Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Long Walk to School

A year ago Vernon had just turned four and would not walk into the classroom. Every morning his parents pushed, pulled and carried him into the room only to leave him on the floor where he fussed dramatically at my feet until they left begging him to please 'be good, have a good day at school." On one occasion Vernon  plopped himself onto the sidewalk in the parking lot, refusing to budge. Dad called mom from home, and mom joined dad on the sidewalk begging, pleading and attempting to bribe Vernon to please just get up and walk. A bystander alerted me to the drama unfolding in the parking lot and I walked outside to find Vernon on the pavement, rocking back and forth crying, his parents helpless on either side of him.  I crouched down next to him and said to him firmly, calmly "Vernon, we really need you in school. Time to stand up and walk with me." "Okay, Miss. Amy,"replied Vernon. He stood up, grabbed my outstretched hand and waved goodbye to his parents.

It is a long walk sometimes isn't it? I think about that moment, all three adults surrounding him on the pavement in that parking lot. Two concerned, loving, committed parents bargaining and worried that their child would not be able to do the very simplest act of walking through a door. But it isn't simple. My request and his positive response was not magic, it was a response to a clear expectation. As an educator, with emotional investment clearly but also with objectivity I know, I believe that Vernon was capable, is capable of a great many things starting with the walk from the car to the door of the classroom.  I have set the expectations very high, and because Vernon knows what my expectations are, and he knows I believe in him, he takes risks. He stands up, and walks into the classroom ready to learn, to let go a little bit of his worry, his need to control, his fear that the world might be too overwhelming, because sometimes it is.

I see Vernon's parents and I respect them. I understand that their concern, anxiety and their disappointment that their toddler, their precious baby was not learning to talk as expected, was not relating socially to others like his big sister did motivated them to seek medical help, educational intervention. Their worry became a fiercly protective bubble around their son, a constant list of what he cannot do runs in a loop in their minds because they care, because they are scared for him and will fight for him. No, I do not blame them for this. And when I sit across a table from them and tell them, "I want to mainstream your son in Kindergarten next year because I have every confidence that he will succeed", they look to the list of things he cannot do and ask when.

My answer is now. Vernon is five. Each morning he walks independently and proudly into the classroom, happily greets me, his teacher, his peers and waves goodbye to his father. He settles himself into an activity next to his peers, his friends. He has internalized the routines of the day, he assists me in leading circle time. He comments on his friends feelings in context. He knows how to play. And each time he says goodbye to me when he leaves the room and I have to work on the computer he says to me, "Goodbye Ms. Amy! Good luck and have fun!"

I encourage Vernon's parents to believe in their son's ability to succeed, because he has shown us that he can. If I believe, if his parents believe in his success? That truly is more than 90% of the battle. Sometimes successes come slow, others more quickly. Sometimes when we look for big changes, we miss the small, subtle miracles of minute to minute growth. I missed almost three months of Vernon's life. I was not there, and when I returned I found a boy who had not only met many of my hopes for him, but he has exceeded them. I want him to have the opportunity to learn to generalize the skills he has learned in my classroom and in speech therapy in other places in his world. Trying new things, being brave, sticking with something difficult and new like a sport, or learning to read... He can do these things. He has learned to make friends, he has learned to separate and reunite with his family, he has learned to have conversations that are meaningful and relevant instead of constantly scripting his favorite TV shows. He is a kid who can.

When Vernon's parents told me a year ago "We always say at home that Ms. Amy is so strict, but so loving," I took that as a compliment. I raised the level of expectation for them too. I challenged them to spend more time reading and playing with Vernon, and less time allowing him to watch television. I've asked them to sign him up for an organzied sport to expose him to other, typically developing kids of his age. I've asked them to believe that their son, is strong enough to pull himself up off the ground, take an outstretched hand and walk to his next adventure.

Soon I will be saying Goodbye to Vernon when the school year ends. He will know, and maybe not understand that the classroom he enters next Fall will be different, more challenging, new faces for him to memorize, a new teacher for him to build a partnership with. I will wave to Vernon and I will say to him "Goodbye Vernon. Good luck and more than anything? Have Fun!" I will tell his parents the same.

Monday, February 11, 2013

From the Cradle to the Classroom

"All of us, from the cradle to the grave are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure(s)"- John Bowlby 1998 

The day the towers fell I was a twenty- four year old preschool teacher on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We were told to keep away from the windows, to keep the children indoors and wait for their parents to arrive. In my classroom all of the parents who worked in the Trade Center were late that day, or had a meeting somewhere else. A father was missing for several hours as he wandered the streets of Manhattan in shock.

