Saturday, June 29, 2013

I Not A Quitter...I Keep Walking

     So, have you ever had a blister on the bottom of your foot? On your heel? On your toes? Ever had blisters on the bottom of your foot, on your heel, AND on your toes, all at the same time?
     Well, if you haven't had this misfortune, just imagine it for a moment.....would you try to take all those blisters on a ten mile hike through the woods?
      This blog is about a student we called Rebby. He was in my class of students with intellectual challenges....about 30 years ago, so he would be 45 years old now. He lived in Minneapolis and Rebby was in the Boy Scout troop at our special school. Rebby had Down Syndrome. One of the characteristics of Down Syndrome is a gait characterized by foot shuffling/scuffing .....whatever you want to call it. Rebby did not pick up his feet very well when he walked. He got all the way to fifteen years old, and this gait never caused him many problems...maybe an occasional trip on a sidewalk crack, but nothing serious....until it came to the Many Point Trail badge that Rebby made up his mind to earn at Boy Scout camp..
        Every summer, I took about a dozen of our special needs Boy Scouts to Many Point Scout Camp in northern Minnesota. During the first two week trip up there, we learned a lot about the activities and opportunities available to  the scouts. The one that all the boys wanted to do was the Many Point Trail. This badge could only be earned by walking TEN miles on their special trail, in one day. Ha! Most of my students usually walked no further than from their house to their special school bus, which was parked right out in front.
        That first year, we did not attempt the ten mile hike. We knew we had to talk to parents and doctors first. Rebby was adamant. He wanted that badge. He pestered his parents; he got clearance from his doctor; and he was eager to go back the next summer.  We usually went scouting in August, because my students had five day a week of summer school/day camp in June and July. We decided to use those two months to build up some endurance for our attempt at the Many Point Trail  Badge. Rebby was pumped!
        Sadly, after the first day of summer school, with only a one-half mile practice walk, Rebby had a blister on his heel. The next day, he came with a big smile and a box of bandaids in his backpack. We went another half-mile, and Rebby had another blister on the bottom of his big toe. After about two weeks, be had worked our way up to a full two miles, and Rebby had bandaids all over his feet. Mom and Dad had purchased some hiking boots, and those really made an enormous difference. It really helped and his blisters slowly healed. He smiled all day long. He brought his water bottle with him every day. He had a bandanna in his back pocket, which he used for all the sweat that dripped from him as we plodded along in the bright sunshine. He just kept smiling. "Gonna earn my badge!" was his mantra, as he dragged those heavy boots farther and farther every day.
        By the time the we loaded the bus with our twelve Boy Scouts and four staff members, we felt they were ready for the Many Point Trail. It was about a six hour bus trip, by Greyhound, from Minneapolis to Detroit Lakes, MN, which was the nearest town to camp. Then we took one of those old, rickety scout camp school buses to our campsite. The boys were all tuckered out, so we sorted them out in their tents, prepared a simple meal of hot dogs with "fixings", gave them their night-time medications, and zipped them into their sleeping bags.
       Rebby was the first boy out of his tent in the morning. He was already dressed in his tan Boy Scout uniform. "Gonna earn my badge!" was the first thing out of his mouth. It was difficult, but I had to explain to him that we needed to have one practice day, and then we would take on the Many Point Trail on Wednesday. I told him to go put on his hiking boots, which were quite broken in by now, very comfortable, and ready to carry him the required distance.
      "No boot in my bag. Think they at home, on bed."  Oh hiking boots for Rebby. How was he going to hike ten miles in his tennis shoes?  He had blisters after one-half mile in June!
      "Well, we will practice today in your tennis shoes and maybe Mom can send those boots up here tomorrow," was my immediate suggestion.
       That did not work out at all. Mom and Dad had left for a vacation, and were already out of town. They would not be able to send the boots. Rebby was going to hike in his tennis shoes....the ones that gave him blisters on long walks.
       In Minneapolis, we had been walking on sidewalks and bike paths around the lakes, and they were pretty level. I had assumed that the trail at camp would be along the dirt roads that wound through the many acres of northern woods. Nope. At Many Point, I learned that we were going to be walking ten miles on paths through rugged woods, up pine tree covered inclines, along the slippery banks of the lake, across little creeks, and over rocks. The route had been set up many years ago, and was designed to be "challenging".
       We had pumped up the kids for this hike during June and July. We had to at least attempt it! The Scoutmaster who was helping us with all our other activities at camp said he planned to send two college-age Eagle Scouts with us on our hike. They would have a first aid kit, extra water, and moleskin with them.
       Moleskin? What was moleskin? It sounded creepy to me...but I was relieved to learn that it is a valuable treatment for dealing with blisters. It is sort of like a thick padded bandaid, with a hole cut in the middle. It surrounds the blister without covering it, and cushions it from further rubbing. We knew that Rebby would develop blisters and would most likely also refuse to quit until he finished the whole ten miles and earned his badge. Rebby was a pretty stubborn kid. He was otherwise cooperative and very sweet, but once he made up his mind about something, he stuck with it to the very end.
       So the day of the hike arrived. We started right after breakfast; about 8AM. Each boy had his lunch in his backpack; we expected to be finished in time for dinner, hopefully by 6PM. It was going to be a long day. Fortunately, the weather was going to be 70 degrees and overcast, neither heat nor rain were going to be a concern. Still, we estimated it would take us ten hours to walk ten miles.
      I cannot give you a blow-by-blow, mile-by-mile recollection of our hike. It was a long time ago, but I very plainly remember Rebby's statement as we reached each mile marker, "I not a quitter...I keep walking." Each mile, he repeated it. The Eagle Scouts kept a close eye on him, and at least five times they had to stop the group, remove Rebby's shoes, and apply more moleskin to newly formed blisters. Both feet, by the time we were done, were plastered with multiple patches of moleskin.
      Rebby was limping, but he never quit. Between the two final markers, Mile 9 and Mile 10, Rebby's fellow scouts cheered and sang to Rebby. They chanted and laughed; they were all dirty, exhausted, and sore, but they all marched on...every single on of them finished!
       When we got to the ten mile marker, the two Eagle Scouts picked Rebby up, using a four-handed "fireman's carry", and transported him all the way back to his tent. It was about a quarter of a miles from the finish. The camp nurse came and checked Rebby's feet. None of the blisters had broken, thanks to the moleskin.
       After dinner, we all gathered around the campfire and the Scoutmaster held a ceremony, presenting each scout with his Many Point Trail badge. Rebby cried. I cried. The Eagle Scouts cried. Rebby's friends cheered for him, and for themselves. The Eagle Scouts and I received many hugs from all the boys. Within fifteen minutes after the ceremony, however, all the boys had received their bedtime medications, and they were all asleep on their cots. I needed no medication... I just collapsed on my cot; I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
       To this day, the hike on the Many Point Trail is on my life's Top Ten Moments list.
       To this day, I remember the lesson I learned from Rebby on that trail. Never give up on yourself.
       I have always had "Never Give Up On Anyone" printed on my teacher business cards. It's a tag line on my email signature. I have a poster of it hanging in my classroom. Rebby did a little change-up on my motto! He changed "anyone" to "yourself". What is the difference? Doesn't "anyone" include yourself?
        For me, I had always been focused on others; my friends, my family, my students. I had been through a divorce, my mother was very ill, and I had a stressful job (even though I loved it, it was very challenging). I was constantly going to the wine bottle in my refrigerator. That part was a little scary, but I was more worried about everyone else.
         I don't know exactly how, but going through this experience with Rebby changed my life. I felt more confident. I made mental lists of all the things I was doing right. I discovered I could manage my life and not feel twinges of panic all the time. I was able to relax, without the wine, but when things got tough for a while, I found I mentally braced myself and got strong enough to deal with it all. "I not a quitter" echoed in my brain.
        It still does. Thanks, Rebby!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"LuLu Down Now."

