When I was teaching special education classes I often took my students out to grocery stores, fast food restaurants or shopping malls to teach them how to behave in community settings. We’d practice making purchases, placing orders, asking for directions. Quite often we’d be approached by friendly strangers, who would praise the kids for their good behavior, maybe ask where our school was located. Inevitably at some point, they’d turn to me and say, “You must be so patient!” A few even canonized me on the spot, telling me I’d get “a crown in heaven” for my work down here. That always floored me, but eventually I’d recover enough to force a smile and thank them for their kind words.
The truth is I often found these fawning compliments annoying. “Why?” I wanted to snap. “What make you think I’m so patient? You think these kids are so different, so strange that they require more patience than the average, ordinary, ‘neuro-typical’ child? All children need patience. My students are no different in that!”
Even other teachers would get into the act. “I could never do what you do,” they’d confide in the staff room, and I’d wonder if they’d somehow confused me with someone who had a kinky hobby or a second job that required late nights at the bus station. “You must be so patient,” they’d finally gush, and I’d release a sigh. Oh. That again.
The fact is teaching special education didn’t used to require a great deal more patience than teaching a general education class. You just needed a different kind of patience, different expectations, I guess. I knew the general ed teacher was covering A through Z in the same time that we would be focused on learning A and B, then repeating A and B, finally reviewing A and B. We all knew we had to move more slowly: it wasn’t a matter of patience, it was a matter of planning.
The secret was that these kids were more fun than you can possibly imagine. Most often they were less inhibited than your regular human being, unembarrassed to give compliments and affection, eager to try new things, tolerant of other people’s differences. It was fun to work with them. Not all day, and not every day, but a great deal of the time.
When I think of fun kids, I think of K. It will surprise a lot of people to hear that, even her parents, because K was a notorious motor-mouth and drama queen. She drove us all crazy at one time or another. But K was filled with joy. She seemed tortured at times, suddenly aware that other kids were shunning her, that adults needed a break from her and her demanding nature. But despite it, she seemed able to summon up a good mood at a moment’s notice. She could turn it around. She was always ready to laugh and sing.
I think of C, born in a refugee camp in Thailand. The first day of school he took my hand and tried to get me to hit my aide when she threw out left-over food in the cafeteria. How do you tell a kid from a refugee camp that in America health laws forbid us from sharing left-over food? C continued to be bossy and stubborn, but also charming as all get-out. He was the type of kid who would reach out to give you a hug, and then try to pick your pocket. He continues to be one of my favorite kids of all time.
I think of D who was somewhat chunky and a very slow walker. One day we walked to the grocery store, and D bought a bag of chips with the two dollars I’d given him so he could practice making a purchase. I told him no, you can’t eat it now, but later, after we’ve had lunch, we’ll all share some.
We went outside. It was one of those cold, overcast days, the valley engulfed in tule fog. My class line snaked through the shopping complex headed back toward the school. Suddenly D threw himself on the ground in front of a Chinese restaurant and refused to get up. He stretched out flat on his stomach, the hood of his bulky ski parka over his head. After ascertaining that there was nothing more wrong than a bad case of stubbornness, my aides and I cajoled and offered bribes. The other kids pleaded, but D would not get up.
“D,” I said sternly, “if you don’t get up right now, we are going to eat your chips.”
“No!” he bellowed as he pulled his hood more firmly over his ears.
Well, I’ve always said you should never make a threat you won’t carry out. So I grabbed the plastic shopping bag that lay at D’s side, pulled out he bag of nacho cheese Doritos, opened it and passed it around to the other kids. D didn’t flinch. He just didn’t care. I was forced to call the school and ask the principal to come pick him up.
As we waited for D’s ride I shook my head and said to my aides, “I spent six years in college so I could come to south Sacramento and eat this kid’s nacho cheese corn chips!”
We three adults exchanged glances, and then we burst out laughing. “This is the best job ever, isn’t it?” I said, and they both agreed.
Hey, please tell me about your best day at work. Or tell me about a day when you just knew you were earning your crown in heaven!