Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Chocolate Milk and Burning Garages

"No legacy is so rich as honesty." - William Shakespeare 

           Dale, one of my students in Minneapolis, appeared to be the freckle-faced red-haired boy that my mother always said she wanted when she had a son. That didn't happen; she got me, a blonde, blue-eyed girl. I told her about Dale once, and she confirmed for me that she was glad she didn't give birth to him. Together, we prayed for Dale's mother.
           Reflecting on this young man, I have recently decided that the school year I spent working with Dale was the equivalent of an extra year of a college education. He helped me prepare for so many of the students who followed him into my classroom in the future. Lots of people who are not in education assume that all intellectually challenged students are pretty much the same. They assume that these kids are not as smart as other kids, so even though they may be "more work" in the classroom, they probably are not as complicated as your average teenager. FALSE!
          Dale was one of the most complicated students I have ever had. He appeared to be an average sixteen year old. He wore braces, walked fast, talked fast, and ate like a pig. He wasn't overweight, but still had a thin layer of "cush" on his body and face. His round impish face was often red and flushed, like he just ran a mile, or was terribly embarrassed. He dressed quite neatly, usually in jeans and the plaid shirts that were so popular in the mid-1970s.
          Where do I start? He fidgeted with his hands incessantly. They were always moving, as were his eyes. Dale looked like he thought he was being watched every minute, and he wanted to see who was watching him. He behaved as though he was afraid of being accused of something....and he looked guilty all the time. When something suspicious would happen in my room, I often wondered if it could be Dale, but I never was able to pin anything on him. He always denied it and usually had a good story to back up his pleas of innocence.
         The first time I actually caught him doing something is a moment I will never forget. I can picture it in my mind like it happened yesterday, not thirty years ago.
          Our school cooks kept all the cartons of milk for the students in a large cooler, in a small room off the kitchen. This room had a door going into the kitchen, and another door going into the school gymnasium/cafeteria. The cooks were in the kitchen all day, from the time school started until about an hour before the students went home. They had been noticing some of the cartons of chocolate milk were missing, and figured out that the only time someone could be stealing the milk was in the hour between the time they left and the time the school buses came to pick up the students. We lined up all the students in the gym to wait for their buses every afternoon, and somehow one (or more) of them was sneaking into that room and getting into the cooler to take the milk. That should not have been hard to stop. But it was. Dale was clever.
          Dale would line up for his bus with other kids from his side of Minneapolis. He would slip out of line by asking to use the restroom. The restroom door was just around the corner from the cafeteria, so he would be allowed to go on his own. Apparently, he never actually went to the restroom. He would go out the door to the hallway, run down the hall and come back in the door at the other end of the cafeteria. He would pinch or hit one of the non-verbal students, lined up waiting for their bus, at that end of the cafeteria, and they would begin to yell. Dale would then duck out into the hall again, race down to the kitchen door, and cut through there into the room with the milk cooler in it. He would gulp down a couple of cartons of chocolate milk, and then come out to line up for his bus again. With the staff distracted by the pinched student at the other end of the cafeteria, Dale could get back in his bus line without being seen. Quite a devious plan.
           I only figured this out because I had stepped out the back door of the cafeteria to look for the buses one day, so I missed the commotion Dale created at the far end of the cafeteria. When I walked back into the school, I observed Dale in the milk room, with chocolate milk dripping out of both corners of his mouth. Confronting him was one of the most disturbing and surreal events in my career.  I think it is in a three-way tie with The Salad Meltdown Lesson (3/21/13) and Rosemary's Shower (2/23/13).
          "Dale, what's in the hand behind your back?"
          "Dale, please show me what's in your hand."
           He showed me the empty chocolate milk carton. He insisted he did not take it. He insisted he did not drink it. When I asked him about the mild dripping down his face, he used his sleeve to make it disappear, and kept insisting he did not take or drink any chocolate milk.
          Yes, I had caught him, practically in the act. There was no reasonable explanation for how the carton got in his hand and how the milk came to be dripping down his face, except the observable fact that he stole the milk and drank it. Yet, he denied it.
         "I didn't do anything," he said. He put the carton down on the cooler and walked out to his place in the school bus line.
         "Dale, I saw the carton. You had milk in your mouth. You took the milk."
         "I didn't do anything."

