Sunday, August 24, 2014

Leap of Faith

“You were always so good about remembering to bring snacks,” my friend says fondly. We’ve been sitting by the lake while our kids swim, reminiscing about the earliest days when our boys were toddlers together.

She’s right, of course. I used to bring snacks like it was my freaking religion. Fresh ground almond butter sandwiches on whole grain bread. Tillamook cheese. Raisins. Dates. Anything to keep his mood even. He could be so busy and happy for hours upon hours on our outings. But once he’d cross over into the disequilibrium of hunger, frustration, or disappointment…look out.   

And I realized as I was answering her: “That’s because for the first six years of his life I didn’t know he had Aspergers. I didn’t know what to do. So I brought snacks.”

And we laughed. Ain’t it the truth. I brought snacks. I took parenting classes and read books. I met with teachers and used expertly extended metaphors to try and explain what I thought I understood.

These days, thankfully, I have a much clearer idea of what to do. And I don’t have to do it alone anymore. But the truth is, there’s still so much I don’t understand.

A new school year is about to begin. His final year in elementary school, in fact. Just to make things extra fun, we’ve got an almost entirely new IEP team – new principal, new case manager, new teachers. There’s also a new academic model of “mini middle school” and the absence of his best friend, who starts middle school for real this year.

I have no idea what to expect. To be honest, I don’t really know what to hope for or even what to worry about. We have a back-to-school team meeting coming up and I feel almost embarrassed to show my face at it.  

What am I trying to do here, exactly? Get them to like him? Get them to like me? Get them to somehow promise me that they won’t feel the very human and natural frustration they surely will feel when he paces in their classrooms and interrupts them with semantic corrections and cries when he’s supposed to be writing and refuses to partake of any of the accommodations in his IEP?

Sigh and sigh again.

I can only imagine how I must look to them. An anxious, well-meaning parent who’s worried about all the wrong things, hyper-focused here and completely clueless there, striving to control the uncontrollable. In the context of all the school’s students and families, all the heartbreaking challenges they face, my earnest and relatively privileged little attempts are going to seem so irrelevant.   

So they will reassuringly say “He’s fine, you’re fine, it will all be fine” right up until the moment when it isn’t. He’ll say something rude or storm out of the classroom or worse. And then they’ll want to talk.  

Even now, it’s so hard not to take it personally. Which I know is silly. Because I know that teachers don’t “like” and “dislike” students as simply as that, anyway. It’s our work. It’s our medium. You love all your work and all the students in general, but – yes – you’re not a robot, and sometimes you find it incredibly frustrating, too.

I’ve been there myself. Did I love it when a student took my Odwalla juice and dumped it all over my keyboard? Did I love getting bitten and punched? Did I love being called “stupid bitch” by 5-year-old boys? No, I did not. Who would love that?
But…did I love the students themselves?

Yes. No question. They were vibrant and curious and clever and incredibly resilient. They were funny as hell. And at the end of the day, as much as it sucked to work through their less-than-loveable behaviors, it always came down to looking at myself and what I could be doing better as the adult.

I know most teachers see it that way, too. Not all of them, sadly, but most. I have no reason to believe that The Boy’s new IEP team won’t be just as kind and supportive as his old team.

I used to approach these back-to-school meetings as a form of damage control. I’d try to lay everything out on the table and elicit some kind of reassurance back from the team that they would handle any and all future incidents with the empathy, skill, and style with which I would choose to handle them myself.

I recognize the futility in that now. As if a little meeting is going to somehow transform a group of individuals into the sort of dream team I’d envisioned for my kid. They are who they are, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. They have to understand and follow the IEP and BIP to the best of their abilities. But they don’t have to be me.

I understand that, in their own way, these people also want the best for my son. And while I am painfully aware that they couldn’t possibly love and understand him as well as I do…I can also accept that this is truly okay.

They are going to see other sides to him, find other ways in to him. They might uncover strengths I never knew he had. They are going to make mistakes, and we will deal with that as it happens. I don’t get it right 100% of the time either. I need to let them have their process (mistakes and all), just as I have mine, because that’s the only way their relationship with my son will feel authentic for them. That’s the only way they will truly learn and improve.

Do I actually have the patience and skill to pull this off? Well…do I have a choice?

So much of this business of parenting is a tremendous leap of faith. Faith in teachers, faith in systems, faith in the child himself. Will it be okay? Who the hell knows. My best guess is that it will be okay, except when it’s not. And when it’s not, I’ll be right there with him to slog through and figure it out, just as we always have.

We got this

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How to "Be There"

There’s a lot of well-intentioned “Be There” rhetoric floating around Facebook this morning in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide. And while I agree with the overall message – surely it’s better to be there for a suicidal person than to not be there – I must admit that the oversimplification and (at times) implied shaming is getting under my skin a little. Like everything else you see on Facebook, there’s a lot more nuance to it than that.

So, yes, I feel the need to add my voice to the “be there” chorus. Yes, by all means BE THERE.   

Be there…with reasonable expectations. Know that you cannot single-handedly cure someone’s depression. Don’t get discouraged or frustrated with them when your mere presence doesn’t magically make them sunny.

