The next day, I check in with Ms. Anne. “I’d like to talk to her class, for maybe 15 minutes: would that work?” The class already has a classroom meeting structure, which I’ve seen this teacher use to brilliant effect to cover a variety of meaty social and emotional topics; she’s happy to call one.
I sit in a circle, with 28 11-year-olds, a rainbow of faces I’ve come to know over the years. Deena is fidgeting with her hijab; Leo sneaks a few glances at a sports book in his lap before noticing I notice and putting it away. They are, this week, the biggest kids at school. In three months, they’ll be the new ones, the small ones. They’ll be middle school students, dealing with all the angst of pre-adolescence, striving to find their places in a school that is so much bigger than the two bright hallways of the building where we sit right now.
“I wanted to tell you all that I gave Aniyah the cards last night, and she is so very grateful. They’re all in her hospital room for her to look at.”
A few small smiles and serious nods. No one wants to ask, so I keep talking.
“Aniyah will probably not be back at school this week. The doctors working with her are very, very good, and they know exactly what they’re doing, but she’s going to need an operation. It’s something they do a lot–she’s not in huge danger or anything. But she’ll be very tired, and she’ll need to stay there for awhile and then go straight home to rest.”
A raised hand. “Can we videotape the promotion? Can you bring her the tape?” Ms. Anne promises to make that happen: even if there weren’t dozens of parents filming every minute with their cell phones for themselves, she and her 5th grade colleague always make sure to record the event. It gives me a little shiver, seeing how relieved the kids get when they hear that, seeing how glad they are that Aniyah won’t miss out.
“Aniyah’s so lucky to have such caring classmates. And I can tell that you guys felt pretty lucky, too, having her in your class.” More nods. “This might be a nice time to talk a little about that–to send her some good thoughts and warm wishes, as she’s getting the help she needs to get better. Who can share something they appreciate about Aniyah?”
“She always smiles and says good morning to me.”
“She never complains.”
“She works hard at school.”
“I’ve never, ever, ever heard her say a mean word to anybody.”
That one sits for a moment, as we all think about it. Examine it. Realize it’s true.
“That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? When you think about it. It’s so easy for people to be unkind to each other–we don’t even do it on purpose all the time. And I think I’ve probably complained five times today already. But in all the years I’ve worked with Aniyah–and you know how teachers get, we can be pretty frustrating to work with, can’t we? In all the time I’ve known her, I haven’t heard her complain either. Or say anything mean to anyone else. That’s something to admire, I think. That’s something I’ve learned from her.”
I continue. “The operation Aniyah needs–it’s because there’s something called a shunt in her brain. Doctors had to put it in, many years ago, because her brain was developing differently. You’ve all noticed, I think, that Aniyah’s brain works a little differently. She learns a little differently. You’ve seen that Aniyah is still working on adding and subtracting smaller numbers in math, and that sometimes, I give her different reading work. You know that she’s learning at her own level, and you see that that level is sometimes different then yours.”
Heads nod, solemnly. A student offers, “I helped her with telling time, once.”
“Aniyah has learned so, so much at this school, and in this class. She tells me all the time how much she likes school, and how proud she is about what she’s learning. And her mom is so happy that she’s been here, with you.”
“Aniyah has had two teachers, every year. Her regular classroom teacher, and me. Do you guys know what I teach?”
“Yup. I’m a special education teacher. I work with students who may need a little extra help, who may have different ways of learning. Aniyah has some different needs and ways of learning, because of how her brain works. Just like she’s having surgery today, because of how her brain’s developed. And I think there’s a word you guys need to know for that. It’s a word I think you’ve heard a lot, but not in this classroom. It’s a word I think you’ll hear a lot in middle school, and I want you to really understand what it means.”
“The words people use to describe people whose brains have differences like Aniyah’s is “Mentally retarded.” When people use that word, that’s what it originally meant. It means slowed down. Like how Aniyah needs more time with addition and subtraction, when other kids her age are thinking about decimals. Aniyah’s in special education because she has mental retardation.” The kids look at me, solemn and still. I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I think it’s seeping in.
“Wiggle your fingers if you’ve ever heard those words used as an insult.” I wiggle my fingers with the rest of the room. “I don’t hear it much, around here. But I know it gets said on the playground, sometime. And I know I hear it other places, too. I know folks my age who use it, when they mean somebody did something silly or wasn’t thinking very well. I don’t think people realize, when they do that, what mentally retarded really means. What it really looks like. How it’s really about people–real people like Aniyah.”
“And now…man, now you guys are all graduating, and I’ve heard a lot of you talking about this school, and how much you’re going to miss it, and how you don’t know what middle school’s going to be like. Aniyah’s been talking about that, too, and I was talking a few days ago with her mom. And her mom is so worried, that when she goes to middle school, people won’t be as kind to her as they have been here.”
“Each of you is going to have a choice to make–the same choice you’ve had for years, really. But it might get harder. When you go to middle school, you’ll be with kids who haven’t been in classrooms like this one. You’ll be with folks who haven’t had a chance to get to know kids like Aniyah. And you’ll hear plenty of people using words like “retarded” and “Special Ed” as an insult. You’ll be around people who think making fun of other kids is a way to be cool.”
“I want you to remember Aniyah when you hear those words. I want you to think about how she’s never said a mean thing to anyone, and think about what it was like to be in class with her. Because you guys can bring this school–this way of treating each other–wherever you go next year. You can remember what it can be like.”
“Thumbs up if you think you’ll remember.”
And I’m shivering again, as all the thumbs go up.