Last night I was given a gift. It was my second of the week and one that the teachers of young children rarely receive. When you specialize in teaching the youngest of human beings in how to prepare for the rest of their lives you are often working by feel in a very dark room. You can identify much of what is there eventually but it takes a lot of patience, considerable time spent feeling around and faith in your best judgement.
I had been surprised to hear from some old friends last week. They are the parents of a child I worked with about thirty years ago. At that time I was a resource teacher for the state of Arizona specializing in children with developmental delays, aged 0-5. Their son had been one of my students, in point of fact, he had been one of my favorite students.
At the time he was three or four years old with a diagnosis of significantly developmentally delayed. That was all we had to go on. Language was a severe problem, motor coordination was an issue and he seemed to struggle with sensory input overloads.
But every day when I saw him he was cheerful and ready to try whatever I asked of him no matter how hard and he had a great sense of humor. He laughed at things that I laughed at and that was what gave me hope that I was succeeding as his teacher.
Many educators realize the value of a sense of humor as an indicator of learning ability and possible intelligence potential. (1)
A couple years ago while teaching second grade I received a new student. He was angry, he was unruly and he had no skills. I mean NO skills, he was unsure about most of the letters of the alphabet and only recognized numbers to 5. He did not know that two fingers plus two fingers always added up to four. No matter how many times I showed him in those first few weeks he always had to do it himself and count the fingers to make sure it was true.
But within a few days I realized that he had a great sense of humor and he could make others laugh — and he enjoyed this talent immensely.
It was at that point I knew he could be taught and that while I could not guarantee how much he would learn, I knew that he had only begun his education and it was not up to me to set limits for his development and intelligence; it was up to me to restart the process and let it run its course.
I started by farming him out to kindergarten classes as a helper. He enjoyed his role and felt less vulnerable in with the younger children. What’s more he was exposed to a curriculum that was more attuned to his educational level at the time. When he came back to me I had my aide work with him one on one to try and develop the skills he was lacking.
It soon became apparent that he had some significant learning disabilities and that I could not support him enough in my class despite everyone’s efforts and I began paperwork and the process to get him into a full-time resource setting. Fortunately we had the perfect class on campus and we were able to make a smooth transition to the more appropriate learning setting by the end of the year.
Over the next two years I saw him regularly and was thrilled at his progress. When his teacher told me he was starting double digit addition I literally excused myself, went int the men’s room and I cried. The magnitude of him being able just to attempt that simple mathematical procedure was overwhelming because I knew where he had started out.
He had also become a leader in his class and then came the word that his family was moving. I was worried, he was doing so well, would he have to start all over?
Last week his former teacher emailed me to let me know that she had heard from his new teacher and he has smoothly moved into his new class, continued to improve and what’s even more important to me, he had re-established himself as a leader and was a delightful addition to the new classroom.
Will he go to college, will he become a famous politician or a well known professional? I have no idea and what’s more I don’t care. I know he feels accomplished and recognizes that he has valuable skills and a role in his own world.
That email was the first gift I got. Dinner with my friends from thirty years ago was the second. They brought me a newspaper from Florida where they are now living. On the front page was an article about their son, the little boy I had worked with so many years ago. They shared some of his life since I had last seen them, that he had a diagnosis now of fragile X syndrome (FXS) and they gave me the article which detailed that their son at 34 had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.
He still struggles with some language issues, he has a susceptibility at times to events that cause sensory overload and he lives in a group home that houses others with fragile X. (2) But to see the pictures of him up there with the Rabbi, to know that he had decided he wanted to do this and he studied tirelessly with the help of many others who ensured that it happened, that was was another amazing gift that I never saw coming.
All those years I taught on faith. Faith in my students, my abilities to recognize their needs and faith that somehow when they left me they would be OK. Sometimes faith is all teachers have. Unless they get lucky and someone gives them a gift.