Be there…with small, good things every day. It doesn’t have to be grandiose stay-up-all-night gestures all the time. Bring them a coffee. Invite them to a movie or a walk on the beach. Send them a link to funny cat videos.

Be there…and know that sometimes “Oh man, that really sucks!” is a more loving thing to say than “Cheer up! It’s not so bad!”

Be there…and understand that while you may have disappointed this person many times over the years, you did not make them depressed. This is not your fault. Depression doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t.

Be there…as quiet or loud as they need you to be. Someone might really want to hear lots of advice and affirmations. Someone else might just need to vent and needs you to listen without judgment. And someone else might really just need a distraction. Not sure how to proceed? It’s okay to ask or offer a choice. “Do you want to talk about it or do you want help taking your mind off it? Do you want advice, or do you need me to just listen?”

Be there…if they actually want you there. It’s okay to give them space. Just check in and make sure that’s what they actually do want.

Be there…but recognize that someone else’s depression doesn’t necessarily trump your own. Take care of yourself, too. Even if you don’t suffer from depression yourself, it can be incredibly helpful to check in with your own therapist for advice and support.

Be there…to the extent that you are truly able. Understand that there are circumstances under which it’s just as heroic to call 911 or ask another friend or family member to step in.

Be there…on your own terms. It has to be said: You don’t owe anyone your body against your wishes. You can’t screw anyone back to health. All jokes aside, I’m willing to bet that getting laid has probably never stopped a suicidal person from committing suicide.   
Be there…ONLY if you feel safe. There’s a Facebook post making the rounds that says it all:

Many abusers (maybe most; the data isn't clear) threaten suicide at some point. A suicide threat is not a license to abuse someone and still make them stay, any more than it's a license not to pay a bill, or a license to get out of a lawsuit, or a license not to be prosecuted for a criminal offense, or anything like that.

Hell. To. The. YES. If you fear for your own safety, or if you’re just exhausted and broken from constant emotional and/or verbal abuse, you can leave. Call 911 if you’re worried he’s going to attempt suicide after you leave. Call mutual friends or family members and ask them to step in for you. An abuser’s depression does not trump your safety and well being. Under any circumstances. Ever.

And that’s my two cents on the whole “being there” thing. For some really helpful background info on depression, nothing says it better than Hyperbole and a Half’s excellent story from a few years back. Here, read it again.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dear Mr. President

I’m sure you hear “You are my hero” multiple times a day. But for me, speaking those words is something I never do. I usually pride myself on my arm’s length cynicism. Seeking a hero is not something I consciously do.

 But when I’m facing challenges as a special education professional, advocate, and parent – when I feel particularly frustrated or alone in my struggle – you are the one whose words and actions inspire me. From the moment I watched your speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, I was absolutely swept away by something you probably take for granted. Simply: You are a thoughtful person. You see nuance. Rather than impose a black-and-white view on the world, you recognize and value every subtle shade of gray. I never expected or even hoped to see a President who could do that. You are an inspiration.

And that is why I’m so disappointed, Mr. President, in your administration’s approach to the one subject nearest and dearest to my heart.

Last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a “major shift” in federal oversight of special education. And while I was initially delighted to finally hear some acknowledgment of special education at all, I was heartbroken to hear the superficial, ineffective approach your administration has chosen.

The article I read claims your administration will “hold states accountable for demonstrating that [special ed] students are making progress.” It says “[s]tates that fall short could lose federal funding earmarked for special education.”

In other words, we’re going to address the very serious problems our special education students face with…more high-stakes standardized testing. I don't see how that addresses any of our issues in a meaningful way at all.  

It’s not a question of rigor. I know these children. I work with them every day. My own son receives special education services for autism. I can tell you – I can promise you – lack of academic rigor is not what’s failing these children.  

They face low expectations sometimes, yes. But more often and more devastatingly than that, they face unreasonable expectations. In the name of “rigor,” they are forced to comply with a system that wasn’t built with them in mind. In the name of “rigor,” they are denied empathic support that meets them where they are. In the name of “rigor,” they have fewer and fewer minutes in their day for playing outdoors, socializing with peers, or even eating lunch.

It’s not enough to simply impose standardized testing on a group of students and assume that those who score high are well-served and those who score low are not. My son is autistic, but he is also particularly skilled at taking standardized tests. He consistently gets high scores, regardless of how well he’s actually being taught. Many of my students, on the other hand, are extremely diligent and have overcome extraordinary hardships in their lives just to be able to sit in a classroom with their peers. Anyone who knows them can see that they’ve made incredible progress this year. Sadly, that progress is not always reflected on their standardized test scores. I’ve watched them struggle in front of the computers – not with the content, but with the mechanics of the computer itself. I’ve seen them misunderstand the semantics of the questions. In one extremely frustrating instance, I saw a girl struggle simply with the mechanics of filling in bubbles with her pencil.

This is not what learning looks like.

Learning is not black and white. There’s nothing “standard” about it, just like there is nothing “standard” about the children we teach. Yes, they all need to learn reading and math. But how each child gets there is an individual journey. We don’t need teachers who can herd them all blindly through the same hoops. We need teachers who are dynamic and absolutely in love with teaching who can find each student where they are, celebrate their strengths, honor their differences, and earn each child’s trust. Only then can real learning take place.

