Today’s bonus Our Land story is written by previous contributor Rachel of Tao of Poop in response to a post that I wrote last week. Although I do not usually run Our Land submissions more than once each week, I’m making an exception due to the timeliness of the recent Kelli and Issy Stapleton tragedy.
Rachel holds a M.S. in Childhood Education/Special Education with an Early Childhood extension and was a special needs educator for seven years in New York City.
Here’s her response:
The Water Lily
“Get the fuck out of here, you fucking n*****!” breaks the quiet of reading time. The entire fourth and fifth grade class inhales collectively, as the sound of the most reprehensible racial slur seems to reverberate off the walls and our souls. John*, Brent’s target, looks up from his book, his brow knitted in confusion at this unprovoked attack. Before he can react, Brent moves on to Craig, who sits next to him at the table. Frozen. Brent picks up a pencil from the table and tries to stab Craig in the hand. He screams “bitch” over and over again, as the pencil pierces the table. Craig recoils in fear.
What a mess. Such a mess that it’s a colossal understatement to call it a mess. No classroom should look this way.
How could it possibly be that the Land of Empathy and Wonder exists here? At the time, I didn’t know myself.
It does, though. Come and look deeper with me. Will you look for the connections between things, have hope in the face of despair, have patience and be willing to forgive, believe in the power of redemption?
Let’s start with Brent…
Brent was diagnosed with Emotional Disturbance (a term I do not like) and a Learning Disability. His violent tendencies had been in check since first grade. That’s the thing about Emotional Disturbance. Triggering factors can rear their ugly heads when you least expect them. Brent had gender confusion, and had expressed a desire to be a girl from a young age. My conjecture was that his gender issues were coming to the forefront now that he was approaching adolescence. How else would you explain the masochistic choice to repeatedly (yes, it happened again) provoke another student who was a foot taller and weighed fifty pounds more than him, and who had his own propensity for extreme reactions?
I’m speaking of John. John had been transferred from another school that year because of defiant behavior and severe dyslexia. At twelve years old, he was tall, broad and muscular, a football star outside of school. He had been held back several times, because of a first grade reading level. When he overturned chairs and cafeteria tables during lunch at his previous school, the school administration said enough was enough. He was a student who had given up after failing for so long. He excelled as an extracurricular star, yet was constantly in trouble at school. The irony seemed uncanny to me.
So you can further see the uncanny connections, let me tell you about Craig. Craig was a bright boy, who I struggled to keep academically stimulated in my class. He had recently been placed with me for one reason. Whenever he was angry, he would injure himself. His most common method of venting his frustration was stabbing himself with pencils. I venture to guess that, subconsciously, Brent saw him as an ally.
Now let me tell you about me. These “outbursts” were hard to bear. They always felt out of proportion. They felt uncontrollable. They seemed impossibly offending and hurtful. As a veteran educator of kids with special needs, I had experienced similar behavior many times before. I was the recipient of the majority of my own personal injuries the year that I was a kindergarten teacher. I was bitten, kicked and smacked. The worst time was when a student diagnosed with Emotional Disturbance took his fist and punched me in the throat. It never ceases to feel shocking when a young student engages in this kind of behavior. The immediate impulse is always to demonize the child. School administration, other teachers and, sometimes, even parents react this way. I did, too.
To this point, I knew that it bordered on absurd that I was going to try and explain Brent’s horrific behavior to John’s father. Me, an over-educated white woman, telling this working-class black man that Brent was the one who needed consideration. Yet I asked him to please allow his son to sit in class with Brent and give him a chance – over and over again.
I had no choice but to alert the administration about the incident with Brent, John and Craig. I anticipated their reaction. They directed me to document any subsequent incidents to create the paper trail needed to place Brent in District 75. District 75 is where children are sent when their behavior becomes so violent and/or disruptive that it cannot be managed in a community school. It would have been the next step for John too. Many students respond positively to this environment, although graduation rates are low. I can unequivocally say that District 75 is not a place for a child with gender confusion.
