Saturday, February 23, 2013

Rosemary's Shower

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Don’t you love the smell of rosemary? It truly is a delicious herb to flavor potatoes, lamb, chicken, and add a distinctive touch to every sort of gourmet dish. It is also a girl’s name.
Many years ago, I had a student named Rosemary, but sadly, she did not live up to her namesake seasoning. She came from a family of eight; two parents and six children. All six of the children were mentally challenged. Back in the 70s they called it “familial retardation”. Genetic failure. I think I would have quit after the second child was diagnosed, but these parents were poor, and mildly intellectually challenged themselves. By the time social services got to them, they had six offspring.
They did the best they could, but the mother and father really had their hands full. The parents always cooperated with school and with the state agencies, so they never took the children away; at least not during the time I knew them.
 I was teaching half days and spending the other half days visiting the families of our students, in their homes. It was a federal project my school had become involved in. We were trying to find out if we could help parents extend the learning the kids did at school into their homes in the evenings. We tried to teach the parents how to help the children practice their new skills at home.
For example, I taught parents how to teach their children the “back-chaining” way to tie shoelaces. If they taught them the same way we did at school, it would hopefully cause less confusion for the child and shorten the time it took them to master that skill. We tried to transfer many skills to the homes in this way. The grant program went for three years, and I felt it was successful.
Well, my task with Rosemary, and with her five siblings, was to teach them how to properly bathe. We did not teach this at school, but every staff person at school knew this was a skill these parents had not taught their children.  The six of them were extremely “fragrant”, and not in a good way. Rosemary was sixteen and her hygiene was simply abominable. She had fairly curly and closely trimmed brown hair and for a teen, her skin was relatively free of acne. She was tall, with good posture, and could have presented herself as an average girl, except for that awful odor. I will politely describe it as a sour and biting combination of intense body odor mixed with a urine/feces scent. Rosemary smelled nothing like rosemary.
It was a steamy, early September afternoon when I visited Rosemary’s home to explain this new program. The front room appeared to be fairly neat, but not at all clean. It was dark, dusty, and smelled like “dog.” I was ushered into the kitchen, where the parents and I sat around a large oval table, where I presumed they ate meals with their large crew of children. It was covered with a clean bright yellow tablecloth. I started explaining my purpose while they smiled and nodded their approval of the idea. They actually wanted me to teach all the children to bathe, stating that they knew they had been having very little luck with their own efforts.
We had only be seated there maybe one  minute, and slowly, an extremely foul and rancid odor wafted up to my nose. I leaned a little forward, then a little to the side, and realized it was coming from under the table.
“Do you have a sewer back-up problem?” I asked, even though that was not exactly the right smell.
“Oh no, don’t worry about that, the dog had her puppies under the table yesterday. We just haven’t had a chance to clean it up yet.”
I tried very hard not to gag, and quickly asked if I could see the bathroom. I just wanted to see the tub or shower arrangement they had so I would know how to simulate their bathroom in the locker room at school.
The bathroom was upstairs. The floor was covered with hair, the mirror was small and cracked, and well, I will spare you the condition of the toilet. The tub was filled with dirty clothes; it was overflowing, and piled high, about three feet over the top edge. It was obvious that this tub had not been used in a really long time.
I looked at the mom. Knowing she could probably read the concern on my face, I tried to mask my distress when I asked, “Where do the kids bathe or shower?”
“They just wash up down in the kitchen sink. The faucet up here don’t work,” she replied, with a helpless shrug of her small shoulders. “The water in the tub works, but I can’t catch up on the laundry for all these kids.” I arranged with the school social worker to get Mom help catching up on the laundry.