         What kind of circumstances or life experiences lead up to such an exchange? The term 'pathological liar' popped into my head. Actually, that term can be interchanged with 'compulsive liar' and 'habitual liar'.
It has been defined as "falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and complicated, and happen over a period of years, or perhaps a whole lifetime."
          Dale may have been aware he was lying, or he may have believed he was telling the truth. Not a lot of research has been done, but one study supposes a rate of one in 1,000 juvenile offenders. Dale did not have a criminal juvenile history.....yet. The average age of onset  for this kind of chronic lying  is sixteen years. Forty percent of cases also involved some central nervous system abnormality, and I would suppose Dale's intellectual disability fell into that category.
           It's a mental illness. Uncommon, difficult to explain, and most likely it was going to create lifelong problems for Dale. We would just have to watch him carefully. Very carefully. The social worker agreed, and Dale was escorted everywhere he went in the building.
            Then the fires started.
            They were always early in the morning, always a garage, and in Dale's neighborhood. The police, the fire department, and the neighbors were stymied.
            Then one day, after about eight garage fires in a three week period, Dale came into my classroom, with a distinct odor of gasoline on his clothes. He said he was helping his dad at the gas pump and over-filled the tank; some gasoline had splashed out onto his pants. I knew he was lying about it, because he lived with his mother. His father didn't even live in Minnesota.
            It just made me sick. I had a horrible feeling that Dale was involved in the fires. They were so dangerous. A flaming garage could set a house on fire. Eventually, someone was going to get hurt.
           I took Dale down to the social worker's office. I explained to her what I thought was going on. She called the police and she called Dale's mother. Officers came to talk to Dale. They took him home, spoke with his mother, and searched Dale's house and garage. They found evidence in Dale's bedroom and outside his window that indicated Dale had been crawling in and out of the window. Dale's mother confessed that she had seen him sneaking back in the window on two mornings when there had been garage fires. Dale was arrested. Of course, he completely denied everything, and he had elaborate stories to explain it all.
           His mother's testimony, along with the evidence from the house and the garage, convicted Dale. He was tried in juvenile court, not as an adult, because of his severe mental disability. His mother agreed to have him sent to a state mental institution. Dale was going to be held there, at least until he was twenty-five, or until it could be declared that he was no longer a danger. He was sent to a place where he was going to be able to get some help that he desperately needed.
           I have wondered for many years about Dale. His bold, blatant lies still haunt me. We have probably all been told lies, to our face, that we immediately know are not true at all. It is frustrating, but we deal with it by ferreting out the truth and shining the light on it. Still, even with the truth exposed, it hurts our hearts that someone would try to deceive us. With Dale's "condition", it seems like he was not really capable of telling the truth. It doesn't sound right to me, but Dale couldn't help but tell lies. Some of his lies were to keep himself out of trouble. Some of his lies were to make himself seem more grand than he really was. Dale told some lies because he opened his mouth and out came anything but the truth. On top of all that, he was a pyromaniac.
         Could he have told the truth if he had wanted to? Why keep lying if there is nothing to be gained by it? How frustrating is it to hear a lie that you know is a lie, and you also know that the person lying will get absolutely no benefit from lying to you? Are they lying just to lie? Just to get one over on you?
           If the only answer was, "It's a mental illness. There is no understanding it," then it was even worse. In my mind, it was like having a doctor's note for lying. "Please excuse Dale. He has a good reason for lying and you cannot hold him responsible. Oh, and he sets fires, too. Can't help that either." What?
           OK, I can deal with the mental illness part...I am older now. It seemed like a lame explanation for despicable behavior when I was younger. Lying was already one of my pet peeves, and then I met Dale, who had a doctor's note to do it. Grrrrr. Lying was a serious flaw in your personal character....that's how I was raised.  Experience has now taught me there are cases like this, and I cannot waste time fussing over them. He couldn't help it. Over the past thirty years, I have had many students with a variety of mental health issues in my classroom. They have enough problems without being blamed for their mental illness. No one chooses it.
         However....lying is harmful, no matter what the circumstance. It harms the person who tells the lie and it harms the person who is told the lie. The argument has been made repeatedly for "little white lies" being allowed.. Ugh.