I wasn’t surprised by the administration’s plan. I’ve found that many people on the outside want to opt for quick fixes to these kinds of problems. They want neat and tidy truths. They want to draw a line in the sand, putting themselves on the good side and others on the bad.
Sometimes, the best solution takes time to implement. Sometimes, it isn’t always what it seems at face value.
Often, the world is complicated shades of grey that require holding onto messy, complex realities and seemingly contradictory truths.
One messy, complex reality of a classroom of students with special needs? Children often have behavior issues. They can struggles with impulse control and emotional regulation. They can have language deficits that make it hard to communicate their needs. They may have learning disabilities that make it a challenge to process and retain information regarding the rules about how to behave. They might need to develop the ability to read social cues and social situations, or learn how to engage with others. I could go on. Brent and John had their own mix of personal issues and individual reactions to their environments as well.
The result of this reality is that minor disruptions to violent attacks were a part of the everyday landscape in our classroom.
The seemingly contradictory truth to this messy, complex reality? Behaviors like these –ones that would seem to suffice to bring a classroom to its knees — were only part of the picture. Much of our day was without strife.
Much of the day, we were an engaged community of learners, just like any other classroom.
So…what do you think? Which viewpoint would fit in the Land of Empathy and Wonder? Would you choose to focus on violent, out of proportion, terrible behavior of a child? Or would you choose to see the whole child, who is a complicated mix of characteristics, impulses, challenges, predilections, and personal history, as well as a member of a living, breathing, organic community?
The administration chose the former. My class chose the latter.
When I say my class, I mean so many people. I mean my paraprofessional, Julie, who worked beyond her mandate and meager salary to help the class and me. She rose to the daunting challenge, partly because of her character and partly because of her own past as a troubled teen. I mean John’s father. He never said so, but I imagine that he understood what it was like to have his “good” son misunderstood. I mean Brent’s mom, who began taking Brent to counseling, and who kept in daily contact with me. Alone, she took on the school administration and the Department of Education. I had the painful task of telling her, “You are on your own now. I cannot help you fight the administration from taking Brent out of this class, because I have to tow the official line. But know that I am secretly on your side.”
I mean the children. Most of all, the children. In a sense, they didn’t have a choice. I chose for them. But our plan would not have worked without them. Indeed, they were the most integral part of the solution.
How do I explain children’s unceasing ability to live in the moment and to move on? How can I express the humility with which I watched them forgive things that adults would struggle to let go?
It is their grace, their gift.
Could I have anticipated how this story would end?
I was fairly certain we could work on Brent’s behavior together. Brent’s mom successfully fought the DOE, and he remained in the class. His negative behavior escalated, began tapering off and, eventually, stopped. Once again, he became a member of good standing in our community.
John and Brent even became friends.
I was pretty sure that Craig did not need to be in our class for the single reason he was placed with us. Through the course of the year, we realized that all he needed was a bit of space when he was angry, instead of barrage of staff members descending on him anxiously whenever he got angry. At the end of the year, he was back in a more fitting academic environment.
Could I have ever have imagined the redemptive quality that the experience would have on John? Could I have ever foreseen how the most appalling word in the English language could serve as a catalyst for his growth and development?
John displayed an ability to turn the other cheek in the face of Brent’s attacks that was humbling. The experience of defining himself as something other than the troublemaker changed the way that he walked in this world. Gone was the sullen, disaffected youth who entered my classroom. He smiled more, moved with a gentle ease and became the moral compass of our class. I watched him blossom, like a water lily from the muck.
At graduation ceremonies, I handed John a Citizenship Award from the school. It was one of the best days of my life.
I’d like to thank Rachel for her insight, wisdom and for having the tenacity and love to see past the violence in the children she taught. I’m so glad that she shared her story here. She’s truly made a difference in creating a land of empathy and wonder, don’t you think?
My OB told me I was a “geriatric pregnancy.” I didn’t like that much. Now, I feel lucky to have a healthy daughter, who has no idea I’m old. THE TAO OF POOP, is about life since she was born in 2011. My blog gives me the opportunity to explore the ups and downs of being a first-time mom in her 40’s. I always strive to find the poignancy and humor in the ever-changing, complicated mix of parenthood.