“In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress, longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.” -Angels in America
It has been a long time, friends, and it’s time for the silence to end. My writing voice may be a bit rusty from composing term papers and essays instead of blogs, so bear with me as I find it again. But now that I’ve survived my return to college and first few semesters of teaching, it’s time to pick up the old blog, dust her off, and give it a go.
I’ve decided to start by writing about one of my students and what she’s taught me. I’ll call her Taylor to protect her identity. Taylor came in the middle of the last semester. This was a really hard time at my school. In our grade, both our science and social studies teachers had moved on to other schools mid-semester, and our math teacher was out on paternity leave for a month. Needless to say, Taylor came amid some chaos, and the tension in our hallway was palpable.
Right away, I knew Taylor was a child with special needs. She has a physical disability that causes one of her arms to draw up like T-Rex, with her hand dangling most of the time. She looks thin and frail, smaller than most of her peers. Taylor has a hard time with basic tasks like getting her things in and out of her backpack or holding her paper down to write on it. But what stood out most about Taylor was the way she reacted to her new environment, and it was like nothing I had ever seen before.
Taylor was a screamer. A voilent screamer. Like the kind you hear in horror movies when someone is being stabbed 1,000 times. Blood-curdling and heard by an entire building.
I learned this the first time when Taylor had a small disagreement in my class with a peer who was feeling her out. What started with a very simple interaction ended up with her leaping out of her chair, screaming violently at another student to get away from her, and walking toward the door to leave class. Having no prior relationship with her, any effort I made to calm her or correct her only heightened the intensity of her reaction. She reminded me of a wounded animal who was cornered – afraid, desperate, and willing to lash out.
Later that week, in the lunch line, it got worse. I heard Taylor from across the cafeteria with her unmistakable scream, but this time she kept yelling for her mother over and over as she cried uncontrollably. I thought she had been hurt. All of the other girls were silent (highly unusual for them) as they stared at her and backed away. She was almost catatonic other than her repeated yelling, like she couldn’t hear anyone else and had retreated into a safe place in her mind. I helped get her out of the lunch line and to our school counselor, having to hold her to get her to calm down enough to move. I returned to the lunch line and asked what happened, and the girls were genuinely puzzled by her reaction. They said Taylor thought they were talking about her because one of them had whispered to another, but it was totally unrelated. The shock and fear in their eyes told me they were telling the truth.
These were not isolated events, and I have to admit, the initial reaction in my head to Taylor was not very gracious. I wondered if she was a paranoid schizophrenic in the making. I lamented having yet another child with severe behavioral needs that could be set off easily by her peers into a spiraling tailspin that took down the entire class. I assumed this would be a year-long struggle and resented her added weight to my already heavy burden. I know, I know, you’re thinking I should be Teacher of the Year, right?
What I didn’t stop to think about is why Taylor was acting the way she did. Here was a child with obvious disabilities thrown into a new environment. How would I react in this kind of situation? What fears would I have when I’m a child who already struggles with basic things, especially a child who has probably been teased for her differences? It’s already hard moving schools in the middle of the year, both socially and academically, but Taylor’s struggles were exponentially more challenging. Is it any wonder she had such extreme reactions to a new environment?
What Taylor needed was a safe place. Something consistent. Something steady. Something comforting. Something sure. I wish I could say I figured this out right away, but I’m not that smart. Slowly, over weeks, I realized that I could be a consistently positive and steadying force for Taylor. And guess what? She has settled in beautifully. She hasn’t screamed or been sent out of class once since the first few weeks she came. She smiles broadly every day in a way that forces a smile in return from any onlooker. Other kids help her when she is struggling to get things in her bag or to do her work. She still has a feisty mouth when someone crosses her, but in a much calmer way. Actually, I like that she sticks up for herself and think it will serve her well if she learns when to use it properly.
In retrospect, Taylor taught me that progress and change are usually painful. Too often we come at them kicking and screaming, clinging on to what we have left behind that was familiar – even if it wasn’t so great. I know this personally because I stayed in retail management far too long because I was afraid to start over in a new environment. I couldn’t go back to school again in my mid-30’s, could I? How could I do that financially? How would I ever get to retirement before I was 100? But pushing ourselves past resistance and fear allows us to dream and create something new and better, even if the change is initially painful. We just need to find our safe place, our footing, that helps us know we’re on the right track, which allows us to hope because of the change instead of fear it. Taylor was a tangible reminder of this.