          A person who will lie about the little things will lie about the important things.
          Honesty in little things is not a little thing.
          Just tell the truth.
          I REALLY try to impress this on every student I get in my classroom.

          This is when I wish everyone was older, like me. If I were to tell a lie, I would probably forget that I told it, and also forget WHO I told. The trouble would start then. Who did I tell? What did I tell them? What did I tell this other person? Oh my memory is just too poor to tell any lies. I couldn't possibly keep them straight.
        One of the richest men in Des Moines spoke at a Drake University graduation that I attended. He said the NUMBER ONE RULE in life, is to tell the truth; in your personal life, in your professional life, in all your relationships. Tell the truth.
        Try hard. Unless you are one in 1,000, you have no doctor's note.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Lead, Not Diamonds, on the Soles of Her Shoes

            Remember those ridiculous inflatable punching clowns you bought for your kids when they were young? They were so much fun because they never stayed down! That goofy red-lipped clown would bounce right back up in your face, ready for the next punch! Hold that image in your mind while I tell you about Bonnie.

        Bonnie was a student in my Minneapolis classroom. She was born with cerebral palsy and was also intellectually challenged. She was a tall and very slim wisp of a girl. When she wore green, she resembled a blade of grass...that's how thin she was. And the height, from my point of view, is always an advantage. At 5'9", I always tell people I would rather be taller than shorter.
       For Bonnie, her height was a distinct disadvantage.  It made her beanpole-like frame even more unstable than it normally would have been. Her muscular control, because of her condition, gave Bonnie a wobbly and teetering gait. She had been unable to walk without tipping over until she was about five years old. Her wise parents decided to try a technique that would keep her out of a wheelchair for the rest of her life; they put lead weights on the bottom of her shoes.
      As you know, lead is extremely heavy. One cubic inch weighs over one-third of a pound. So, a piece of lead about the size of a standard dry-erase marker would weigh a pound. That's a hefty marker! Now, imagine having someone put about four pounds of lead on the bottom of each of your shoes. It would surely slow you down, but it would also be terribly difficult to tip you over!
       Picture this tall, very thin girl, taking slow steps with heavy weights on the bottom of her shoes. She still rocked side to side, appearing as though she might tip over, but she never did. The way Bonnie was able to drag her iron-soled saddle shoes across the floor made it seem as though the floor was magnetized. Gravity was her friend as she lurched forward. Bonnie never complained, even though each step was obviously a monumental struggle. She was upright and independently mobile; mission accomplished. To paraphrase Paul Simon's song:

She's got lead on the soles of her shoes.
Well, that's one way to lose 
These walking blues.
Lead on the soles of your shoes. 

       Problem solved! End of this brief blog?  Not quite.

       The heaviness of Bonnie's shoes make me think of the weight of whatever it is that holds each of us in our "place"; our "anchor", so to speak. What keeps us from toppling over and crashing to the floor? I like to think I'm "grounded", but when I really pause for a moment, I start to consider the possibilities. Am I?  It feels like it.
        Seldom, if ever, do I get that overwhelmed feeling that used to come when I was younger. When I thought I had to say "yes" to everyone else. When I thought I had to do everything by myself and when it all had to be done perfectly. Oh yeah...that kind of thinking is not an's more like a ball and chain. Now, I have become more like that silly clown who never stays down.

