All the seats were filled. Okay, so there were ten students instead of thirty-six. Ten students with a teacher-provided snack on their desks. Ten students having a conversation with each other and with me instead of just listening to me talk or filling in worksheets. I get it. My classroom doesn’t look like your classroom. So maybe you just didn’t realize that I was in the middle of teaching a class.
I was every bit as hungry and tired and squirrely and eager-to-get-to-lunch as those ten students, so maybe that’s why I made that stressed-out face when you asked me when my lunch is. I didn’t mean to. It’s just that I could infer from the key details of your non-verbal social cues (and from my background knowledge of years-long precedent) that when someone asks “When is your lunch period?” like that, it’s never a prelude to an invitation to have a nice lunch with them. No, I inferred, this was an invitation to address a problem during my lunch.
I started talking before I remembered to take the edge out of my voice. I get it. I don’t like when people are unhappy to see me either. I felt sorry the minute I saw the disappointment in your face and I could barely get the words out. I apologized and made a subtle gesture toward the students, who were growing squirrelier with every second my attention was on you instead of them, and I said what I felt should have been obvious. “I’m teaching a class right now.” If it makes you feel any better, I felt weirdly ashamed for setting that boundary.
Which is why, when we passed each other in the hallway during our lunch, I apologized and made time to listen right then. How I wish I’d at least grabbed my yogurt from the fridge and had a few spoonfuls first. Maybe then, when you’d told me you have all these students with IEPs and no information I wouldn’t have countered “Yes you do!” and somewhat defensively itemized the volumes of information I’d spent the last few days preparing for teachers, pushing off my own lesson planning to the very last minute. I know I shouldn’t have sounded so annoyed. But I do appreciate you acknowledging that you’d received that info and just hadn’t had time to read it yet. So I softened my tone and asked which student, which period, what sort of behaviors are you seeing?
I shouldn’t have phrased the question that way. Ask someone for a short-list of behaviors, they’re going to give you a short-list of behaviors. Some teachers know how to present a concise and neutral 3-point bulleted list in special ed jargon, liberally peppering in the student’s strengths and all the things they adore about them. But sometimes, like today, there’s still hurt in the teacher’s voice when they recount the students’ behaviors with loaded descriptors.
The Boy’s first grade teacher used to do that. Every day, that same beleaguered look on her face; that nasty “you just dinged my car in the parking lot!” tone in her voice as she ticked off the day’s list of grievances. We were a few months away from a diagnosis (they still called it Aspergers back then). This landscape of Seattle Public Schools was strange and new to me, only two years in. I knew what I knew from all the co-op preschool parent ed classes I’d taken, but the teachers and administrators and even the counselor at this school knew none of it, and they’d look at me blankly when I felt like I was making so much sense.
Meanwhile, I stood helplessly apart while their current of ignorance swept my little boy further and further away from his wild strengths and raw talent, tighter and tighter into the grip of its narrow definitions. He broke out in hives and snapped his teeth and ticked all kinds of nervous ticks we’d never seen before. And still, they blamed him. And me.
Many years of working in this school district and an M.Ed. in special education later, I know now what I deeply suspected then – I was right. They were wrong. They were wrong in the most hurtful way that an educator can be wrong. They were wrong in a way that could have damaged that child if I hadn’t intervened and changed his course. I got him out of that toxic situation, and then I got myself back into teaching so that I could do the same for as many kids like him as I could reach.
And here we are. Turns out that path isn’t quite so simple.
I know what I’m supposed to do. Don’t scare the teachers. Don’t make them feel like they can’t come to you for help. They want to learn, they want to do it right and be good at this. They need you to teach them how. You must treat them the way you treat your own students – meeting them where they’re at with strength-based interventions and lots of positive praise; five positives for every time you accidentally let it show on your face that they’ve just said something blood-curdlingly ignorant and hurtful. Because you’re the teacher. You roll with it.
I want to be good at navigating all that, because I know it’s the only paved road to success. Maybe right now it feels like I’m just swallowing indignity after indignity when all I want to do is bellow at people like Chris Farley’s “IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!” guy. I have to hope that it won’t always be this hard and won’t always feel this way. I have to trust that there is room in my scarred and shell-shocked heart to grow; to deflect the pain of ignorance’s impact but still absorb its good intentions; to find and nurture whatever elements of strength are in there, desperate to grow.
So. I can forgive myself for not being quite there yet. If I can manage to also forgive colleagues for not being there quite yet…maybe then I might finally become the unstoppable force of sheer awesome that I’ve always yearned to be.
But first I’m going to have a cup of coffee. Small steps.