 I took Rosemary to the shower at school. We didn’t usually instruct kids in bathing; we only used the tub/shower combination to clean up a child if they became ill or incontinent and needed to “start over” before going home. We kept spare clothes there and normally used it only for emergencies.
Rosemary took off her clothes in the restroom stall and came out with a towel around her, as I had asked. I saw she was still wearing her bra, and she seemed genuinely surprised that she had to remove it. When she dropped the towel to remove her bra, I saw she also still had on her underpants. Again, Rosemary really did not know that it was necessary to totally strip before showering. This girl, at age sixteen, had never had a bath or a shower. She had only done “sponge baths” her entire life. She probably wore her underpants to her “baths” in their kitchen, for modesty reasons.
If you can recall the happiest, most refreshing time you have ever been in the shower; when that water felt so warm and enveloped you in its comforting torrents….multiply that times 1000, and that is the delight Rosemary experienced that day.  She used the shampoo sample first, as I instructed her from the other side of the shower curtain. Then, she got her washcloth soaped up and scrubbed herself top to bottom.  She was somewhat alarmed, as was I, at the fistful of pubic hair she held after washing her private area thoroughly for the first time in her life.  Then she rinsed.
She was a good student. She did the washcloth routine again, and again, and again. She took forty-five minutes and showered four times.  I finally had to give her a sixty second countdown, and then I reached in to turn off the faucets. She stood there and cried, sobbing into her washcloth and begging me to let her do it again. I got her to come out and wrap the towel around her by promising her she could do it again the next day.
We taught all of Rosemary’s siblings to shower.  A male teacher helped with the two boys, and I taught the three other girls. The parents were so grateful and three months later, the tub at home was still being used regularly. Rosemary was able to get a part-time position in our vocational education  department’s Marriott maid program. Previously, her poor hygiene had prevented her from being employed. It was a happy ending for everyone. The bus driver who drove those six kids back and forth to school didn’t have to spray his bus with Lysol every day. The youngsters started to make more friends at school and every other teacher in the building thanked me repeatedly.
I felt guilty. I had been paid to do something that I was sure I would have done for free. Even if I had not been a teacher, and I discovered this family who did not know how to bathe, I would want to teach them.  It was the only humane thing to do. To me, there is something obscene in that kind of uncleanliness. Not pornographically obscene, but the inhumane kind of obscene. In the first twenty-five years of my life, even living on a farm, I had never seen that kind of filth. In the forty years I have lived since then, I have not seen in again. It was appalling, and I fixed it. It was so simple, really, and the simplicity of it still astounds me. It felt SO good to have helped those kids, and it was so easy. All it took was a little soap and water.
I think everyone should have something that horrifies them to the point of taking action to remedy it. I want everyone to have that feeling that I experienced when I taught Rosemary to bathe herself. I’m not talking about trimming your toenails when they get too long. I’m not talking about dropping some change in a red Salvation Army bucket. Of course, we all need to do those necessary and those generous things to be human and to share our bounty with others. I’m aiming at the idea of correcting something that cannot be allowed to exist.
Everyone can fill in their own blank. You each can name something whose existence is intolerable to you.  Go do something to change it. Try to help fix it. Think big. It could be something that would benefit just one person. It could be global, but it doesn’t have to be; just so it makes someone’s world better…it doesn’t have to the whole world. Go get your ‘soap and water’ and get busy. I’d love to hear about it when you get it done.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hey, Ya Wanna See My "Fried Egg" Face?