        What grounds me now is simple....a family I adore, a job I love, and knowing I am a child of God.
It's just that basic. Although your "lead" may be something different than mine, usually simpler is better. 
Almost as easy as putting lead on the bottom of a teetering young lady's shoes. Who knew?  What anchors you?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Looking Past The Scars

      I debated with myself about whether or not to include a photograph with this post. I settled for Mel Gibson in the movie, The Man Without A Face. I looked online for images of burned faces and I found some that were less scarred than Mel and some were more scarred....more like the face of my former student Jeffrey. Jeffrey's facial features were barely recognizable, and his whole head was scarred; he could not grow hair on his head. He was a teenage boy wearing a terrible wig.  There was one image I found online that looked very much like him, a wig perched on top of the scarred skull, but I simply could not force myself to represent him like he looked on the outside. His "inside" was what was really exceptional about Jeffrey.
     Jeffrey was a physician's son. When he was four years old, there was a fire in their house. A frightened little Jeffrey hid under his bed, was difficult to find, and although he survived, he was grotesquely scarred for life...on the outside.
       On the inside, he was the "Jeff" in my earlier post about Wendy,  I'm Going to Marry Jeff, & We're Going to Get a Poodle! , posted 4/7/13.  Wendy, as I wrote (and I hope you have already read), did not live long enough to marry Jeffrey, but he was definitely the "marrying kind". He was wonderful kid who had a seriously life-changing bad break. His intellectual functioning had been normal for a four-year-old before the fire, but that changed drastically. There seemed to be no definitive explanation; it could have been post-traumatic stress, or perhaps brain damage due to lack of oxygen to his brain during the fire. His diminished capacity could have been a combination of factors, but whatever the cause, Jeffrey was in my special class in our special school.
      Many of the students in my class did not look "normal", for a variety of reasons. Kids like Scott, in the post "Silence Is Not Always Golden", or Troy in the post "Wanna See My Fried Egg Face?",  are two examples. Scott looked average, but his disability caused him to present himself in an out-of-ordinary manner. Troy was a student with Downs syndrome, so he appeared physically different. Well, Jeffrey didn't look intellectually challenged, just horribly disfigured....on the outside.
      However, the inside of Jeff was charming, kind, and very gentlemanly. He took school seriously, but he knew how to have fun. His scarred limbs somewhat inhibited his full physical inclusion in Special Olympic athletics and regular playground activities, but he always made a sporting effort to participate as much as he could. He was curious and had a tremendous work ethic. He took much pride in achieving all his IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) goals. He loved working in the woodshop as much as his beloved Wendy did.
       My fondest memory of Jeffrey is from one of the weekly trips that a fellow teacher and I took to the Minneapolis Farmer's Market. This market was held daily, Monday through Saturday. We would leave pretty early and walk our students nearly a mile from our downtown school to the market on the near north side of town.  Farmers would back their trucks up to the long, raised cement slabs and put out boxes of their fresh produce. It was always a busy place, and in the fall, there were almost always several elementary school groups there for a field trip.
        One fine fall day, we got to the market and there was only one shiny yellow school bus there. The children getting off the bus appeared to be kindergartners...also fresh and shiny, very new to school, and probably on their first field trip. They seemed a bit unruly, compared to our experienced and well-trained adolescents.
        As the little students lined up in their field trip "buddy pairs", I noticed a couple of them were pointing at Jeffrey. They weren't laughing, just pointing, and actually looking a bit frightened. Jeffrey's looks could have that effect, especially on young children. On our other trips to the market, it was not unusual for students to stare, but that day it was more serious than staring. Jeffrey also noticed them eyeing him.
       He made a U-turn and walked right up to them. Their teacher was at the bus door, and suddenly realized that she was farther away from her students than she wanted to be. I quickly followed Jeff, not knowing what his reaction might be. He had never been confrontational before. The two children took a step back, and Jeffrey stopped in front of where they had been standing. By now, many of the other "buddy pairs" were observing him.
         What came out of Jeffrey was amazing.
         In a strong and clear voice he said, "It's OK to stare at me. I look awful, but I can't help it. When I was little like you, my house caught on fire. I hid under the bed. If you are ever in a fire, make sure you get out. Get out fast. Don't hide under your bed."
         One of the pointers asked, "Does it hurt?"
         "No, it just looks bad."
         "I'm sorry."
         "It's OK, just don't hide if your house catches fire. Get out. Bye." Jeffrey turned and walked away, to catch up with our group.
          By this time, the kindergarten teacher had arrived. She just looked at me as I stood there. Jeffrey was gone.
          Kindergarten teacher asked, "Was there a problem?"
          "No problem", I proudly replied. "Jeffrey just gave some of your students an important lesson in fire safety. They can tell you about it."
         Kindergarten teacher said, "I don't know what to say."
         I answered, "Just promise me you'll make sure they remember this,"
         Kindergarten teacher, "I promise. Thank you."       

