Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Salad Meltdown Lesson

        This is exactly what Kathy looked like. She was an extremely angry, explosive little girl. She was sixteen, and tiny; just 4'9" tall. She was perfectly proportioned, very curvaceous, and she really, really, really liked attention from boys. She had classic Minnesota Norwegian coloring: blonde hair, blue eyes, and creamy white skin. Kathy was quite pretty, intellectually challenged, and mentally ill. We struggled daily with her wardrobe, which was always sexually provocative, and with her makeup, which was always more appropriate for clubbing than for school. She had a sweet little bell-like voice and could be delightfully charming. When she became angry, the screams that came out of her mouth could shatter wine glasses. Her second language was profanity.
        My classroom had been moved from Emerson, the special school where I taught, to a regular Minneapolis high school. My students were the highest functioning in the special program, so we were selected to "transition" for the purpose of normalizing their social skills. None of them had academic skills high enough to include in the regular classes, but we were to be in the hallways, the lunchroom, and the physical education classes with the other students. Hindsight has told me it was a huge miscalculation to include Kathy in this project.
        The first indication that Kathy was going to have difficulty came at the end of the initial week of our inclusion in the school.. I was called to the counselors' office on Friday afternoon. Miss Elliot, the lead counselor, informed me there were several accounts from young men who had their rear-ends pinched in the hallways near our classroom. The reports were all similar: the boys felt a pinch as they were walking, and when they turned around, they saw a short blonde girl running away. Guess who?
        I was not surprised, but I pretended to be. I had talked, explained, role-played, and "laid down the law" with Kathy for weeks before we left the security of Emerson. She knew better, but she simply could not help herself when it came to touching the boys. There had been one or two pinching incidents in my room before, but she was not very earnest about going after the boys in my class. Most of them looked handicapped, and she was not at all interested in them as boyfriend material. She had created her fantasy sweetheart from photos in the magazine Seventeen. Being in this regular school, full of normal red-blooded boys, football players, basketball players, and wrestlers, was a male smorgasbord for Kathy.
        The counselor and I spoke with Kathy the following Monday morning. No more hallway pinching. Her reward would be that she could continue to be in the hall during passing time. Her negative consequence, if the incidents continued, was loss of hallway time. She agreed. Monday, there were no incidents; Tuesday, there were no incidents. Wednesday afternoon, I was summoned to see Miss Elliot again. There had been four more reports of fanny-pinching....this time in the lunchroom.
      I promised the counselor I would talk with Kathy again, and she would not be eating in the lunchroom or using the hallways during passing times until we had the pinching under control. This was a relatively new behavior for Kathy, so I had no idea how long that would be. Kathy was basically "grounded" to our room. She was not happy.
      "I need to see the boys! I need to see the boys!", she whined and argued. "I promise I won't do it any more!", she added, stomping her feet several times, like she was putting out a fire, and adding a string of expletives.
      I explained that she and I would eat lunch together in our room on Thursday and Friday. Then we would talk about her going to the lunchroom, under supervision, the next Monday. Rumors about "a crazy little blonde chick" were flying around the school. We needed to lower our profile for a few days.
      Kathy wanted a salad for lunch and she wanted Ranch dressing. My classroom associate went to the lunchroom to get the salad, brought it back to the room, and set it on my desk while Kathy and I were in the restroom washing our hands. We came back to the room. My associate had gone to take her lunch break, and I placed Kathy's salad on her desk. All hell broke loose.
     The associate had mistakenly gotten French dressing. Ranch/ was easy to see  how there could be a misunderstanding, especially with the way Kathy had been whining about having to eat in the room.
     The high-pitched screeching started. "I neeeeeeeeed Raaaannnnccchh! I don't want no fu#%*g French!  I neeeeeeeeed Raaaannnnccchh!" I tried to calm her. I put my arm around her, but she started crying.             
      "Kathy, Dorothy thought you said French. I'm sorry. You are going to have to either eat salad with French, or eat the salad without dressing."  There was no way I could take her to the lunchroom, in the condition she was in, and I couldn't go get Ranch dressing and leave her in the room alone. Pre-cell phone days.
        There was absolutely no consoling her. Her voice went higher and higher.

       "I neeeeeeeeed Raaaannnnccchh! I don't want no fu#%*g French!  I neeeeeeeeed Raaaannnnccchh!"