         LuLu was a real sweetheart. She was a slightly built, seventeen-year-old girl with Down Syndrome, who had a most charming and delicate way of gesturing with her hands. Many times when I watched her, she almost looked like a ballerina posing. She mostly used sign language to communicate, but she did have a few simple words and commands to make her needs known.
        Whenever we had to go somewhere in the school building, or even outside the building, if LuLu went with us, we always had to allow quite a bit of extra time to get where we were going. Most of the severely intellectually challenged kids we taught moved slowly, except for John (in my previous post), so we usually crept along....... but eventually got where we were headed.
        LuLu made the treks even longer. Serious heart problems plagued her frail body, and she had amazingly developed an automatic compensation strategy. When her body figured out that her heart was not able to pump enough blood to her upper body, she instantly dropped to a squat. I would hear, "LuLu down now!" and know we were all going to stop in our tracks until she felt ready to proceed.
        The school nurse explained that this response was most likely LuLu's body recognizing it did not have enough oxygen for her to keep going, and perhaps she even felt a little dizzy. By folding her body up in a squat, LuLu was able to better utilize the limited oxygen, reserving less of it for her lower body and more of it for her upper body and brain. Many times, several of her friends would squat next to her and pat her on the back, their way of showing their support and human compassion. A group of students squatting on the sidewalk always got a few puzzled looks from strangers, if we were on a hike over to Loring Park, but it never really bothered us.

