Baby Steps

My young friend at school who has severe anxiety and spends most of his day in the special education classroom gave me a high-five today! It was super quick. Our hands only touched for a second, but I believe it is progress. He still won’t speak to me, but I sometimes get a smile. He continues to allow me to put a music stamp on his hand at the end of class as well.

I know he has rough days at school and often indicates that he’d rather be at home. Yet he seems to be smiling more this year than I remember from the previous year. Last year he wouldn’t come to art, music, or P.E., but now attends all three. Most of the time he simply observes and that is ok. He is there, taking in what’s happening around him, participating in his own way.

His teacher and paras love him so much. They refuse to give up on him, recognizing his capability for so much more. Progress is definitely being made, yet it could be easily missed if not looked for intentionally. I see this progress as he smiles and quietly teases with his teacher. It’s a beautiful thing.

That’s exactly what was happening today after school. I walked over to him and quietly asked for a high five. He smiled but hesitated. I teased a little, “Oh please. Can I have a high five?”  Then his teacher chimed in, also teasing,  “Don’t you give her a high-five. You better not give her a high-five.” We were laughing, and just as I was about to walk away, I saw his little hand move toward mine.  I told him “Thank you” and walked away…grateful.

Grateful to make another connection with this precious child.
Grateful for the connections his teachers are making.
Grateful that the power of love can be witnessed in these baby steps.

I Almost Missed It

Today’s first-grade music class was quite busy. We covered a lot of ground. Singing the musical alphabet reggae style, forwards and backward, along with Freddie the Frog and his friend Eli the Elephant. We also practiced writing and labeling bass clef notes on our music staff whiteboards. Oh, and I almost forgot-practicing our song for tomorrow’s Veterans Day assembly. Whew! What a whirlwind!

As students first entered the classroom, I noticed one usually perky friend was looking a little sad. He asked if he could share something about his parents going out of town. I told him yes, we would have some time to share at the end of class. With all those activities, I’m so glad I didn’t forget…

The class was winding down, students sat on the floor as I played a song on the piano. And then I saw my little friend and remembered my promise. He came and stood by me and begin to share, “My parents had to travel to California because my grandfather died.” He continued to explain that he and his sister couldn’t go with them, and he was obviously sad about that.

We talked as a class about how hard it can be when sad things happen and that we needed to be especially nice to this friend, helping him to feel better. Which of course lead to other friends raising their hand to share a sad story. The domino effect was in full swing. I needed to reel it back in before things got completely out of hand.

About the time I had decided not to call on anyone else, I heard this quiet voice from the back of the room. “When’s it my turn?” Some background information is needed-this friend is new, only four days at our school. He also has special needs which include difficulty with eye contact. I haven’t known him long, but I was surprised upon hearing his sweet voice and clear question.

“Of course, you can share. Come on up here by me.” Looking down at the floor he began to talk about how he missed his house. And how his mom had to work all the time. We talked about how hard moving can be. I reassured him that even though he was sad about moving, we were so glad to have him at our school.

Sharing this story with my daughter this evening it dawned on me…I almost missed it. I almost missed the chance to help this special student not only have his turn but also connect with his peers at his new school. He may not have looked me directly in the eyes, but his smile was communication enough. Hopefully, he went home at the end of the day with a new sense of belonging.

Thankful I didn’t miss those few precious moments today at the end of first grade music class…

Teacher as Student

How often do we as teachers think of ourselves as students?  Do we look for opportunities to learn from our students? On those required PD days or weekend workshops, do we truly put ourselves in the position of learner?  I know the answer for me is often no, not really.  It’s easy to just check off another box or keep pressing through my lesson plans.  It’s much harder to focus on what I don’t know and admit needing help.

This weekend I truly experienced what it feels like to be a student.  There were moments of challenge that made my head hurt!  Activities that were way outside of my comfort zone.  I’d forgotten how frustrating those times can be, especially when they involve disagreements or differences in teaching philosophies.  I don’t particularly like to debate and often avoid conflict.  But I was reminded of their benefit and usefulness when used in structured and limited ways.

The challenging times were followed by moments of encouragement and creativity.  When you sing or dance with a group of people you’ve just debated, the air clears rather quickly.  There really is something powerful about music and it’s ability to influence mood and atmosphere.  And that is the root of what made this weekend so special.