 How do we get there? By valuing the profession of teaching instead of denigrating it. By demanding that our teachers not only be intelligent, but thoughtful, flexible, creative, and kind (and by compensating them accordingly). We get there by seeing and valuing every shade of gray.

We can do this. You can do this. I’m asking, Mr. President, because I know you have the tools. Please bring your thoughtfulness and your ability to see nuance to the issues of public education and special education. Visit our schools. Play chess and four square with our students, join them in the cafeteria, let them tell you all about their favorite things. Give them a reading assessment. Watch them play and argue and forgive each other. Come to IEP and wraparound meetings. Come to staff meetings. Ride a school bus.

Take the time to truly understand the unique challenges and strengths we face. If anyone can do it, you can.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


I’ve written about this before. I said it at the time, and I’ll say it again: Why do I feel like the minute I start making arguments in favor of birth control, we’ve already lost?

So, I’ll tell you what. Instead of a thousand words, here’s a picture. Check it out:

Do you recognize her? That’s me! Well, my ovaries, to be precise. It’s hard to make out the one on the left, of course, because it’s covered by that huge-ass bleeding cyst that’s practically swallowing the thing whole. I was 24, and this is what endometriosis looks like. This photo was taken during one of my surgeries.

Let me tell you, it felt every bit as bad as it looks. It felt like walking around with Moaning Myrtle inside me, seizing up in wails of pain at the slightest upset. For six months, I had to get hormone injections that imposed a fake menopause to inhibit its growth. I was painfully aware that endometriosis can cause infertility. Even after every trace had been surgically removed, there was a good chance it would grow right back.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in my other piece, endometriosis is easily managed with good old-fashioned slut pills! And for the next seven or so years, that’s all I needed to stay healthy.

The story ends happily enough for me. My various health plans over the years covered birth control. Of course they did. I never felt the least bit rogue or slutty or even feminist for expecting nothing less. My health plans covered Ortho-Cyclen same as they covered allergy meds or antibiotics. Healthy sinuses, healthy ovaries…it was all the same. The endometriosis never came back, and I went on to have two little monsters of my own.

It’s this second little monster who’s very much on my mind these days. Endometriosis is hereditary. My mom had surgery for it when I was in college. My maternal grandmother likely had it too, although in those days they handled it with a friendly “out with the uterus!” approach. It’s pretty likely my Grrl is going to cross paths with endometriosis at some point in her future.

I always planned that I would encourage her to use birth control pills as soon as she and her doctor agree she is ready. Why have her suffer like I did with all that pain and wild moods from the hormone therapy and worry about future infertility? Who would want that for their daughter?

I don’t doubt that birth control pills will be accessible for her when she needs them. What concerns me is that all of a sudden it’s such a weighted choice. People are talking about birth control as if it’s the same thing as abortion. Which it just ISN’T, people, it isn’t. I mean, grab the reigns. How did we get to the point where this is even up for debate? And how did we get to the point where not wanting to be a raging endometrial cyst-monster somehow equates with being a slut? How did we get to the point where using birth control for any reason equates with being a slut?  

Well, okay then. Call me a slut. Call us all sluts.

But don’t think that name-calling is going to stop us. Because we are going to go right on taking care of our bodies and our futures with birth control however we see fit. Some of us are going to have sex before we’re married. Some of us are going to have sex long after we’re done making babies. Some of us are going to have sex and NEVER make a single baby! Not that any of this is anyone’s business. But by trying to restrict women’s access to birth control, they’ve kind of made it their business, haven’t they?

Well, as much as it’s hurt to have our complacency shaken up so much – as painful as it’s been to come face to face with a contempt for women so intense that they actually consider it a religious liberty to hold us down – we are going to fight back. Call us sluts all you want. But you can’t stop us. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

School / Work

And you may find yourself…oh let’s say running across a crowded playground at dismissal time holding a giant box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts leftover from your class’s party. You’re running away from your lead teacher and your own class, running toward two 4th graders standing toe-to-toe about to get into another brawl. One of those 4th graders is your son. And you may ask yourself…how did I get here?

What can I say. Working at The Boy’s school seemed like such a good idea two years ago. I’d just spent seven years as a parent-teacher in my kids’ cooperative preschool. I’d spent The Boy’s entire elementary school career up until that point volunteering in his classrooms – during the pre-diagnosis years at his old school, at his current school with his 2nd grade classroom, and in that school’s K-1 inclusion classrooms. Pursuing a paid position at his elementary school just seemed like the next logical step.

It didn’t happen right away. I was passed up for three different openings at his school before I conceded that I’d be starting my new career as a substitute parapro instead. By October I’d found a long-term placement at a different school that was working out really well. The principal and lead teacher both made it clear that they wanted to hire me full-time just as soon as they got the go-ahead from the school district. But right before Thanksgiving, the school district gave that position to a displaced employee with loads more seniority than me. On what was suddenly and unexpectedly my last day on the job, I stood in the parking lot browsing through Subfinder on my phone and snapped up a one-day gig at my kids’ school. Nearly two years later, here I still am.

