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.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I'm Going to Marry Jeff, & We're Going to Get a Poodle!

        I had two young children of my own when Wendy was in my class. Her name and her personality reminded me of the mother in Peter Pan. My Wendy was a responsible, older-soul type of "mother hen" student. If you are a teacher, you know the kind. They want to make everything OK for everyone, all the time. You always get to check the boxes on their progress report:  "good relationships with peers" and "good relationships with adults". Except for Wendy's significant intellectual challenges, I might have hired her to babysit for my kids.
         Wendy did not look like a special education student in any way. She was average height and weight. She had medium length, curly brown hair and brown eyes. If you had seen her on the street, you would never have suspected she had serious mental challenges. She had a sprinkle of freckles on her full pink cheeks and a few across her nose...she was a pretty girl.
         If she had been a regular high school girl, Wendy would have been an honor student, a cheerleader, and on the student council. In addition to all that, she probably would have played a sport or two and been in the band; probably a volunteer at the local nursing home, also. Wendy was high energy and all smiles. This made it all the more difficult when she would slam down on the floor in a full-blown grand mal seizure.
         More than a few students at Emerson School had epilepsy. In this special school, I would estimate about 10-15% of the student  body had this condition. Most had it pretty much under control. Now, in the 21st century, the field of medicine has improved medication tremendously and has even developed surgery that can help. Wendy's epilepsy was not very well controlled. She usually had one or two seizures every week. She did not like to wear the standard helmet to protect her skull, but knew it was the rule, so she followed it. My classroom was on the third floor and I was always afraid she might have a seizure while we were on the stairs, so I stayed close to her on the way up and down.
         Wendy was a good student. I taught her how to count money, make change, write her name in cursive, and how to tell time. She made a bed like a professional maid and did as well in woodshop class as any of the boys. She excelled in the home economics program; at the age of sixteen she was allowed to help the school cooks as a "kitchen intern". Wendy would not need to be in a sheltered workshop the rest of her life. She was headed toward a career in a minimally-supervised normal work situation.  She always said she wanted to get married, and had even picked out her man, another student named Jeff. They rode the same yellow bus and Jeff liked her, too. Wendy hoped they could have a nice apartment and get a poodle. 
        Sadly, none of this was meant to be. I am putting all the blame on epilepsy. Not a happy ending. Sudden and abrupt. Wendy's not at school today. Principal called me to the office. No more Wendy. She had a seizure in her sleep. It couldn't be helped. No one was with her. Wendy choked and died. I went back to class.    
       When one of your young students dies, a teacher is devastated. There is nothing the teacher could have done to prevent it. It is terribly sad, and frustrating, and the loss is felt for a long time. As one of "your" students, they become a part of your life. You mourn, but you must carry on for your other students. You never forget them. When I think about Wendy, with her story cut so short, I'm still so very sad.