Our topic was “Teaching Music to Students With Special Needs.”  The group of participants was made up of music teachers and special education teachers.  As you can imagine, the personalities, opinions, and philosophies were strong on both sides.  With the help of our amazing instructor, we were able to work together, learning new material and sharing helpful ideas from our own teaching experiences.

Tomorrow I will head back to my classroom.  Yes, I will be taking super fun, new, and exciting activities with me.  Hopefully those will help renew my energy as the teacher.  But more important than the activities will be the attention I give to my students as individuals, looking for ways to both support and challenge all of them.  Focusing on each one as a person first, while also recognizing and acknowledging their differences.

Being a student is hard work!  And to be a great teacher, I have to continue being a student, too!

 

 

 

 

 

Person First

Sometimes my brain plays tricks on me

And the person in my head

Doesn’t match the reflection I see

My life has great worth, though not all believe

Yet from the time I was born

My mom reassured me

I shout out “Hello!” from inside my brain

Even though you can’t hear it

I’m shouting it, just the same

Who do you see when you look my way?

Will you take time to know me

Or will you just look away?

Do you ever think about what others see?

When they look your way

Are you fretful or free?

No matter our differences, I hope you’ll agree

We are all persons first

Always remember…Oh, please!

Face to Face with Child Abuse: Personal Reflections of a Teacher

My first experiences with child abuse stem from my years as a special education teacher.  I served students who had difficulty communicating.  The following reflections relate to one particular student who holds a special place in my heart.  Due to the need for privacy,  I will refer to her as Marie.  Not a day passes without thoughts of Marie. Feelings of sadness for her past, uncertainty for her present, but also hope for her future.  Her story has both broken and challenged my heart.

***

Words are powerful.  Even more so the images that accompany them.  Consider the word shelter.  For many of us, this word reminds us of safety and home.  Adding emergency brings much different imagery.  One final word moves us even further from protective pictures of safe and home… children.

Before my first visit to the shelter, my imagination created images in preparation for the experience of a clean building, professional staff, play areas, a visiting room.  The scene played out as follows.  A greeting from a smiling worker.  An onsite visit in a comfortable seating area.  After all, this facility provided care for children who had experienced trauma.

When map quest directed me to turn down a gravel road blocked by an iron gate, my previous notions of what the day would bring faded.  A quick phone call put me back on track, giving two guiding landmarks.  Passing the second landmark, I noticed an older, run-down, unassuming house.  This could not be the right place.  Private Property and Video Surveillance signs posted in the driveway prompted feelings of nervousness and uncertainty.

Taking a deep breath, I walked to the door, spoke to the cat on the porch, and rang the bell.  A calm, quiet proprietor answered.  Precious Marie stood nervously at the back of the house.  Initially, she was unsure and did not seem to recognize me.  After seeing photos from when she was in my class, one a selfie of us on the playground, she smiled. You were my teacher!  Yes!  She did remember.  Uncertainties quickly turned to smiles, hugs, and laughter.

My visions of a visit to the home vanished as I spotted her backpack on the table.  My young friend was ready to go!  Now there were completely different reasons to be nervous.  Where would we go?   The area was unfamiliar to me, but we could find shopping and food!  A trip to Walmart produced a doll, nail polish, and a new outfit.  We had lunch and painted nails while sitting at a local fast-food restaurant.  Looking at old pictures and taking silly selfies helped us to get reacquainted.  Returning to the shelter, I reassured her that I would visit again soon.

As I drove home, my earlier thoughts of shelter shifted from place to person.  Safety and security in my life came from the people placed along my path.  Now I had the opportunity to provide this for Marie.  I know she is not my child, but this new focus gives me courage for future visits. 

***

My daughter Rachel attends college, studying to become a special education teacher. She accompanied me on my second visit. Her presence provided calm and confidence. 

Our day was well planned.  After checking in at the shelter and signing out our young friend, we were ready to go.  First stop the zoo, then lunch, and finally shopping. I am not sure who was more excited about this outing!

I have witnessed Rachel interact with friends who happen to have disabilities on many occasions.  She treats them as peers, spends time with them socially, and has typical conversations.  She is also a passionate advocate for these special friends, always looking for ways to help them realize their potential. 

