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.....