As a special education teacher of over 10 years, I was pretty sure I had done and seen it all with a great understanding of how to service my students. Servicing them, yes; but having a great understanding of them………….sadly, no. I realized this last year when I took a position as an Inclusion Specialist at a charter school in Detroit, MI. I have worked in urban settings before, but this is where my journey to true understanding began.
In most ideal situations, students on our case loads have one or two (if we’re lucky) parents that are present and some what supportive. At the very least, these students have a safe home to go to with an environment that is conducive for following a routine, doing homework and that allows our students to enjoy the gift of simply being a child. All of these illusions where shattered when I met a young man in the seventh grade that had been assigned to my caseload. I read his file before meeting him, which I never do, and it was riddled with reports of aggressive behavior issues on top of his learning disability. I believe he was reported to be at a 4th grade level in both Reading and Math. For the sake of this article, I will call this student Joe.
I walked into Joe’s first period class and took a peek at the seating chart. I glanced up and there he was. An unusually tall young man crammed all the way in the back of the room. This was Joe’s seat of choice in every class and, as big as he was, I knew that he wished he was invisible. I walked back and introduced myself. The other students in the class were very used to me being there, so it was not uncomfortable in any way. He was very quiet and shy, but, to my surprise, let me sit next to him so that I could assist with his class work. I could tell that Joe was truly happy to be getting some help and he was doing really well. Day after day he would smile a vibrant smile that lit up the whole room whenever I walked in. I saw no evidence of any aggressive behavior at all. In fact, I actually referred to him as The Gentle Giant. That was until that day.
That day, I did not see Joe in 1st or 2nd period even though I had seen him at his locker first thing that morning. It turned out he was in the Dean’s office being sent home because his shoes where in violation of the dress code and apparently it was his third offense. Well, we all got a chance to witness his “aggressive behavior”. It was strictly verbal, but being so tall made him seem much more threatening and intimidating than he ever meant to be. I took him aside to calm down and to talk about what had happened. With tears rolling down his cheeks, Joe confided in me that his older brother (16 years old) took his school shoes for himself and warned him not to tell…….or else. “Or else what?” I foolishly asked. Joe just shook his head. He knew that his mother could not afford new shoes and regardless, he took those threats very seriously. I can only imagine that he has felt the wrath of his older, gang affiliated brother before. He also told me he does whatever it takes to keep the peace in his household. You see, Joe also has a three year old brother that he takes care of and will do ANYTHING to protect him. He was often absent from school in order to babysit his little brother so that his mother could go out and do whatever it was she did. And whatever she was doing had nothing to do with working or trying to find work. So much for that ideal home environment that is safe and conducive for routines, doing homework and that allows kids to just be kids. This young man has more responsibility and seen more in his short lifetime than most adults.
On my way home that day, I decided that I would stop at Target to buy Joe a new pair of shoes that would be appropriate for the dress code……….a simple pair of black lace-up dress shoes. No problem. My mind wandered as I shopped hoping that he was safe and unharmed by his older brother, hoping that his mom actually came home from where ever to cook her children dinner and hoping that he would be able to get some of his homework done.
When I finally got home I sunk into my couch with my Target bag. I peeked in to admire the cute little sweater I had also bought, but took the size 12 shoes out of the bag instead. I couldn’t believe how enormous they seemed to me. How could a 7th grade child have such huge shoes to fill? I slid my feet into them just for fun and began to clomp around my living room. After stumbling around and almost falling flat on my face, I actually said out loud, “Man, I can’t even walk in these shoes.” Then, and pardon the obvious hyperbole, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. I can NOT walk in this boy’s shoes. I can not imagine living in fear of my older brother, who is supposed to love and protect me. I can not imagine being responsible for a three year old child when I am still a child myself. I can not imagine living on the brink of poverty and going without so that I don’t burden my mother who isn’t really taking care of me anyway. And, I certainly can’t imagine having to deal with all of this while struggling with a learning disability that has held me back my whole life.
I’m sure most of us can’t walk in this boy’s shoes. As teachers, parents, advocates and human beings we need to have deep compassion and understanding for what our students are living with and educate ourselves on the social and emotional effects these situations have on their lives. It’s no wonder that school is not the answer for so many students in the special education system, but, somehow, the street is.
Any child living with a learning disability lives with something we can never fully understand. Discrimination, bullying, anxiety, feelings of shame and depression or hopelessness are just a few of the obstacles they may need to overcome. We must get to the heart of the matter and plant the seeds of self-esteem in our students and children so that they are armed with the confidence to stand up to the bullying and discrimination in a strong, positive way. So they don’t turn to the streets because of feelings of hopelessness. So they can overcome any feelings of shame, anxiety or depression and blossom into the successful students they know that they should be.
It is my intention to continue this journey of understanding through my blog. My ultimate goal is to lift the negative stigma of learning disabilities and spread an epidemic of compassionate understanding and self-esteem building that will change our children’s lives in a way they may have never thought possible.
With love and gratitude,
Laura Reiff is a special education teacher from Chicago, IL. She has been a special education teacher for over 10 years. Her expertise in this field has inspired her to write children’s books with a passionate mission to lift the negative stigma of Special Education by planting the seeds of understanding and compassion through self-esteem. She currently lives in Sylvan Lake, MI with her two dogs. This is her first children’s book.
The Adventures of Naomi Noodles: The Wonderful, Amazing, Splendiferous Me is an inspirational story about a young girl coping with dyslexia. In this, the first book of the series, Naomi faces the confusion of being told she is dyslexic, and the trials and tribulations of realizing how dyslexia can affect one’s life outside of just the learning environment. With a little help from a very special friend, Naomi begins to learn how to triumph over issues of bullying and family problems associated with her learning disability. Along the way she discovers- just how wonderful, amazing and splendiferous she truly is.Facebook: www.facebook.com/#!/laura.reiff.5 Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/pub/laura-reiff/24/209/310 My website to go live in mid-October: http://www.about-special-education.com/