Tag Archives: disabilities

What to Expect When You Have Expectations

One thing I don’t ever want to hear my students say is, “I can’t.” That’s the kind of toxic language that too many students have internalized too many times. Too many hopeful, eager students have been turned sour by disbelieving, uninspiring adults. Too many promising minds have been lost to too many negative mouths.

A little boy in my class came to me from a less restrictive environment a few months ago. The poor kid was floundering, lost in a tide of confusion and self-doubt. He looked – and was – miserable. Distant. Blank.

At first, he started coming to me just for reading. He got a special seat right next to me and, little by little, started coming out of his shell. Though he’d sometimes cry, “I want to go back to my real class,” I remained firm with him about all the reasons he should – no, must –  embrace his new class. One of my most gregarious students took him under his wing, and I made sure to do the same. On more than one occasion, I made it crystal clear to him that in my class, he was expected to conduct himself – socially and academically – in certain ways. That meant trying things that were hard, learning ways to manage them, and eventually, succeeding at them. He needed sensitivity and caring, but he needed to be pushed, too.

It may have been tough love, but he got the message (and learned to take pride in a new way of being). Before long, the boy was leaping out of his chair every time I came to his room to bring him to mine. His dazzling smile spoke words he was unable to: “I’m learning. I’m improving. I’m gaining confidence. I’m capable. I’m smart.”

Soon enough, his family agreed to move him into my classroom full-time. His network of new friends expanded, as did his academic knowledge and his understanding of his own potential. During the first full week in my class, he produced math writing that impressed his classmates, me, and the administration. He proudly took his polished, if not perfect, work to the common bulletin board all classes share on my floor, and hung his paper there himself, an enduring trophy on display to remind him of his ability. Each day when we passed the bulletin board after lunch, his new friends and him would beam just knowing it was there.

Those who believed in him from the start were thrilled with his new zest for school, love of learning, and newfound confidence. “You see? I told you he could do it!” came from one colleague. When I told the principal about the way he races into class announcing to me he’s here and ready to learn, she said, “That gives me goosebumps.” Those of us who believed in him relished in his newfound, humble pride. Those who never took the time to try found no joy in seeing they were wrong all along.

But the proof is there.

On previous math tests, he averaged in the 40s. On his first test in my class, he scored an 80. Today, finishing up the second test, he scored an 88.

This boy, who barely could get a word down on paper at the beginning of the year, now uses outlines to write topic sentences, supporting details, and a conclusion.

This boy, who spent more time looking at his fingers than worrying about books, now listens to complex texts and discusses them with partners.

Don’t tell him what he can’t do. Don’t make him think he’s less than awesome. He deserves better.

This isn’t only about me. Plenty of teachers have high expectations and powerful beliefs in their students’ abilities. But too many don’t give their students a chance. That pisses me off. We are meant to teach the students in front of us: not just the easy ones, not just the ones who retain and understand everything.

Saying a child can’t do something, or promoting that belief with actions toward the child, is poisonous. Poison injures, sickens, and defeats. If you think the kids don’t know they’re being poisoned, just consider the difference my student has enjoyed. Coming from a culture where the bar is set low and students are encouraged to crawl under it, going to a culture where the bar is set high and students are implored to jump over it, he sees it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you will do. And you will do it.

I firmly believe that our students will only rise to the challenges we present to them. If we set a standard of busy work being acceptable, confusion being typical, and belittling being preferable, we will surely lose our kids. Do they deserve that? It makes me angry to think there are people who don’t realize they don’t.

Counter those expectations with challenging work, clarity, and emotional support, and just like the little boy’s smile, all students will have a chance to shine as they were meant to.

I Was a 6-Year Old Freak

On this summer vacation, I was normal. On another one, I was a freak.

I woke up that morning screaming in pain, struggling to move my legs. No doubt, I put quite a fright into my parents who, in the midst of our summer vacation, were confronted with their 6-year old son suddenly being unable to walk. The pain in my thighs was extreme, and in that funny way the mind has, I can still, in a way, feel a dullness now as I recall that scary time over 20 years ago.