This particular day proved no different.  She embraced this precious girl with love and patience, looking for ways to give her independence and choices.  In instances where I would have made suggestions for Marie, Rachel recognized the importance of Marie having control over as many things as she could handle.  Following the zoo map, choosing what animal to see next, ordering pizza, and picking out sunglasses might seem insignificant. 

Although it was easier for me to visit the shelter this time, it was much harder for me to leave…

Rachel and I chatted on the drive home, recounting all the experiences of the day.  What a beautiful day!  We talked about the future,  what it will hold for Marie and what role we might play.  When I began to feel overwhelmed with questions about what lies ahead, Rachel calmly reviewed the events of these pasts few months. She reminded me of the circumstance that brought us to this day; receiving a subpoena to testify at a child neglect reliability hearing.

One step at a time, words of wisdom from my daughter as we headed home.  And a reminder when friends and family say Rachel takes after me,  the truth is I want to be more like her when I grow up…

***

Do you enjoy being alone?  I must admit I do not.  Although necessary at times, it is not a state I would often choose.  Others in my family seem to relish alone times, focusing on their particular interests.  Now consider the word isolation-it provokes a sense of being forced to be alone, having no control over our circumstances-an unpleasant solitude.

What if you were intentionally left alone without the warmth of human companionship?  Feelings of abandonment seeping in slowly.  Dwelling on these thoughts makes me sad and angry. 

A social worker visited our home for an assessment to determine if she would be allowed to visit…proceeding with caution.  Her love and care for this sweet girl were evident.  Although she knows terrible things from the past, she chooses to hope for the future. Most of our conversation stayed in that realm, thankful for current shelter, safety, and happiness.  Until she mentioned a fear of being alone in a room with the door closed.

My knowledge of the abuse suffered involved physical harm, and those incidences were over four years ago.  I had not allowed myself to think about what happened in the years following.  But now I heard this word-isolation-bringing a completely different understanding of what she had endured.  Imagine having the scars from being physically harmed, but also from intentional separation. Withholding the most basic human needs. We are talking about a child with intellectual disabilities, helpless to escape the cruelty imposed upon her.

I am not sure how to process this information.  If that is my reaction, imagine the difficulty for Marie.  There is no comparison, and at this moment, no sufficient answers.

***

When I consider my own children, the thought of them suffering or experiencing any kind of trauma is unbearable.  I want to be the best parent I can be.  Parenting is hard, bringing many responsibilities and challenges.  But it also produces rewards.  For example, hearing them call me mom is music to my ears.

One of the most thoughtful gifts I received from my husband was a sound wave print of my children saying, Mom. Hanging on the wall in our home makes me smile.  Am I a perfect mother?  Of course not!  But my children know they are loved.  My heart aches when they’re hurting and soars when they’re content.  The job of a mother is to love and protect.  That need is present from the moment a baby enters this world.  What happens when love and protection are replaced by isolation and abuse?  The results are devastating, creating lasting memories and trauma hard to overcome.

My mom is mean is not a phrase you hear every day.  Yes, I know kids sometimes exaggerate and say things that are not true.  Is it possible my own children thought I was mean at some point?  Oh yes.  I have even used the words mean-mama voice when talking about discipline.  I will think twice about using those words again.

Tonight I was talking on the phone with Marie.  She has temporarily moved from the shelter she called home to a behavioral assistance facility.  Rachel and I have been visiting her twice a week, and she calls us almost every night.  Our visits consist of coloring, games, reading her stories, looking at pictures, and laughter.  Phone calls are difficult. It is often hard to understand her. And the whole process is made more difficult by her disability.

Some moments, however, are crystal clear-tonight was one of those times.

Marie told me her counselor came today. She said they talked about her mom.  I was caught off guard at first, not sure what she would say.  And then the words came, my mom is mean.  She went on to recall how her mom would hit her at their house.  Hearing a child say their parent hurt them…I know she said more, but her words started to blur.  The truth is, I already knew her words were not an exaggeration.  I saw the bruises when she was younger, asked her what happened. I heard her say, my mama. I filed the abuse reports.  Then the family moved, and the abuse continued.  The abuse continued for four more years.