         I always took my two oldest children, Jenipher and Charles, to Emerson School during the school year, for occasions such as field days, open houses and Special Olympic activities. They were exposed to those two hundred intellectually challenged kids from the time they were about five and six years old, until we moved back to Iowa when they were twelve and thirteen. Jenny and Charlie played with them, talked to them, and spent time getting to know them. It didn't matter that they looked different, or spoke funny, or sometimes did just plain strange things. I taught my children that those students were so much more LIKE them, than they were UNLIKE them.
        What was important was what those students were like on the inside. They were adored by their parents, just like Jenny and Charlie were. They liked to tease and be teased. They laughed at jokes, and played jokes. These kids liked hugs, just like Jenny and Charlie. They were sad when their pet fish died. They liked to learn, and they liked to tell what they learned. That is exactly what Jeffrey did. He may have appeared to be the "r" word, but he had a very important lesson to share. And he did it very well.
        When I reported the farmers market incident to Jeffrey's parents, they were justifiably impressed. They already knew they had a very special kid; what Jeffrey looked like on the outside was gruesome to some, but not at all to them. What Jeffrey looked like on the inside was beautiful to everyone who took the time to get past the scars and get to know him. 
          That's all that really matters...with anyone...  Our "scars" might not be as obvious as Jeffrey's were, but we all have them. And we have lessons to give others, if they take the time to get to know us.
          I'm so glad I had time to get to know Jeffrey.



Friday, May 10, 2013

Robert Ate His Zipper Again!

    Kids do strange things. We adults laugh, make videos, and sent cute emails all the time about a myriad of weird situations children get themselves into. Here is that classic photo of the young man who got himself stuck in his school desk:

         But, sometimes kids do things that are not funny. I don't have a picture of Robert to post, but there is a picture of him scorched into my memory. It's not funny. It is heart-wrenching and haunting. Out of all the students I had in my classes at Emerson School in Minneapolis, Robert is probably the one whom it hurts the most to remember. I taught there for nearly ten years and his is the face I can picture most clearly. Too clearly.