Meet Troy. Well, this isn't really Troy; it's a picture I found online, but it's as close as
I could get to Troy. Troy was a young man with Down Syndrome, thick glasses on his perfectly
 round face, Nordic blond hair, big blue eyes, and a killer sense of comedy. Use your imagination.

      Troy had a hard time getting his feet off the floor. He shuffled everywhere, hunched over a little with his arms straight down at his side, and he needed frequent reminders to hold his head up so he could see where he was going. But, Troy was not an "institutional" kid. He lived his life with his parents, and he was an only child. Thus, he was my classroom "preppie". Dressed to the nines every day, well-mannered, always saying his pleases and thank-yous....Troy was a special education teacher's dream student. He loved homework, which was often worksheets with clocks for telling time, or with coins, so he could practice counting money. He carried his "sight word" flashcards around in a fanny pack, so he could practice them if he had a few extra minutes. I actually missed him during the 45 minutes he was out of my classroom to see the speech therapist twice a week. Most of the other teachers in the building greeted him daily with a hearty "Atta boy, Troy!", and he would reward him with the most infectious smile ever.
      If you have read some of my earlier posts, you know I had some extraordinary students in my Minneapolis classroom. Troy was no less special. This kid was an absolute sunbeam. I have known many teens with Down Syndrome, and as a group they are predictably cheerful, but Troy's positive attitude extended far beyond this stereotype. Many times I watched him as he stopped a peer from exploding into a frustrated temper tantrum, or as he brought an extended crying jag to a dead stop. A droopy, depressed classmate would be laughing hysterically in just a few seconds. Troy's secret was his willingness to do whatever it took to stop the negativity and to inject the sad-sack friend with his personal brand of comedy. Mostly, he accomplished this using only his favorite funny face.

      "Hey, ya wanna see my fried egg face?"

      That's all it took.

       Troy would tuck in his lips and bulge out his eyes, posing with a dedicated stare, as he jutted out his chin and then took a quick peek to make sure you were watching.

      "Don't it look just like my eyeballs is eggs in a frying pan?"

      It CERTAINLY did. His sad/mad/unhappy target's response would always be the same. A loud laugh, another laugh, and then you would have to beg him to stop. If it did not get an immediate response, Troy would put his hands on his hips and march around to everyone who might be nearby and show all of them his fried-egg face. Any person involved in one of these scenarios would be in on the loud laughing within seconds.
      This was part of his effectiveness. Troy didn't just get the target person to laugh, he would create a chorus of laughter. And he knew when to quit. At just the right moment, with the timing of a seasoned entertainer, Troy would give a satisfied sigh.
      "Now that's a whole lot better. Let's just be happy."

       Troy would get back to whatever business he was tending to before his "show".  A bad situation had been completely turned around, and Troy would act like nothing had happened.

       I truly wish I had a photograph of Troy and his fried-egg face. It was one of those things that just had to be seen in person to get the full effect. Only in one of those moments, could you see the pure joy he felt by being able to help someone laugh when they needed it most. It was his gift.

       Troy made it easy to laugh, because he had no problem laughing at himself. He never took the task of making that face seriously. He never worried how silly or strange he might seem to others. People who didn't know Troy might think, "He looks so different already with that funny walk, weird eyes, and thick glasses; why would he make a face like that and make himself look even goofier?"
      Why would he do that?  He would do that because Troy cared about his friends and not about himself. He was a giver, not a taker. He never complained, argued, or slacked. He had a life to live and a mission to accomplish. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have more folks like Troy in your life?

       Troy will always be in my life. He is permanently impressed on my brain. Laugh, life is too short to be unhappy. Don't take yourself so seriously. Smile, who cares how goofy you feels good. And it usually makes the people around you feel good, too. Thanks, Troy.



