When you see monkeys travel through the jungle, the thing that is most striking is their speed. They move fast, and when they release their grip on one vine, they are already reaching for another. They operate on faith. Faith that the jungle is healthy and the growth is consistent. Faith that there will be another vine waiting, and they won’t reach out and find only air and a long drop to the jungle floor. It’s not hard to imagine why parents of special needs kids might envy our monkey cousins and their confidence, and their faith that they won’t fall.
I can’t overstate the fun of the Timehop app, which looks back at a specific date to posts made on your various social media outlets so you can do a kind of time capsule, “on this date” kind of post. Yesterday, I got this entry, from four years ago:
NOTE TO MAINSTREAM EDUCATION TEACHERS: If you believe that teaching special ed kids, and I mean really teaching them, is not your job, I’d like to suggest that perhaps teaching should not be your job. It’s not very impressive if the only ones you can reach are the easy ones.
I remember what this was about. We had just attended Schuyler’s final IEP meeting as an elementary school student. There were people present at this meeting with whom Schuyler had worked well in her early years with AAC. The special education team leader from her new middle school also attended and began what has been the most supportive teaching relationship in Schuyler’s young life.
The next three years would see Schuyler join band under the direction of two incredibly supportive and positive band instructors. In middle school, Schuyler would become a cheerleader, and would take classes in an environment of inclusion that challenged her. There would be some bumps, some of them bone-rattling, but Schuyler would not generally be low-balled or underestimated. If I could go back and watch Schuyler go through middle school again, in retrospect, I would have been much more appreciative of her teaching staff.
But back in this last elementary IEP four years ago, Schuyler’s mainstream teacher, with whom she spent about two hours a day, attended and gave her academic report on my daughter. That report, which was intended to discuss Schuyler’s academic progress in her mainstream classes and the ways in which the teacher was able to reach and educate such an unusual student, consisted instead of the following information:
1) Schuyler was always very nice.
2) Schuyler always cleaned up after herself in the lunchroom.
3) “To be honest, I didn’t really get to know Schuyler very well.”
At the time, my fear was in the unknown direction her education would take going forward. Would she be underbelieved in? Would she be overwhelmed by work that was beyond her capabilities without help? Or would her teachers find that sweet spot where she could find meaningful academic success with some crucial accommodations in her curriculum? Would she get by with a little help from her friends?
In middle school, Schuyler did succeed, with some ups and downs, and she did so because at crucial points in her journey, there were dedicated individuals standing there ready to lift her up, to drop crucial vines in her path. There were overbelievers like ourselves, people willing to take a chance on teaching outside their comfort zone and to admit that they were doing so, because there’s only one Schuyler, and no one really knows going in how to teach a Schuyler, or any of her friends. The joy and the terror of special education is the unpredictability of the teaching experience. Figuring it out as you go is how the best special educators do it, knowing when to allow their teaching to be informed by experience and when to throw it all away and turn to a blank chalkboard.
The thing that we got a peek at four years ago was just how easy it is for that next vine to be missing. We saw that the people who are so good with Schuyler are heroes precisely because they take chances with her. And that’s fantastic. It’s what every parent hopes for, that those dedicated individual teachers will find our kids. That’s not a special needs thing at all.
What is a special needs issue, however, is how when one of our kids gets overlooked, insufficiently believed in, undertaught, the cost is enormous. One year of that can set our kids back in such a way that can be impossible to recover from. Our monkeys have very inconsistent vines, and too many of them are crashing to the ground. We love those individual teachers who go above and beyond for our special needs kids. But we would much prefer that the learning environment itself be consistently inclusive. And that is all too rare for most of us.
Want to hear one of my red flags? A lot of parents complain, as they should, about their kids’ excessive homework. For Schuyler, I worry when she doesn’t have very much. If she’s being challenged in her classes, she requires extra time and extra help. Towards the end of elementary school, when she was partially under the care of a mainstream teacher whose belief in Schuyler was roughly equivalent to what she might have for a moderately well-trained beagle, Schuyler had very little homework. In middle school, she had a lot of it, and helping her navigate it was challenging for all of us. I can’t believe we had the audacity to complain about it at the time.
Now, in her first year of high school? I can’t remember the last time Schuyler had any homework.
My monkey will be leaving the jungle soon, emerging into the bright light of the adult world after high school. I feel like she’s running out of vines far, far too early.
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