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 now....no, 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.