I walked home to my nest of friends, feasting on provisions (primarily cheese). We sat around our apartment on West 108th street and watched the television in disbelief at the havoc and horror of what was occurring downtown. We could smell the ash, our eyes were thick with it. Few cell phone calls made it out, the ones that made it in were treasured. Returning to work for several months after I operated in a state of mild panic. I struggled with a very large question, "How can I provide a secure base for the children in my care, when I myself do not feel safe?" When I knew for certain I was not? This day, made me a New Yorker perhaps more than any other single moment spent in that great city. Family was forged, survival a common thread... grief and loss in the air, and in our blood. As days, months and years passed equilibrium returned. I began to feel effective again, constant. A stable provider of quality Early Childhood Care. And now, many years later I find myself shell shocked on very different ground, but asking the same question, "How can I provide a safe base for the children in my care when I am not in fact safe, at all?"

I made it to last Friday feeling triumphant in my beginning re mastery of my classroom. Gentleness with self, awareness of others all falling into place once more. Seeing again who my children are and the best way to get them where they need to go. And then Friday happened. One of my assistant teachers was out sick, and no substitute was sent in to replace her. I was short staffed. I felt the anxiety and panic begin to quicken my pulse, my words were sharper, my patience scattered. Hyper vigilance, cortisol over riding other brain functions as I attempted to remember to breathe, to stay focused, and calm. You see, I cannot teach the way I used to. I cannot be the teacher with eight arms, and eight voices reaching every child at once when needed. I am just one. Delegating as best I can. A child reached up, or rather jumped upon my back from behind. He squeezed my neck and pulled me to the ground. 

What has ensued since, a series of frustrating communications with workers comp ( a very special kind of hell), a very sore neck, mid and lower back pain, raging head aches, and fear. Doubt. Anxiety about returning to work tomorrow. In my experiences thus far very little is done on the part of the school district to keep the teachers safe, protected, supported to do their work. Will I be an exception now? Will the absence of my aids be covered so that I am not short staffed? Will measures be taken to protect me from bodily harm by impulsive Autistic students?

 This is one of those moments when I would like to quit. To say "No More." I want to put my own safety first. I want to stay in my bed tomorrow watching Alias, eating chocolate and lying on the heating pad my mother loaned me. I do not want to put myself in harms way by teaching in my own classroom.  But I will. I will stay away from the windows. I will pretend I have eyes in the back of my head, and I will ask for the support that all teachers, not just special education teachers deserve. It is important to feel safe, to be safe, to provide safety. From the cradle to the classroom, this is a non negotiable right, the safety to learn, to be protected in order to thrive, to grow, and to provide the highest quality education possible. Tomorrow however, I am going to show up. And this will need to be enough. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A State of Imperfection

“Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

Finding grace in the imperfection... finding gentleness in the shifting sands...being comfortable when one is afraid... releasing guilt for time not spent... rebuilding trust in the face of anger...seeing a child now, accepting a child now, and facing my own new limitations as a teacher... No, love isn't perfect. This situation is far from perfect, the return to a classroom left abruptly after that swift kick to the head many months ago. Everything has changed since then. We have all struggled and have arrived in this present moment. Children, parents, teachers, and me.

I am changed. I stand in my classroom observing the children I have not seen since October. They are taller. Some of them are more engaged, productive, they have made friends. Others are more withdrawn, anxious, rigid in their play and behaviors. There is new "artwork" on the walls, teacher cut out trees with snowflakes the children were instructed to shake silver glitter onto glue, tiny caterpillars all the same. The handmade, haphazard collages I had posted so proudly are long gone. The schedule is the same. The children know what to expect and when. My assistants have done a phenomenal job at keeping the day moving, bringing the children along safely.

I notice I am afraid. The child, the Lightning boy who kicked me is one of those regressed. Playing with his back turned to others. Organizing cars, picking up a few letters from an alphabet puzzle, resistant to interaction and other's plans. I am afraid of being hurt again. He is too tall to be the toddler that he is at heart and in his mind. He is too strong, impulsive, reactive. I am wary.

The day passes in a haze for me. A cloudy looking glass. I write with my finger on the fog, a series of negative statements: "I cannot be here anymore",  " I cannot get hurt again", "I am weak", "I have so much less to offer." The day warms, the fog slowly evaporates hiding my fears from the glass. I try and coach the substitute on how to interact with Lightning, and suddenly I remember. I remember what it means to see him, to know him, to imperfectly figure out loving him. I help him to pick up a marker he has thrown, I praise him for doing so, I continue to shower him with the attention he lacks, and for the first time on this first day he sees me, and I see him. "Hug" he says. And gently, without force or aggression, he hugs me. He smiles at me. "Hug" he says again, smiling, seeing. Healing.

This is a new beginning. I will continue to struggle with my new limitations, with the feelings of anger, fear and instability. I will stay away from Lightnings feet. I will show up, care for myself and keep trying to see, to accept and like Mr. Rogers, to greet each child openly and warmly and to say "hello neighbor, I'm glad we are together again." And imperfectly together is better than being apart. This much I know.