I don’t know what I was expecting – of the job or of myself. I just remember how incredibly joyful I felt during those first few weeks as a sub, working right next door to my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. I barely crossed paths with my own kids during my work day, but when we did it was an absolute delight. Little Grrl would stage whisper hello and wave wildly. The Boy would remain stoic and professional, but his eyes would light up with undeniable joy. When the school day was over, I’d put my 1:1 student on the bus and come back to our room where my own children would be waiting for me. I’d clean up and do paperwork while they did their homework. Then we’d all go home together, curl up in a pile on the couch, and watch Phineas & Ferb. It was perfect.

Meanwhile, I was doing so well at my sub assignment that when another full-time position became available at the school, they actually hired me. I felt like I’d won the damn lottery. And, honestly, I still do feel that way. But my goodness…what a long strange trip it’s been.

For the rest of The Boy’s 3rd grade year, I was assigned to the same special ed program from which he receives his pullout and inclusion services. And almost immediately, his up-until-then successful school year took a huge nose dive.

It might have been a coincidence. There were a lot of other new changes taking place right around my start date. Two special ed programs had recently merged into one classroom, increasing the caseload from 10 to 20 and bringing students with a broader range of age and disabilities into the same room.

Meanwhile, it was January and whatever honeymoon had been happening up until that point was clearly over. Each student’s challenges were increasing in some way –at home or in their general education classrooms or both – and this had an overall domino effect on each other and staff around them. As the students’ needs became more intense, our staff became spread increasingly thin. This made the general education classroom teachers feel more anxious and, in some cases, resentful of the challenges our special ed inclusion students presented. Which only fueled our students’ challenges even further.

So, yes, there was a lot going on that may have contributed to The Boy’s sudden dip in behavior. But perhaps seeing his mom in the hallway at school all the time was the tipping point.

Sometimes it was too much for me, too. On the one hand, seeing him around during the school day was an incredibly visceral reminder of why I came to this career in the first place. Seeing my own son struggling with the very things my students also struggled with helped me see the “mother’s son” in all of them. It drove me even harder to bring my best to them; to do for them what I would want for my own son.
It was incredibly hard to maintain a professional distance when my colleagues took an ineffective approach with him (even though I might have done the exact same thing in their shoes). I’d try and back off and let them have their process, just as I would want to be allowed to have my process. They were thoughtful, flexible people, I told myself. They’d get it right if given the room to get it right. Sometimes I was Zen enough to pull that attitude off. Sometimes…well, I tried, is all.

There were other sore spots too – pretty typical of any workplace, but harder to brush off when your own child is involved. There was the sullen, disgruntled lady who was openly looking for another job and had certain favorite students and colleagues. The Boy was not one of them. And neither was I. Then there was the cantankerous, chauvinistic older dude who asked me during my first week “Are you sure you want to do this? You’ll spend all day with special ed students and then you’ve got one of your own at home, one you’ll probably be taking care of for the rest of your life.” When things got challenging with The Boy, this man’s go-to was to call for me over the radio with an air of blame, regardless of whatever else I happened to be doing.

Worst of all, I got to see first hand how some of the classroom teachers really regard special education inclusion students and staff. I would be sitting right there at lunch trying to eat my little yogurt while this one lady would rant about how the EBD students were “a burden on society” and how my colleagues and I “don’t do anything.” And I had to sit through a staff meeting where more than one teacher insisted that special ed students are the only ones who run in the halls, and when typical peers do it it’s only because they’ve seen special ed students doing it and that’s where they got the idea.  I tell you, by springtime I was eating that yogurt all alone in my car.

The following year, I was transferred to a different special ed program in the same building with one of my favorite teachers, and I was having one of the best years of my life. Honestly, I cannot say enough good things about the experience. It was amazing.

And yet, despite the prevailing theory that The Boy’s challenges had been due to my presence in his special ed program, my transfer did not seem to make much of a difference. He continued to refuse to set foot in the pullout room and basically decided to exit his own IEP. After a brief back-to-school honeymoon period, the behavior challenges persisted.

Feeling slightly more empowered now that I wasn’t working directly under his case manager (why did that ever seem like a good idea in the first place?), I asked for another IEP meeting in the fall. We finally worked out some real solutions that have, for the most part, worked very well.

Plus, he has a classroom teacher who gets him. She’s a big neurodiversity advocate and genuinely delights in the quirks and cleverness of her autistic students. So, naturally, I have heard through the workplace grapevine that this teacher “accommodates him too much.” Whatever that means. Reminds me of the time a colleague at another school told me I have too much empathy.

Our old friend Teacher Tom said in a recent post:

Whenever I write or talk about treating children as if they are fully formed humans and not just incomplete adults, there are some who ask me about (or even accuse me of) “spoiling” the kids.

And he’s a well-established, widely respected preschool teacher. So imagine the professional response to someone like me – an earnest little neophyte on the lowest hierarchical rung of a huge public school institution and a mom, for Zod’s sake – when I suggest this point of view.