To be sure, most of this experience is a blur to me. Only select images remain in my memory: the moment I woke up with the pain (I can still see my bed in the hotel against the wall, which was on my right); having to be lifted off the toilet, useless legs dangling; laying on a table in some strange doctor’s office with my parents on the phone to my pediatrician.

Turns out I was hit with something not uncommon in boys my age called toxic synovitis (or, in more child-friendly terms: growing pains). It only lasted a few days, but something happened during that period that has informed my rationale on a very touchy topic.

Our family planned to visit an amusement park on this vacation, and, I guess the stress of carrying me the whole day would have been too much for either of my parents. Or maybe I would look kind of silly (I was pretty tall) being shlepped around like that. So, I rode in a wheelchair.

To this day, I can still feel the endless pairs of eyes boring into me as I went through the park. It must have been a mixture of pity and curiosity from these people, but I didn’t care what their logic was. I was embarrassed and made to feel like I was less than myself. I was a 6-year old freak.

My mother worked the majority of her career in a school for young adults with disabilities, many of them severe. My parents took us to the Special Olympics in Connecticut one year, and a childhood friend of mine competed annually in Long Island’s Games for the Physically Challenged. For me, a wheelchair or a person with a disability was something I may have been curious about, but I was always told not to stare, AND I knew that people with disabilities were above all, people. (My mother is no doubt crying as she reads this, however I will give it up to my father, too. After all, he was the one who drove us to these places! His presence affirmed the message my mother passionately delivered.)

Unfortunately, the parents of the people at the amusement park must have failed to deliver the same message. Therefore, I, the curiosity, the exception, the thing in the chair, bore their ignorant eyes.

I bring this up because, with the conversation about disabilities that took place in my classroom this week, I was brought back to this low point in my childhood. I decided to let my students into this personal part of my world and shared what it was like for me to be in a wheelchair, and how uncomfortable it felt to be looked at like I was. They were fascinated and inquisitive, as kids often are. And as we had created a list of “Ways We Can Help Someone in a Wheelchair,” including tips like “Be respectful,” I suggested we could add, “Don’t stare.”

Even as I sit here on my high horse, I would be lying if I said, growing up after my own personal experience in a wheelchair, I never stared at a person with a disability. I have, and I’ve been wrong every time. Sometimes you just can’t stifle a child’s curiosity, no matter how socially inappropriate it is. The difference is, my parents used my interest as learning/teaching opportunities.

You’ve read about my friend Greg, who I prejudged pretty wrongly. Whenever Greg and I found ourselves in a public setting, I could feel the eyes following him wherever he went (much more obviously than he could). In fact, it was on a radio road trip to the same state where I rode in a wheelchair that someone made some assumption out loud about him based on his disability that nearly caused me to fly off the handle.

In college, I wasn’t mature enough to say anything to these ignorant, unknowing people other than, “Yeah? Is there a problem?” or “Nothing to see here.” Now, I find myself trying to impart to my students what my parents taught me in their words and actions – people are people.

My story is insignificant compared to the challenges so many people face every single day of their lives trying to be accepted as themselves. At the time, the pain was traumatic, but now I can look back on it and remember it as a hiccup. However, I must still say it was a bit of a life-changer for me. I can not forget the way I felt being treated like a sideshow.

The biggest hurt from riding in that wheelchair was the fact that other children were staring at me. They couldn’t even see me as another child hoping to have a great day at the park – they only saw me as a mass of metal and rubber with glasses, someone they would never choose to play with or invite to their birthday party.

I am grateful for the way I emerged from the whole toxic synovitis/wheelchair scare. First of all, I came out of it in fine health (now I know it was no big deal, but as a 6-year old, you wonder if you will ever walk again). Second, I gained the perspective to know what it’s like to be in a wheelchair with people judging you.

I share this story in the hopes that it inspires you to reconsider your thoughts, or help your students reconsider theirs, about people with disabilities the way it inspired me and my own students. There was a person behind that temporary disability.

There is a person behind every disability.

Submitted as part of Vicky Loras’ blog challenge, “What’s Your Story?”