Saturday, February 16, 2013

There Are Worse Things Than Being Hungry

         I don't really know quite where to start, so I will simply introduce you to Mark. Mark was a student in my "higher functioning" classroom of intellectually challenged teenagers. Back then, in the early 1970s, these kids were labelled as EMR, Educable Mentally Retarded. In short, Mark looked normal, but he was smart enough to know he wasn't normal.
      Mark's mother was a prostitute. They lived in the high-rise "projects" on the north side of Minneapolis. He was a little short for seventeen (about 5'4"), very slender, and looked even more slender in his too-small jeans and plaid shirts. He had shoulder-length brown hair with bangs. (it WAS the 1970s) He had a pleasant face with round brown eyes, but rarely smiled. Life was rough for him.
      He had been traumatized, I figured, by living in a situation where his mother would answer their door, let a man in, tell Mark to stay in the living room with the TV blaring, and take her "john" back to the bedroom. One time, early in the fall, Mark missed a whole week of school. The school social worker told me that Mark had been staying in a temporary foster home for the week and was getting some counseling. When Mark returned to class, he calmly relayed the story of what had happened; apparently, he witnessed the suicide of his mother's pimp. The man simply jumped out of the window in Mark's fifth floor apartment.
But now, Mom was back in business and Mark was back at home.
       This created another problem. That now-deceased pimp had been Mark's transportation to and from school. There should have been a school bus, but his mother had been very unreliable at getting Mark up and ready for school in time to keep the bus on schedule, so she agreed to get him there without the help of the school system. Now, he had no ride to school. The social worker was a short-term solution. I needed to teach Mark to ride the city bus. He would need to know how to ride it when he graduated and got a job, so now was a good time to learn.
       Well, I grew up on a farm. I had never really spent much time even walking on a city sidewalk, let alone riding a city bus. Mark and I learned together. He caught on quickly, even doing a great job asking the driver  for a transfer, but he had one looming fear. People in his project neighborhood were regularly mugged. His mother wasn't worried. She was confident that "the folks who live here won't mess with my boy. They know better."  She forgot her enforcer was dead, and sure enough, Mark was robbed of his watch and wallet the first time he rode home alone from school. It was just after Thanksgiving, and Mark's holiday season was about to get worse.
        There was a horrible flu going around. Mark became ill two weeks before Christmas vacation started. Joyce, the social worker, checked on him a couple times a week. She reported to me that although he was over the worst of it, he was still weak and recovering slowly.
         Mark would miss the big Santa Party we had every year.  Our special school had about 200 special education students attending. Right before vacation, a wonderful Santa would enter the gym, where we had gathered all the children. It was chaos. Santa would read each name from a list. The students would take their turns walking up on the stage (or be taken up there in their wheelchair) where Santa was seated on his throne. Santa would bestow each child with a large bag of wrapped gifts for them to take home and open.  The social worker planned to take Mark's gifts to his apartment, so I quit worrying.