Something changes in their eyes. It’s like a closing of sorts; closing and reassigning me to a different category. I’m not sure which. An activist? A hysterical parent? One of “them”? Occasionally I sense resentment. But more often, I sense pity. These people have been at it a lot longer than me, and they have a very sobering perspective on what the cold world of public middle school and greater society’s attitude toward mental health issues will have to offer a child like my son. They’re only trying to help.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time these past two years sort of chasing my tail, trying to reconcile my ideals with the realities of my chosen career. I have no conclusions yet, but I do have a distinct sense that I’m learning…well…something. That this isn’t easy? That nothing is ever black and white? That even with the courage of your convictions, you’re going to end up needing to compromise sometimes and what is that going to look like? What do you even believe anymore and how are you going to get there?

And what about The Boy? Now that I’ve had an up-close-and-personal look behind the scenes at a public school special education program, do I still have enough faith in the system to keep him enrolled in it? And either way, do I really have a choice?

“What you don’t realize,” a good friend told me recently, “is that your son is going to be okay.”

And he went on to remind me of what I already know: that my son, like all children, is incredibly resilient and incredibly himself. These students…they’re just going to be what they’re going to be, what they’ve been all along. They will ultimately grow into adulthood in their own deliciously imperfect ways and succeed almost in spite of whatever happened to them in school. They’re on a trajectory. All we can possibly hope to do is help them more than we hinder them.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I only know that I will always fiercely support The Boy in my role as a parent with the enhanced knowledge I have from this job and from what I will hopefully learn in graduate school.  

And I will rest assured with the knowledge that, like my friend told me, he is going to be okay. In the end, he always rallies. He has good friends, intellectual curiosity, passionate interests, academic success, and an evolving sharp sense of humor. He has adults in his life who believe in him. He is fundamentally himself. He is on his path.

And I am on mine.

Friday, April 18, 2014


I have kind of made my peace with it. And kind of not.

There’s irony here, for sure. It’s never about what the scale actually says, or even whether the clothes actually fit. It’s about how you feel. And for the last several years I have felt, to be honest, great.

I survived the stress and confusion of The Boy’s early undiagnosed years, I brought myself back from the brink of a rather nasty nervous breakdown with Zoloft, therapy, running, and marathon viewings of “Community” Seasons 1-3. I got my house in order –  literally, cleaning out a basement whose mess predated our ownership of the house – and remodeled our third theoretical bedroom into a literal one, making it possible for us to keep living in our cozy urban bungalow instead of moving to a bigger house in the burbs. And, of course, I found my way back to work in a career that I absolutely love.

Through these happy years, I was gaining. It was gradual. And barely a concern, to be honest. I had no room for it anymore, no room at all for the self-hatred and self-punishing attitude that drove my fitness in the past. I got heavier. But I felt more gorgeous and free than I’d felt in…ever. I didn’t care. What I did with my body belonged to me. Yoga, or not. Dessert, or not. It was based on what I wanted or didn’t want at any given moment. My body. My choice.  

Lately, though, my choice has been that this is heavy enough. The last couple of gradual gains have felt a little uncomfortable. Not unattractive. Just a bit physically uncomfortable. I don’t want to gain anymore. I wouldn’t mind losing a little, in fact.

I thought I knew how to do this in a healthy, self-loving way, with lifestyle choices and so on. So I picked the day I would start and woke up with a kind-but-firm determination to simply eat and move with more intention. Seemed reasonable enough.

But my psychological response to these moderate self-imposed limitations was anything but reasonable. It was fierce, insulted, positively raging with self-doubt and anger. There was anxiety, jealousy, impatience, deep sadness, restlessness, fear, bitterness, and an underlying sense of betrayal. Just like that, I’m at odds with this body again. It’s as if I don’t trust it anymore.

How long did I hate my own body? Too long. Starving it in desperation during the teen years, fantasizing about just slicing off whole pieces of it, trying to drive out every last badness in myself, as if badness only takes shape in fat cells. And even though there were plenty of times in my adulthood where I took a more kind, self-loving approach to fitness, that’s not what the body remembers. It remembers being hated and starved and slashed at angrily, and it absolutely REFUSES to go back there again without a fight.

So, here we are. I was happy. I got too heavy. Must I become unhappy to be less heavy?

When I think about it, most of my more triumphant weight loss episodes happened under duress. A break-up, usually. The sheer humiliation and loneliness was enough to drive me to work my body into what I believed was a more sexually viable shape.  

The only exception I can think of is, strangely, during The Boy’s first year when I lost all my baby weight and then some. I wasn’t even trying. Honestly. But somehow, between the breastfeeding metabolism and daily postnatal yoga and all those long, dreamy walks with him in the Bjorn, the heaviness just melted away. I was thinner than I’d been in years.

I’d hoped this would happen again after my pregnancy with Little Grrl. I did everything exactly the same. I probably exercised even more because I was chasing a two-year-old around and those long strolls with the baby were considerably less dreamy. I even gave up dairy for nine months to accommodate Little Grrl’s sensitivity to it in my breastmilk. But the heaviness was with me to stay. And after a while, I kind of stopped caring about it. I was happy, after all, and loved. Somehow that made it easier to let it go.

And what about now?

