomed to go to the regular Many Point Scout Camp in northern Minnesota for two weeks. Scott was selected to go with us. He was now seventeen years old and was a tall, lean young man. He had a sweet smile and a helpful, cheerful attitude; he was a great camper and Boy Scout. Except for his cautious elective-mute style of walking and his complete silence, he appeared to be your average scout.
      I had an inkling that Scott really DID want to talk again, but was having a hard time just doing it for the first time. I could tell, after two years with him, when I looked into his eyes, when he mouthed his words to me. Sometimes he would hold his hand lightly in front of his open mouth to see if there was any air coming out. He would look surprised and pleased when he discovered there was. His eyes would widen and it appeared as though he was contemplating what it might feel like if SOUND came out, but it didn't. I felt we were getting so close!
      It happened suddenly, early on a Saturday morning at Many Point. On Friday night, we had managed to overcook the chicken we were cooking over the campfire. This was to be our dinner, so to the many cries of "It's burned!", I told the scouts, "It's not burned unless it's black on the inside."  We ate it and it was burned, but not to the bone. It was black and dry, but those boys were scouts, and they obeyed. Our fried potatoes and apple cobbler were perfect, so no one went to bed hungry.
      The next morning, Saturday, it was raining. It was not raining hard, but steadily. The boys had to cook breakfast, as they were working on scout badges with that requirement. None of them wanted to come out of their tents, except Scott. I awakened him first, because he was by far the best fire-builder, and our fire needed some major rebuilding because of the dampness. Scott got it ready for the pre-determined "cooks-of-the-day", but they refused to come out of their tents. As the two of us stood in front of their tents, hearing their "It's raining!" protests, Scott turned to me and whispered very clearly, but in a raspy voice, "Tell them it's not raining unless their underwear is wet." My eyes were instantly flooded with tears. They are welling as I write this. Then I laughed, and we hugged. I was expecting the clouds to part and a huge double rainbow to appear. That didn't happen, but when I repeated Scott's words to those boys hiding in the tents, they came out instantly.
    "Scott says, it's not raining unless your underwear is wet!"
    Heads popped out of front tent flaps.
    He repeated himself, softly whispering, his eyes darting around to make sure everyone was listening, "It's not raining unless your underwear is wet."
    They all dashed out into the damp early morning rain and the rain did seem to let up quite a bit just then. There were hugs all around. These kids were huggers anyway; and this was a hugging occasion, for sure.
    Scott whispered a few more times that day, and the following days. We were at wilderness camp, without his therapist, in pre-cell phone days. It was a long hike and quite an ordeal to make a phone call.  I decided to wait until we returned to Minneapolis. I could tell he knew he had broken through the wall separating him from the world. I had worked and waited for over two years; pushing him, encouraging him. I had been patient, impatient, optimistic, and pessimistic, but I tried to never let the impatience and discouragement show. Scott did all the hard work though. Who could ever know the thoughts he had for the seven long years that he had been silent? The researcher/therapist said he probably stopped talking because what he had to say about what happened to him at ten was too horrible to tell anyone.  With his first utterance at camp he had revealed a great sense of humor, which had been hidden all those silent years.
      Scott had an impact on me, obviously. This tale happened over thirty years ago. What does it mean for me today? Why am I blogging about it? What can all teachers learn from this?
    Well, as we know too well, horrible things that are too awful to talk about are done to children. Sometimes, rarely, as with Scott, those kids just quit talking. Most of the time, these children act out. They act out at home, or school, or in their neighborhood. We all have them in our classes. I believe that whether they are silent or screaming, we need to listen. Be patient. Encourage them. Smile at them. Give them chance after chance to succeed. And we need to get them some professional help. Never give up on anyone. That line has been on my professional business cards for years. NEVER give up on anyone. Sometimes it takes even more than two years, and that seemed like a long time to wait back then when I was a new, young teacher. Doesn't seem like it's a long time at all, now. Never is NOT a long time, when you are a teacher.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Welcome To My Classroom

       There are four teachers in this picture. I'm the one in the purple sweatshirt.  Left to right: Sandy, who has been my best friend since kindergarten...this fall, it it will be sixty-one years since we met in Mrs. Bybee's room. What Sandy does best with me is laugh. Me, beaming because I am in the presence of three women for whom I have total respect and admiration. Dr. Joan Roberts, my high school creative writing teacher, who taught me the power of positive feedback and always trying to do your best. Finally, Mrs. Marilyn Smith, my 6th grade teacher and current monthly breakfast companion; also a fellow left-hander. She inspired me to follow her into a lifetime of teaching.
        This blog is dedicated to these three magnificent women of education. Being a teacher surrounded by other supportive teachers is like a gift I get to open every day. Loving my career the way I do, I cannot wait to get to school every day. It's like Christmas, 180 days a year.
         I have taught in special education classrooms my entire career. I could write a dozen books about my experiences, but have decided on an alternate path for sharing what I have learned....this blog. So, I shall write about young men and women who have made my teaching career into a life-long "school of life".  My students over the years since I began in 1974 have been  a mix of intellectually challenged, emotionally disturbed, juvenile delinquents, drug addicts, homeless, mentally ill, gang-bangers, abused, neglected, undocumented immigrants, and/or pregnant.
        I'm sure I have missed a few labels, but that is not what is significant about these teenagers. The weight of their impact on my life and thus on the lives of the students who followed them into my classroom is what carries the most meaning. I have gained enormous insight and self-knowledge from these kids. That insight and self-knowledge has enabled me to relate to and  to help countless other young people who followed their footsteps through Mrs. Holmgren's room.
       This is short, but it is only meant to be an introduction. PLEASE take another couple of minutes and read at least ONE of my other posts! These posts will relate the unusual and entertaining tales of students whose personalities and special qualities have etched them into my memory forever, along with lessons learned. They are those unique teenagers who have made my classroom a place where there is "never a dull moment".