        I started worrying again, right after lunch that day, when Mark showed up for school. He could barely walk. We had already finished gathering the other kids around the edge of the gym. The other children were being led in a raucous chorus of holiday songs, so I seated Mark on one of the staff chairs and waited with him for the singing to end and the present distribution to begin. When Santa called his name, Mark struggled to his feet, nearly knocking over the folding chair where he was sitting. I stood up to reach for him, but he fainted, falling at my feet. Miss Pauline, who was the school nurse, along with Joyce and the principal, helped me carry him to the nurse's office. We placed him gently on her padded wooden cot and applied damp cloths to his clammy forehead.
        He awakened after a short time, and had no idea where he was. When he saw the four of us there together, he said, "I came to school."
       Mark was lying on that cot, looking so very pale and incredibly frail. He truly looked like he should have been in the hospital. We phoned his mother, who had no idea he was not in his room at home. We discussed taking him to the hospital across the street, but Pauline concluded that he was not dehydrated or in need of emergency care, so Joyce and I agreed to give him a ride home. I went down to the gym to get Mark's bag of presents and put them in my car. When I returned to the nurse's office to get Mark, he was asleep. We let him rest for about an hour.
        When Mark woke up, I gave him some graham crackers and juice. He sat on the edge of the cot, eating slowly, and we spent a few minutes talking about what had been going on at school while he had been out sick. He mostly listened and ate, then he apologized for being "so much trouble." I assured him that we did not consider him any trouble and that we were the ones who felt badly. I explained that we had hoped he would regain his strength over the two weeks of Christmas Break.
       Then I asked the question. To this day, I  have not forgotten this. It was innocent enough and really, a natural question to ask. I was expressing concern over the possibility that he could have collapsed on the city bus, or on the street....that he could have been injured.
       "Mark, why did you try to come to school when you were so weak?"
       He replied, "I knew this was the only Christmas I would have,"
       Yeah, let that sink in for a minute.  I didn't have a minute. It hit all of us in the room like a brick. The social worker, the nurse, and I. We all moved straight to Mark and embraced him. He was so physically delicate at this point, let me assure you it was a light embrace; much lighter than we would have preferred to have given him.
       Mark said, through his tears, "I love you."
       We replied that we loved him, and the four of us just stood there, together, for a bit longer. Feeling that love.
       Pauline got him bundled up in his coat, adding a warm scarf, hat, and mittens from her closet. Joyce went to her office pantry to get some extra food for Mark to take home. I went to warm up my car.
       It was a quick ride to the near-north side of Minneapolis. I told Mark to stay inside over the break and to rest up. Then, I waited in the car while Joyce helped Mark get inside, and then take in the presents and the food. 
      That was the last time I saw Mark. When Joyce tried to contact them during break, she discovered they had left the day after we dropped him off. The neighbor said they "went to Chicago for Christmas." Despite several attempts, Joyce could never locate them after that.
        Mark, wherever you are, I hope that awful Christmas has faded from your memory. The only part I don't want you to forget is that you are loved. Love can get you through being ill, being lonely, being neglected, even being hungry.  I hope that wherever you are now, you are wanted, fed, cared for, and loved by those around you.
        Mark, wherever you are now, I want to thank you for this lesson in life. It's not the presents, the food, or the festivities that make Christmas or any occasion important. It's love....simply the human love we have for each other. Without love, as the famous book says, we are nothing.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Overalls and Wonder Bread