Somehow I need to push past my own fierce resistance that associates fitness with self-hatred and shame. Not easy to do when that’s how I’ve always motivated myself toward fitness in the first place. But it has to be done. Can I somehow find a way to believe, deep in my heart, that yes I am loved, yes I am good, and yes I will accept some moderate self-denial in my daily life? I mean…that’s totally reasonable, right?

Well, I hope so. Because I’m not really up for going deep into the psyche to untwist whatever’s twisted in there. Wish me luck, gentle readers. Luck, strength, patience, self-kindness, and…what the hell, how about a few sincere compliments, too? It couldn’t hurt.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Episodes of Inclusion

I was walking a sweet little first grade girl back to her classroom when we crossed paths with an older autistic student who was having a rough start to his morning. I tried to set a blasé “nothing to see here” tone with my body language, but she still gave him a look of wide-eyed curiosity. He responded by stepping as close to her as possible, looking right in her face, and announcing “You’re a BARF BAG,” before walking back to the special ed para who was with him.

I took the girl’s hand and calmly kept walking. When we were out of earshot I said “I’m so sorry he said that to you.”

“It was a little weird,” she said, looking at me with a mix of amusement and fear, seeking my face for a clue as to which was the appropriate response.

 “I know that boy,” I told her kindly. “He’s a really, really good person. He’s just having a bad day.”

“Oh!” she said brightly. “He’s kind of like Joe.” (Joe is a first grader in our school’s special ed inclusion program. Not using his real name, obviously.)

“Joe used to say mean things to us, but he’s doing so much better now,” she told me proudly, as if she were a member of Joe’s IEP team herself. “And he’s spending more and more time in our classroom!”

Every trace of fear and curiosity was gone from her face. Joe was already a part of her community, and she was able to extend that understanding to another student who was very much in need of it.

Charlie (again, not his real name) was a first grader at one of the first schools where I subbed. His favorite recess activity was running around the perimeter of the playground, over and over, deeply immersed in Batman fantasy. Sometimes the other children asked him to play, but he’d just keep running as if he hadn’t heard.

One day, though, we were delighted to see him playing Batman with a small group of boys. I was about to go on my lunch break. The other para had come to take over recess duty for me. We paused in our changing-of-the-guard routine to proudly admire our little dude running happily with his newfound pack.

And then…our little dude pushed a kindergarten boy flat on his face on the blacktop. The parent recess volunteers came running. One of them swooped the kindergartener off to the nurse’s office. Charlie was just standing there looking utterly confused.

“I’m sorry,” he said reflexively. And then, as if trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong, he explained “He told me to get him. He told me he was the bad guy.” 

The other para calmly took Charlie aside to explain about literal versus figurative “getting the bad guy.” I was about to head back inside for lunch when I saw the kindergarten victim return from the nurse’s office and sadly take a seat on the curb. I sat beside him.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said glumly. “I guess I’ll have to watch out for that guy.”

“His name is Charlie,” I told him. “Did you know that Charlie is just learning how to play with other kids?”

Learning how to play?”

“That’s right,” I said. “Everybody’s learning in school. I’ll bet you’re learning how to write your letters and numbers in kindergarten, right?” He nodded. “Well, Charlie knows how to write his letters and numbers. But he doesn’t know how to play Batman with other friends yet. He didn’t understand that you’re just supposed to pretend-hurt the bad guy. You already know that.” The kindergartner nodded proudly. “Maybe if you decide to play Batman with Charlie again sometime, we can all help him learn.”

He liked the idea of helping a first grader learn something. And he went off to enjoy the rest of his recess.

Camping Trip
This story inspired me greatly in the early days of The Boy’s diagnosis. It’s about a 5th grade camping trip, and how an autistic student’s classmates supported him as he completed a challenging team-building game. The boy’s father and writer of this excellent piece concludes:

They grew up with someone different and knew well what he needed. And they knew they could provide it. They learned tolerance, empathy and confidence that they could help those in need.

When the time came for The Boy’s 4th grade class to take their camping trip, this story was at the front of my mind. I made the very earnest, well-intentioned mistake of asking our principal to assign me to be the special ed chaperone. She made the very earnest, well-intentioned mistake of agreeing to it. I was the only special ed staffer, and also the only special ed parent. What could possibly go wrong?

What, indeed? The Boy, who’d been having a very successful school year up until that point, went off the rails before we’d even boarded the bus. He started arguments. He responded explosively to teasing. He latched onto one friend and responded with Medea-level jealousy if that friend spent time with anyone else. He ran off into the woods by himself. He yelled at the parent chaperones. He cried himself to sleep the first night in the cabin assigned to staff because he couldn’t handle being in with the other students.

The parent chaperones tried to be polite about it, but I could see the strain and confusion on their faces. By the end of the trip, one of the moms had pretty much had it with my son, my stressed-out attitude, and the whole lot of our autism inclusion students. “They’re not the only ones on this trip,” she snapped at me as I tried to juggle their competing quirks and needs.

There was one bright spot, though, and that was the NatureBridge program itself. Our group’s camp instructor took The Boy’s behavior in stride, or at least had a world-class poker face about it. When he walked right up to her in the middle of a lesson and started examining the compass around her neck, she gave it to him to wear. When he chose to sit by himself on a log instead of journaling, she gave him space. When he charged up the trail ahead of the group, she offered him a huge walking stick and encouraged the other students to join him. He and about five gung-ho students led our group all the way up to the top of the mountain.