       Robert was average height for a teenager, very thin, and had a shock of short blond hair that stood on end. With one hand, he ran his long bony fingers through his hair constantly, from all directions, so it tilted at different directions on a minute-by-minute schedule. Neither his hands nor his hair were ever very clean, except on the days we went swimming. It's painful to remember how he looked in his swim suit; like a skeleton. The reason Robert was so thin was related to his hyperactivity. He was in constant motion. His hands, his feet; even his shoulders were always moving. He must have burned a million calories per day. His movement was a bit unusual, though, because he pretty much stood still and moved. That is, he stayed in one spot, but his body was moving all the time.
        By far, the most compelling part of his movement was the way his wild, bright blue eyes constantly swerved back and forth, racing from one person or one object to another. His wild-eyed contact with us was maintained only for a micro-second, and then his eyes would dart to the floor for another micro-second. Robert had most likely been on the receiving end of some physical punishment.  I think this is why he stood in one spot instead of bouncing around the room like many hyperactive kids would do. He was trying to be unobtrusive; straining to physically “stay below the radar” of any adult who might be annoyed by him and his perpetual motion.
        Robert's most unusual manifestation of his over-activity was chewing on his clothes. Yes, chewing on his clothes, while he was wearing them.
       About twice every month, I had to rummage through the social worker’s closet of extra clothes, and get Robert another jacket. We had three recess periods per day, and we were in Minnesota. During the school year in that northern clime, from September to May, it is not usually very warm in Minneapolis, and kids would need to wear a coat or jacket outside at recess.
        Zipped or not, Robert would begin at the top and literally chew the zipper right out of the front of his coat. He would start on the upper right side, pulling it in between his teeth, gnawing at the stitching until he worked the top loose. Working his way down the right side, all the way to the bottom, he would furtively glance around to see if everything going on around him was safe, and then he would gnaw some more. His feet would be moving, one hand would be going through his hair, and the other hand was stuffing his jacket into his mouth while he chewed, chewed, and chewed.
        It usually took him a week or ten days worth of recesses to decimate the zipper. Then we would get another jacket for him. Why keep giving him another coat when we knew what he was going to do to it? Why not give him something else to chew on? Feed the kid, for crying out loud, if he was so skinny! Can't you teach him not to do that? Wasn't it wrecking his teeth?
       Well. of course we worked hard with our behavior modification specialists to teach him not to do that. Fail. We gave him plenty to eat......there seemed to be no acceptable substitute for the satisfaction he got from removing those zippers with his teeth. He absolutely would not tolerate a hoodie being pulled over his head. He was always so remorseful once his newest jacket was zipperless; he was always sincerely disappointed. Fortunately, his chewing was pretty much on the threads and fabric of his outerwear, so his teeth were fine.
         All this was complicated by Robert's lower intellectual capacity. His disability was severe. He could not help himself, and try as we might, we could not help him either. Everyone loved him. He harmed no one with his coat chewing. Robert was one of our most even-tempered students; he was cooperative in class. He waited his turn in lunch line; his peers liked him. His idiosyncrasy was distracting, but manageable, as long as the coat donations kept coming in.
        I'm not even going to try to describe what happened the time someone came up with the idea of putting him into a "snowmobile suit" for recess. As long as you know that those garments have a zipper that runs from the neck nearly all the way down to the knee, I will let you imagine how Robert dealt with that!

      Regardless of this interesting habit, Robert did everything else in pretty much the same fashion as all our other students. Sure, that one behavior was quirky, but it made interesting conversation. It became a challenge that we would present to new staff, as they joined us, to see if there were any new ideas for helping him. Regrettably, when he turned twenty-one, we helped him transfer to the group home/sheltered workshop program without solving this puzzle. He would be nearly fifty years old by now, and perhaps he is still chewing the zippers out of his coats.
       Robert reminds me of other people that I know, they don't gnaw their zippers....but they have quirky habits that usually harm no one but themselves. If I start listing examples, you will not take the time to think of your own, so I'm not going to give you any clues. You know these people; perhaps you are even one of them. You (or your friend or family member) do something odd, for some known or unknown reason, but it's dramatically different than the rest of the planet. Perhaps it has become a joke to tell at parties, or a family story, or a giggle at the water cooler in the office. It's just crazy...why would they do it like that?  Or maybe it is something that they DON'T do, that most of the rest of us do.
        If you take some time to think about these people you each know...does that really make them all that much different than the rest of us...or that different from Robert? Robert had lots of "different" things about him, but he was really more LIKE most kids, than unlike them. I want you to realize that this is a real truth. "Special" kids are really just kids. No matter what they chew on. So now, quit thinking about all those odd people you know...and appreciate everyone for how special they are.