      This is about Jeff, but first I must briefly explain the times we were in. I was beginning my special education teaching career in the early 1970s, just as they were "emptying the institutions" in Minnesota.  Public Law 94-142 decreed that mentally disabled individuals were entitled to a free public education. State residential institutions began closing and group homes for those individuals opened everywhere. I taught at Emerson School, in Minneapolis, where many group home residents attended. End of history lesson; let me tell you what I learned from Jeff, who was a recent transfer into my class from a closed state institution.
      Jeff was short, chubby, and charming. He had rosy red cheeks and a big toothy smile with a gate-sized gap in the middle. His buzz-cut flat top hair was bright carrot orange and he had an enormous crop of freckles. That friendly grin was his trademark. Well, that grin, along with his striped overalls. They were a carry-over from his first fourteen years of institutional living. Jeff wore overalls every day. Underneath, he donned either a white t-shirt or a gray cable-knit sweater, depending on the weather.
      And then there was that slice of bread. White bread. Wonder Bread; according to Jeff, it was called "Wunnerful Bwead". A single small slice was stuffed into his centered bib overall pocket, right under his chin. Jeff had an overall-type body. You know, a stout rounder physique that was better suited to a pair of overalls than to a belted pair of pants.
     Even though I knew he had a hearty breakfast at the group home before school, Jeff would walk around all morning with his hand held tightly against that pocket.
      "Save for later, when I hungry, " he would say, squishing the pocket even more firmly with his pudgy hand and turning halfway around, like he was protecting it from being confiscated. It seemed enough for him to just have it. It was somewhat like a gastronomic security blanket, and it came into play every day around eleven o'clock in the morning. We would be working on telling time or counting money, and Jeff would start trying to unsnap his front pocket.
     "Wait. I eat, I work good," Jeff would assure me. I would wait. Jeff would eat. Then he would proceed to "work good". Every time. Every day. It was only an hour before lunch, but Jeff was hungry. He could not focus on his lessons at all when he had a rumbling tummy. It was pointless. The easiest thing to do was just give him a minute and let him have his slice of bread.
       This happened at a time in special education when rewards like M&Ms were considered a good reinforcement. Jeff did not want candy. It had to be his magical "Wunnerful Bwead".  The bread wasn't a reward for Jeff, it was essential; he was hungry. Trying to interest him in being a student of time or money was pointless when he was hungry.
      Think about it for just a minute. Time and money are two pretty darn important commodities in our lives. If we could have more time and more money, most of us would be thrilled. Jeff had no interest in hearing about either one when he needed something to eat.
       Students have come into my class over the past thirty years and not one of them as been the same as another. Each student has been unique and special. However, there is one common thread: if they were hungry, they were unteachable.
       As a mother, the thought of a truly hungry child is not acceptable to me, and it's probably not acceptable to you either. I never sent one of my own children to school with an empty stomach, making noises with its own gurgling juices. Who would do that? You would be surprised how regularly it happens. These days, many struggling single moms or dumped-on grandmothers are just lucky to be able to scrape their child out of bed and get them to school in the nick of time.
      And there they sit. Stomachs empty. Maybe with a hunger headache to boot. Not the least bit interested in anything happening in my room. Sure there are free breakfast programs, but sometimes the food is all put away in the lunchroom by the time these tardy, sluggish kids drag themselves through my door.
      I feed them.  No questions asked. A bunch of bananas lounge on the front edge of my desk every day. Just take one; you really don't have to ask. Any time, all day long.  They are not slices of Wonder Bread, but they quell the grumbling tummies and are found on the "approved classroom snack" list. They put kids' minds back in the learning mode, and make them teachable again.
      There is simply no point in a teacher trying to work with a hungry child. Jeff taught me this....he could focus on the lesson, but only when his stomach wasn't demanding his already limited attention. Thanks to Jeff and his "Wunnerful Bwead", I also know this: there is a broad spectrum of reasons which might keep a student from being able to learn under my instruction, but being hungry will NEVER be one. For cryin' out loud, just feed the kids! Bon appetit, Jeff.