By the time we’d reached the top, The Boy was chatting happily with students he’d barely even acknowledged at school. Our instructor set the tone for focusing on his strengths. His classmates and The Boy himself quickly followed suit. And even though the trip was extremely challenging for him, that’s not how he remembers it. He still talks about what he learned about nature and how much fun he had climbing the mountain. As difficult as it was for me personally, I count the trip a success.

This is the time of year when parents are trying to choose elementary schools for their prospective kindergarteners. A preschool teacher friend of mine told me that sometimes parents express concern about my elementary school because of “all the special ed kids.” They worry that our special ed students will make it hard for their “normal” children to learn. They worry that perhaps their “normal” children might not be safe. This teacher has tried to convey a positive, accepting message, but wasn’t sure it had been successful. Did I have any advice?

You’d think I would have had lots of advice. But the question just made me cranky and tired. I feel like I’ve been talking about this for years. I feel like sometimes it’s all I ever talk about. I’m kind of running out of things to say.

Look at the stories above. I told them in a positive tone, but will a reader who’s afraid of “all the special ed kids” be able to see it that way? At the core, what do we really have here? A “normal” student got called a name in the hallway. A “normal” student got pushed down at recess. The “normal” students had their 4th grade camping trip disrupted.

We all know, of course, that special ed students aren’t the only ones doing the pushing, name-calling, and disrupting. But yes. This happens. Inclusion can be messy. I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t.

What should go without saying, of course, is that school is messy, period. Life is messy. Relationships are messy. Any time you let other humans into your life, guess what? Messy!

But that’s where the real learning happens. Those students who had run-ins with their autistic classmates? They learned a real, authentic version of empathy that they’re just not going to get from those Second Step flash cards and puppet shows. Real learning isn’t all pristine and quiet and well-coordinated. Real learning is spontaneous. There’s an urgency to it. It’s organic.

I can’t say it any better than this dad did in his piece about the camping trip:

Will the skills of tolerance and empathy help these kids in their academic life? Maybe not. Will they help them in the business world? I've dealt with enough CEOs to know that these are not requirements for the job. But if we are trying, as parents and teachers, to grow menschen, people of integrity and honor, then I saw some wonderful evidence of success.

I’m proud of my school for serving autistic students with understanding and fairness, and I’m extremely proud of the students themselves. Every single one of them. What incredible, well-rounded, empathic adults they’re going to become.

Happy Autism Awareness Month.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


I must admit, I feel a little foolish. By all accounts, this is not exactly an ideal time to embark on a teaching career. And yet, here I am, all bright-eyed and Fräulein Maria, ready to do just that. In September I will start working on my M.Ed. in special education at the University of Washington. I got my acceptance letter a few weeks ago and have been walkin’ on sunshine ever since.

It’s been nearly two years since I hatched this hare-brained scheme of mine to reinvent myself as a special education teacher. Inch by inch, I’ve carefully stepped through one hoop, then another. I spent last summer studying for the GRE and WEST-B. I slogged through grad school applications and the tedious process of transferring my Pennsylvania teaching certificate to Washington. I volunteered and subbed, taking extremely challenging assignment after extremely challenging assignment, finally finding a full-time parapro job at my kids’ school.

Want to have a big juicy existential crisis? Try going from being a special education parent/advocate to working in a special education program in a large urban public school district. What a trip. What a humbling, baffling, heartbreaking, face-in-the-mud trip.

And yet, I’ve loved every minute of it. It hasn’t scared me away. It’s made me stronger and forced me to see a much wider, more complicated world than the one I thought I knew. It has super-charged my faith in human children (and somewhat resolved my faith in human adults). It’s taught me to recognize the small successes that happen every day, and to embrace them for the miracles that they are. It’s showed me the endless mountains of work that still needs to be done. It’s let me accept that I still have a lot – a lot – to learn. And, yes, there have been times when it’s made me feel a little broken and deeply sad.

But here we are. This is my path. I’m sure of it. I started out as a teacher, gave it up too soon, spent the next 20 years trying other things, and somehow found my way back here again. This is absolutely where I belong. It’s a calling. And when you feel this passionately about something, you feel everything deeply. The good and the bad. The sad parts, the frustrating parts, the downright demoralizing parts – it feels that bad because it’s lighting you up in the first place. You care. Don’t avoid it. Go even deeper. There’s something in there that needs you.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Love is All Around

It gets discouraging sometimes. I’m not going to gloss over that part. I get tired of scrambling every morning to make everyone’s breakfast and lunch and get my sorry butt out the door on time, tired of chasing the 5th graders out of the cafeteria after the late bell rings, tired of cajoling our little dudes through task completion for work they find so entirely distasteful that it’s hard to imagine any real learning is happening in the process (beyond learning how to complete tedious crap you hate – which, one could argue, is something of a life skill). 

At the same time, purely amazing things are happening. I’ll give reading assessments to little dudes with heartbreaking backstories who came to us barely able to read at all, and they blow the lid off that thing, reading like rock stars and so damn proud of themselves. Or I’ll be working breakfast duty and the boy who spoke no English at all last year walks up to me with a determined look on his face and declares “I want to know the difference between ‘whoops’ and ‘whoopsie’!”