How was I supposed to respond?  The only thing I could say was, I am so sorry-moms are not supposed to act that way.  My heart hurts.  Words are not enough.  We will continue to visit, encourage her to talk about the hard things, and hopefully show her what it means to love.
Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. I Corinthians 13:7

***

Where does this story begin?  Each time I think about the answer, I find myself unable to choose just one point in time.  The decision to become a special education teacher, the first time I met Marie, filing the first DHS report.  These events culminate with this one story which has changed my life forever.

Many of my memories associated with Marie are sad, the kind of memories I would rather bury.  Before receiving the subpoena to testify at the reliability hearing, I had blocked specific events.  Four years had passed since she was my student.  And though I would never forget her, some things were just too hard to remember.  Until the day it became necessary to remember.

My heart sank at first sight of the word subpoena in my school mailbox.  There was no question who the notice concerned.  I followed the instructions on the letter and soon received an email filled with documents. Uncontrollable tears came as I read my own words from the reports I had filed.  And with them, the images I had worked so hard to bury.

I read, re-read, reviewed, made notes, whatever was needed to prepare for this hearing.  My testimony, if accepted by the judge, would provide a voice for Marie.  I was naïve in my hope for a settlement after the initial hearing.  That was not the case.  A trial date was set, and I would need to testify once again.

And so my reviewing continued, this time for the trial.  Sleepless nights, floods of unpleasant memories, and tears filled the space leading up to that day.  We have all watched courtroom scenes, real and fictional on television.  None of those could prepare me for the reality of testifying.  Being sworn in, sitting next to a judge, the jury on one side and the mother on the other.  A surreal experience.

My testimony provided details of events that happened years earlier.  Speaking with clarity and emotion, I remained strong in the face of a cross-examination which attempted to discredit everything I said.  Some images will never be erased from my memory. I made sure everyone in the courtroom understood that truth as I testified through my tears.  A tremendous weight accompanied this responsibility to speak for this one who could not speak for herself.

Relief, after the trial ended, was short-lived and replaced by concern for Marie.  Where was she?  Was she ok?  I knew I had to see her if at all possible.  Would she remember me?

My first visit to that shelter was just the beginning. My family spent the following year investing in this precious girl.  Phone calls, visits, birthdays, and holidays helped make sure she knew someone loved her.  Circumstances have recently changed with a foster home placement, and now I must let go.  I miss her.

***

Why is letting go so hard?  I remember the day we dropped off our son Robert at college.  I cried the entire drive there and back.  Two years later, it was Rachel’s turn.  It was still difficult to leave her in that tiny dorm room alone.  One more year until Ryan graduates, my baby.  Trying not to think about that just yet.

Today brings a different kind of letting go.  I had to let go of someone who was never my child but had found a lasting place in my heart.  Part of me wanted to be her mom.

Accepting that our family is not the final answer for Marie has been difficult.  Recently someone said to me, do you think your family could provide something another family could not. That stung, but it was what I needed to hear.  Suddenly the words letting go began invading my thoughts.  And then it hit me-maybe our purpose had simply been to provide love and friendship during a year of confusion, fear, and uncertainty.  And that was ok.

How appropriate that one year after that first visit, I receive word of foster home placement. Today some of my tears are selfish because I will miss her, but most are grateful-grateful for caring foster parents and a fresh start for our precious friend. 

***

The ending of this story is not clear.  As I patiently wait to hear how my sweet friend is doing in her new home, there is much reflection.  Our time spent with her this past year challenged us and brought us closer together as a family.  We love her, and I believe she loves us, even if we were not meant to be her family.

Marie made us laugh with her questions. Why are you so bossy? Directed toward my husband.  You almost married? Multiple times to my oldest children.  Why you so big? to my six-foot-three youngest son.  She brought tears to our eyes when she thanked us for singing happy birthday to her, telling each of us how pretty we sang.  And left us forever humbled by the way she trusted us…

In our last conversation, Marie mentioned the idea of moving to a foster home.  Her social worker had been preparing her for this possibility.  I asked her if she felt ok about that.  She smiled nervously and said yes.  There was a long pause and then her precious words, but I miss you.

Honey, I will miss you, too.  Always remember, what are we?

My friends.

Yes, sweet girl…always.