          It was usually less than five minutes and LuLu was upright and moving forward again. She always had a smile on her sweet, little pale face and never failed to add, "Thanks, all better."  Depending on how far we were walking, she might have to squat one or two times, but she always knew when it was time. LuLu knew her limit. She was in touch with her body, or maybe LuLu's body was in touch with her.....either way, when it was time for a break...she took one. She would just drop to the floor. Bam. Squat.  "LuLu down now."

          LuLu was a genius, really. We should all be as wise or in tune with ourselves as LuLu was. What if we could automatically know when it was time to quit?
         Too much work or stress? Take a break!

         Got your energy back? Get busy again!

         Too much fun? Had enough to drink? Stop!

          Too much to eat? Go for a walk!

          Angry...going to explode?  Take a break. Say a prayer.

          We all need something to aspire to, I suppose. I am going to keep trying to take a lesson from LuLu. I used to over-do a lot of the time. I'd just keep going and keep going, until I was completely exhausted. I'd like to think it's maturity and wisdom that has made me slow down, but it's probably just old age. Either way, "Terri down now."


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Upside Down On The Trunk Of A Police Car

        John was another student of mine, at Emerson School, who had come out of a Minnesota state institution. He had a strange last name; a French name. You don't hear many of those in Minneapolis; just lots of Olsons, Johnsons, and Petersons. John smiled a lot. His skin was a very yellowish color...he did not look like a healthy fourteen-year-old, but the special group home where he lived assured us it was only due to all the prescription medications John took.

         Cognitively, he was quite low-functioning. What he lacked in natural intellect, however, he more than made up for in energy. He was the epitome of perpetual motion. Even when John was medicated, and on his best day, the 1:1 classroom helper assigned to him was constantly on the run. Literally, on the run. John was quick and he was cagey. If something caught his interest, he would find a way to get to it; the fastest way possible. My daughter had been like that, and when she started walking at the age of nine months (running at ten months), I bought a cute little pink canvas harness for her, with a leash on it. I was already expecting our son, so it was the only way I could keep up with her and make sure she was safe. Hindsight tells me that we should have had a harness for John.

         One of the best things about teaching in Minneapolis was all the lakes and parks. There was a beautiful lake in Loring Park, only a block from our school, but it didn't have the ice cream counter and fishing dock like Lake Calhoun did. So, our end-of-the-year picnic, with the class of my teacher-friend Brian, was always at Lake Calhoun.

        About thirty teenagers with intellectual challenges and pretty close to a dozen staff headed to Lake Calhoun in a caravan of school vans. We had fishing poles in the back of one, along with our picnic lunch and some outside game equipment...including the large colorful parachute the kids loved to bounce playground balls on. It was our first public outing with John. Just to be sure we could keep track of him at the lake, it was decided to have Brian and the associate "double-team" John.

         Everything was going quite smoothly and as planned. After all, Brian and I were experienced picnic planners; we would play some games, do a little fishing, eat lunch, get ice cream, and then load a bunch of exhausted kids back into the vans.