PS- This has only a tangential connection to this blog entry, but I include it to demonstrate that even after all my years in the classroom, I can still have "firsts". Last week I received a girl in my classroom, who has only lived in Des Moines since June. She came from Chicago. She had never even held a real banana in her hand before. She had never tasted one. She had absolutely no experience with bananas in the first fifteen years of her life, beyond seeing them in a pile at the grocery store. (We convinced her to take one small bite. She didn't like it.) I keep crackers in my desk drawer now, in case she comes in hungry some day. Nope, I can't make this stuff up!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Before Autism Was An Epidemic

      Corey had beautiful eyes....well, I thought they were beautiful. They were the most charming, warm, brown eyes I had ever seen in a child. You had to look him in the eyes; they just drew you in. But Corey could not maintain eye contact for any length of time. He was a savant; an artistic savant; a savant with autism.
      He echoed what you said, but was unable to construct an answer for any question he was asked, like "What did Corey have for breakfast?" He would just smile and reply, "Corey have for breakfast?"
      He rocked. His arms would flail in mid-air at times of excitement or confusion. When he stood still and was not asked any questions, he appeared to be pretty normal; a handsome, tall, well-built, African-American sixteen year old. His single mother was a hotel maid in Minneapolis. Corey adored her. He very seldom was unhappy. He smiled when spoken to and tried dutifully to follow directions. His mother had raised him to be a gentleman; he opened doors for me and would try to relieve me of any large loads he might see me carrying. I still wish I could have relieved Corey of his burden; and freed him to fully express his monumental talent. Autism doesn't work like that.
       (In case you don't know me, let me tell you that I have a grandson with autism. He is also a savant, being hyperlexic, an expert on exotic animals, and also a calendar savant. His art, sense of humor, and creativity are impressive.)
      Corey was my first contact with autism, back in 1974. Educators certainly did not know everything we know now about it. There was very little known. Corey was in my classroom of mentally challenged, mentally ill, higher-functioning high school students. He fit right in. Except for that art thing.
       In those days, copies were made on mimeograph machines. Purple ink, damp stinky paper... the kind of smell we used to pretend to get "high" on. Pretty toxic stuff. There were no Xerox machines or copy machines as we know them today, even though we lived in the Twin Cities, home of IBM. There was certainly no way to enlarge or reduce pictures; unless you had Corey in your room! Corey could draw them exactly like they were printed, any size I needed. He had multiple fancy fonts, also. Flawlessly executed.
      How to channel that talent? Or was it OK to just let him use it for his own amusement? He had no friends, so Corey had never been invited to a sleepover, or a birthday party, or gone on a date. He wasn't going to get his driver's license or go to a football game or the prom. His entire source of  'fun' was his drawing. Maybe we should just leave the kid alone and let him draw. Don't try to turn him into 'something'.
      I was a young, enthusiastic teacher. I had to try.....try something. I entered him in the University of Minnesota "World Law Day" poster competition. He would be competing with twenty extremely talented high school artists from all over the state. I sat him down with a box of markers, showed him the promotional materials from the event, and he began drawing. His first drawing was a beautiful rendition of the globe, with tall white columns all around it, and a collection of multi-cultural faces. He added some of his magazine-ready script, and he had the winning entry done in about twenty minutes.
      Corey was not really public appearance material, so his mother would not allow him to go accept his award. Disappointed, but understanding, I accepted a shiny plaque and the $100.00 prize for him.
      His mother and I, with our school's art teacher, brainstormed ways to spend the money on Corey. Art books? A day at Valley Fair, local amusement mega-park? New clothes? Markers and art paper?
      We chose an exquisite calligraphy set. Corey's mother felt he might be able to help them earn some extra money if he could create handmade monogrammed card sets. He loved to make ornate script letters, but they would be more marketable if they were not done with markers. She bought some high-quality plain cards from a stationery supplier and intended to have him make sets of cards. She would market them in packages of six or eight cards in boutiques around the city. It seemed like a good plan; entrepreneurial, but simple. Almost all the staff at the school bought some. They were really beautiful, but there was a serious problem. Corey started to balk at making them. He was, of course, unable to explain himself, but he made it quite clear; "No." "All done." These were bold self-assertions for an echolalic; his own brief opinions about this repetitive and uninspired task. He had done some to humor us, but this was not the way he wanted to express his art.
      In what seemed to be a dramatic protest, Corey drastically changed his style of drawing. He drew fewer small pictures and almost no script. He began drawing poster-sized illustrations of wild animals, which were subjects he had never done before. When my classroom moved temporarily to the basement of one of the high schools, the principal there insisted on purchasing a drawing of a cougar that Corey had done. He had it professionally framed, and placed it on the wall behind his desk. It looked like it had come from an expensive wildlife gallery. After we encouraged Corey to do a few more similar drawings of other wild animals, he caught on, and switched to pictures of farm animals and Native Americans.
      His mother realized what was going on with his efforts to undermine our joint efforts to commercialize his creativity, and she wisely put a stop to it all. She knew Corey better than anyone else. She realized that despite her (and our) well-intentioned efforts to help her only son find a way that would allow him to generate an income as an adult, Corey wanted no part of it. He just wanted to draw. He wanted to draw what he wanted, when he wanted, and he wanted everyone to stop taking it away from him and selling it.
      Lesson learned.
      Oh, did I mention the name of the school where I taught? The name of the school where Corey taught me this lesson?  The name is Emerson School, just east of Loring Park in Minneapolis.
     This school was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, that feisty mid-19th century champion of individualism and being true to your "nature".  That's all Corey really wanted to do. His caretaker and teachers wanted to make him into something special. He already was something special; he was Corey.
      Perhaps no one said it better than old Ralph Waldo Emerson himself, "It is easy to live for others, everyone does. I call on you to live for yourself."
      Over all the years I have been a teacher, and as a mother of five children, this lesson has perhaps been one of the most valuable. Kids are all different. A teacher cannot make a student into another student. Sure, you wish all your students could be bright, curious, enthusiastic, and, well, perfect. Guess what? Each student, each child; they are themselves. Our calling is to guide them to be the best "self" they can be. That's what we should be, and that's what we should encourage them to be. Well taught, Corey.