        She got louder and louder. She threw herself on the floor. I moved the desks out of the way when she started rolling around and kicking her feet and pounding her clenched little fists on the wooden floor. She was shrieking, crying pitifully, cussing, screaming for Ranch dressing, and was totally out of control. Tears were streaming down her bright red face. I could see no way of stopping this. That tiny girl was making an enormous ruckus about Ranch dressing.
       A few teachers peeked in the door, but I waved them out again. No one needed to see her like this. My classroom associate, Dorothy, heard what was going on in our classroom, so she picked up our other students from the lunchroom and took them outside for a walk.
      Kathy kicked, pounded, shrieked, and cried for thirty minutes. I went to my desk after about ten minutes and turned on the tape recorder. I had never seen or heard anything like this. It was like a really bad tantrum a small child might have, and then fall asleep sobbing. That is exactly what Kathy did; after a half hour, she fell asleep on the floor. Salad untouched. Teacher astounded. Student asleep.
       I went to the door, motioned for a passing student, and sent her to go get the school nurse to come to my room. The nurse brought a blanket and a pillow. We gently moved Kathy, who awakened only momentarily, to a cot in the back of the room. She was soaking wet with sweat. We covered her with the blanket, I pulled our portable room divider around the cot, and Kathy slept soundly for the rest of the afternoon. The other students returned and we finished our classes for the day.
       When she awoke, she remembered very little of what had happened at lunch. She said she was hungry and ate her salad, with no dressing. Instead of putting her on the special school bus, I drove her home. All the way to her house, she repeatedly apologized for pinching boys. She didn't really recall what had happened at lunch, but she thought it had to do with her pinching boys. She said she didn't like the way she felt...not being able to remember what happened. I didn't tell her everything she did, thinking it was best not remembered.
       I did tell her she was going to be eating lunch in the room on Friday and she was fine with that. I had to write an incident report. I played the tape I had recorded for Dr. Haider, my principal at Emerson. He looked so sad as he listened to just a minute or two of it. He understood there was no comforting her. Dr. Haider said he was sorry I had to experience that, and he was especially sad for Kathy.
       Kathy's Friday lunch was uneventful; she and I started repairing our relationship.We talked about how touching boys was not a good idea. It wasn't what girls did at school. We sat together in the lunchroom all the next week and watched the other girls in the school. We observed no girls pinching boys, and really very little other touching. Kids still had boundaries then.
        Kathy returned to the halls and the lunchroom without incident. Just to be sure, my associate followed her, at a distance, for about a month, and Kathy did just fine.
        We never discussed the tantrum over Ranch dressing after that. That dressing was really not part of the equation. But, it certainly wasn't the pinching issue that set it off either. What it was is one of the most horrific classroom incidents in all of my years of teaching.
       About three months after this happened, shortly after Christmas Break, the school social worker discovered that Kathy was being sexually abused by a sixteen year old stepbrother. It had been going on for almost two years. He was prosecuted and sent to a juvenile institution.
       Well, that explained a lot; her overtly-sexual behavior, her low frustration level, and her memory loss. The school psychologist said that the "salad meltdown" she had was probably  a mechanism to help Kathy vent her feelings about the abuse.
        Kathy was a tough little girl. She was a tragic victim. She had survived her trauma admirably, given her limited intellectual ability. She deserved so much better.  Her response to counseling was positive, but there is never a good outcome when a child like Kathy is abused like that.
        I teach in an all-girl classroom now. It is my fifth year with only female students, and I am still learning. My girls are strong/fragile. Intelligent/gullible. Brave/vulnerable. They have all had trauma of various kinds in their young lives. We press on together, looking for their future. I try to teach them to be prepared for whatever opportunities may be presented to them in the years ahead. Their caseworkers and counselors from Orchard Place and Child Guidance provide tremendous support for them and their families, and for me. I have not had anything close to a "salad meltdown" with any of them, but we do still have our "moments".
        We tell the girls that whatever "issues" they bring to the room, we will help them deal with them. I strive to foster a positive, nurturing learning environment.
        What I learned from Kathy is part of this nurturing. I now know that a child may have an obvious disability (usually a behavior disability in my room), but that disability is not necessarily their biggest problem.  A student might say that "this" is what's wrong, but it may really be "that", and they might not even realize it how are the adults supposed to figure it out? Hmmmm, I guess that's why I can't wait to get to school every morning.