Or we’re told that we have to prepare our struggling 1st and 2nd graders for a Writers’ Celebration in which each child is expected to write a book. And the lead teacher and I will panic and wonder how the heck we will ever pull it off…and then we do. For weeks, we slog through the writing process with our little pumpkins. They tell us their stories with humor and imagination and wonder, and we teach them how to write the words. And finally, they get to see their books on display for the whole first grade and their families, and you just about cry with pride and happiness.

That’s how we wrapped things up right before school ended for winter break. I was the happiest girl in the world. I loved everything and everybody. 

Then…it was over for two weeks. Things got strangely quiet. Each day I felt further and further removed from the joyful, absurd chaos of school. And when school started up again, the magic had somehow drained away almost completely. I’m not sure why.   

I was beginning to think it was never coming back. I was beginning to worry that maybe September through December had been one long honeymoon phase that was now past, and all that lay ahead was weary crankiness and tedium and the vague sense of fear that I’m falling further and further away from the ideals that drove me here in the first place.

I was sitting in our classroom office earlier this week filling out a pile of incident reports from morning recess while the lead teacher gathered our students on the rug for the day’s writing lesson. It had been such a cranky morning.

And then I noticed something. The students were all, each and every one of them, intently focused on the teacher. All of them. Even the ones who usually can't stand writing and rarely participate. Even the ones who can’t sit on the rug without spinning in a dozen circles or carrying on a full-volume conversation with someone across the room. Every single kid had their eyes on the teacher. Every single kid raised their hands again and again to offer more ideas.

The topic was Valentine’s Day. The teacher explained a little bit about the holiday, but really captured their attention when she told them we’d be having a Valentine’s Day party on Friday. After a few moments of letting them delightedly call out their favorite party treats, she drew a heart in the center of the marker board and showed them how to write “I love you.” And then, she built a story web with hearts instead of bubbles, filling each heart with examples from the students about who and what they love. (Mom! My brother! God! Cotton candy!)

Our old friend Teacher Tom recently blogged about how his preschoolers enjoy painting heart-shaped pieces of  paper at their easels, first following the basic shape of the heart, then delightedly saturating the paper with color. He wrote about how this business of literally “filling the whole heart” is like the process of love itself.

And that is exactly what happened in our classroom that day. All the students cut out paper hearts and practiced their mad writing skillz on them. And then, just like their preschool colleagues, they absolutely saturated those hearts with color. Every student. I can't tell you how rare that is for us, to have every single student so thoroughly independently engaged in a project. The room was so busy and happy.

And then, as they were lining up for recess, one of the boys who’s often so deeply sad and angry came up to the lead teacher and gave her a huge, spontaneous hug. Another boy did the same. Then he came into the classroom office where I was still mired in paperwork and gave me a huge hug too.     

Later that day, at the end of my social skills lesson, I gave the students a compliment for how well they'd waited turns and listened to each other. A boy raised his hand and asked if he could give his friend a compliment too. “I like when you play games with me on the playground,” he told his friend shyly.

Then another boy raised his hand and offered a compliment to the girl who’d done very well at the game we just played. More hands went in the air. Everyone had a sincere, unique compliment to give to everyone else in the room. The bell rang to end the day and they were still sitting criss-cross on the rug, hands waving in the air with more and more compliments for their classmates.    

Is that all we needed? Another candy-and/or-love-themed holiday? It certainly brought out the best in our class this week. One of my favorite little dudes who straight-up hates school and wishes he were anywhere else but here was so happy this week. “It’s a Valentine’s school!” he announced with joy as we decorated our paper bags. Later, when he was helping me get the table ready for our party, I noticed he’d been dangerously generous in distributing chocolate hearts to each place setting.

“Let’s just have one chocolate heart on each plate,” I suggested.

“Let’s have TWO chocolate hearts!” he countered.

I agreed to two and asked him how many we’d need to take away to make two. Little dude’s been struggling with subtraction for weeks now. But darned if he didn’t tell me exactly how many chocolate hearts we needed to subtract to get two. By the time we were ready for the party, he had it down. At least when it came to chocolates.

How do we keep that spirit of love and candy and emergent-based subtraction with us? It’s a long stretch of weeks with no candy-related public-school-appropriate holidays in sight. I think we’re just going to have to make it happen on our own. Somehow, within our relentless schedule and IEP goals to meet and Common Core standards to uphold and tops to race to and children to not leave behind…somehow we need to actually grab those children’s hands and reach them.

Maybe, at least in our classroom, that looks like building more fun into our school routine, holiday or not. We don’t need an official calendar holiday to celebrate each other and take some time out of our routine for a little enjoyment. And when their hearts are open, when their spirits are lifted like that…they can do so much more and learn so much more, and seamlessly.  

If it takes me the rest of my career, I am going to find a way to reconcile this practice  with the public school context. We’re already doing it here and there, in the cracks, accidentally or maybe a little bit on purpose. Maybe it’s the Valentine’s Day chocolate overload talking, but I have hope.

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