         I was in line with some of my students to get ice cream, when I heard a big splash, then another big splash immediately followed. I turned around, towards the lake, just in time to see John's 1:1 associate flailing in the water on the south side of the dock, and Brian was on the north side of the dock...also in the water. He had pushed them both into the lake! John was running back up the dock, towards the ice cream stand. As he approached, I could tell he was not going to stop; he appeared to be rushing straight past us..... toward a busy four-lane Lake Street, a well-traveled thoroughfare going past the north side of the lake.

          I grabbed an ice cream cone from a nearby student and ran after John, thinking I could convince him to stop his escape by offering him a treat. It worked! He heard me hollering. "Ice cream, John! Ice cream!", and screeched to a halt at the entrance to the parking lot. I caught up with him and handed him the drippy cone.

           John had just started licking it when he saw Brian and the associate, dripping wet, striding toward us. He started to run again, but I quickly grabbed his shirt. Brian used his most soothing voice to assure John that he was not angry. We really didn't want him to take off again. I transferred my grip from his shirttail to his belt, just to have a little better control. John seemed to settle down and once again he became intent on consuming the ice cream.

         We started walking him back to the group. I let go of his belt so he could hold hands with the associate. They were a great match of student/staff and it was a child/parent sort of hand holding. We three adults were talking as the four of us walked; John was closest to the parked cars. I looked over at John, and the ice cream cone was gone. I looked back and did not see it on the ground, so I figured he had wolfed it down. Wrong.

          Just as we got back to the curb of the parking lot, we saw a Minneapolis police car back out a space in the lot. John also looked, screamed, "WAIT", and broke free from the handhold of the associate. The officer did not hear him, and proceeded to pull out of the lot and into the street. That was when we saw what had happened to John's ice cream cone....for some reason, John had turned it upside down on the trunk of the police car!                              
          John broke into a record-breaking sprint to retrieve his cone...right down the street! Brian was the fastest of the three of us, so he took off after John. The associate and I ran to get one of the vans, in case Brian was not fast enough to catch John. Luckily, Brian was able to catch up with John and once again gain control of him by grabbing his belt. Our staff had all been trained in safe ways to restrain students who were in danger of hurting themselves or others, so Brian switched from the belt grasp to a cross-armed type of bear hug from which even a very squirmy John could not escape.

        When I pulled up next to them in the van, Brian had been able to lower John onto the sidewalk, and was trying to get him to relax, but John was becoming more and more frantic, screaming loudly for his ice cream and thrashing all over the sidewalk. The associate and I joined Brian in trying to soothe John and quiet him down.     

        It was just after noon, and the Uptown area of Minneapolis was bustling with folks having lunch in the cozy cafes and sidewalk patios. We were quite a spectacle. After about five minutes, it became apparent that we needed to get John into the van and back to school. He was totally out of control.

         Then I remembered the parachute…maybe it was still in the back seat! I retrieved it, with its rainbow of brightly colored panels. We unfolded it as quickly as we could, scooted one edge under John, and rolled him up in it like a taquito. His head stuck out of the end. He was bundled as tightly as a nursery-blanketed newborn and in less than a minute, he went from screeching to calm; then to a smiling serenity.

       “Ice cream?” he asked sweetly.

      “We’re going back to school, John. We’ll get ice cream there. You just relax, okay?”


      We heard a smattering of applause from the street side bistro tables. All I could think about was how long it was going to take me to write up the incident report for this fiasco. Brian drove the twenty or so blocks back to school, dropped off the three of us, and then drove back to the lake to help retrieve the rest of the students. The policeman must have been oblivious to what was going on behind him, because he never stopped. I have always wondered what he thought when he found the ice cream mess on his trunk.

        So, the lesson is all about preparation. Two things I always try to have close by: a good team and a big parachute. Not literally of course, but figuratively, for sure. Everyone needs a few other people they can depend on, and they also need a "Plan B". Plan A does not always go as planned and sometimes the result takes more than one person to clean up.
       Also, if you are lucky, the police don’t get involved.