Small Gesture, Great Meaning

THE CAMPERS ARE COMING!

For their 6th summer, Champions Special Ministries have literally been rolling out the red carpet for their campers. This organization provides summer camps for individuals with special needs.  Campers are paired with a coach for the whole week. Their coach is with them all day, each day making sure they have the best possible camp experience.

My daughter Rachel and her friend Ariel have been coach and camper together now for 5 years.  They were also friends in high school where Rachel worked as a peer tutor.  Their friendship is special.  And though Ariel may not express herself the same way Rachel does, their bond is unmistakable.

Today I stopped by the camp for a quick visit.  I saw these two sweet friends sitting at the back of the room, participating in whatever ways Ariel found comfortable.  Rachel got up so I could sit down and talk to Ariel.  She wasn’t too sure about Rachel moving but looked me directly in the eyes as I greeted her and decided it was ok.  Communication is challenging for Ariel but you can see her mind actively working, desiring to respond.

I sat down in the chair to her left, turning towards her.  As I was talking about how good it was to see her at camp with Rachel, she gently reached for my left arm, pulling my hand around to her shoulder.  I wrapped my other arm around her back and just hugged her for several minutes.

She was soon ready for Rachel to retake her seat. Back to the comfortable friendship they share.  For a few brief moments, Ariel allowed me to also be part of her space.  That small gesture-moving my hand to her shoulder-had enormous meaning.

I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.

Find out more about Champions at http://www.championsspecialministries.org

 

Twenty-One Today

Twenty-one today, how can that be?

Seems only yesterday, you were just three

Bossy at times, so sassy and sweet

A perfect description, your Dad would agree

 

Today all grown up-compassionate and strong

Advocating for special needs, desiring all to belong

Embracing the future, choosing hope in the world you see

A beautiful young woman standing in front of me

 

Today I remember your blue eyes and curls

Treasuring sweet times with my sassy little girl

Remembering the past but not lingering too long

Learning from you what it means to be strong

 

Letting go while holding on is where I find myself

Cherishing the pictures which sit on my shelf

So thankful I’m your mom and you’re my sweet girl

Happy Birthday, Dear Rachel!  Today is all yours!

 

 

 

The Spotlight

Prior to teaching elementary music, I was a special education teacher.  Because of that experience,  preparing my students for our school’s Special Olympics assembly held an important place in my heart.  The entire student body would be singing a song celebrating our Olympians, and I wanted to make sure they understood the significance.  This was an opportunity for them to shine a spotlight on their amazing peers, peers who were often left out.  We discussed how each of us was special and had something to offer no matter our differences. During one discussion a hand went up, “You mean, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover!”  Yes!  As the conversation continued, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a memory of doing just that when I was teaching special education.  I proceeded to share the following story:

One day a new student came to my class.  He was non-verbal, had vision and hearing impairments, severe balance and mobility issues, and only had one arm.  The first time I saw him, I cried.  How could I possibly reach this child? Certainly I was not experienced enough.  I felt helpless. And then one day a college student volunteer was playing with my other students on the playground.  As we lined up to come inside, He began carefully lifting each child so they could touch the ceiling.  Each waited their turn, laughing as they were raised high up in the air.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my new little friend hobbling toward the college student.  He stopped in front of our visitor, and stretched his one little arm up as high as he could reach as if to say, “My turn, my turn!”  Squeals of pure joy came as he had his turn to touch that otherwise unreachable goal.  In that moment, this precious child was in the spotlight. 

As I finished my story, the realization that I had judged this sweet little book by his cover brought unstoppable tears.  My voice cracked as I finished sharing with my students, and I watched their expressions change from curiosity and confusion to understanding and compassion.  My unplanned confession brought new clarity and purpose for our assembly song preparation.  But more importantly it encouraged those familiar with being in the spotlight to look for opportunities to shine the spotlight on those not so familiar.

Like Daughter, Like Mother

I know, I know, you’d expect that to read Like Mother, Like Daughter.  People often describe how children look like, sound like and act like their parents.  As we grow older, we begin to understand the opposite is also true.  The voices of our own parents can be heard when we speak and their images seen in our reflections.  Perhaps wisdom allows us to see our children as teachers through a two-way mirror Continue reading “Like Daughter, Like Mother”