The first week of school is a time for introductions, for community building, to set out our roles and define plans for the year. Classroom teachers spend hours, chunks at a time, on routines and procedures–this is how you put the chairs up, the paper gets put here. Kindergarteners grapple, for perhaps the first time, with the sad, salient reality that it is simply not possible for EVERYONE to be first in line. The newly minted third graders discover the big play structure.
Introductions are huge. Every year we have a new crop of kindergarteners (often younger siblings to last year’s model), and a smattering of new faces. This time around, we absorbed a number of new kids from schools closed down locally–a belly-up charter, a few district cost-cuts. In June, every year, we make the new class lists, intentionally shuffling the deck a bit to give the next grade up a mix of old and new friends.
And in the first couple weeks, I introduce myself also. Depending on the grade, depending on the teacher, depending on whether I have students in that class and whether or not most everyone knows me, I try to put the right amount of facetime pretty much everywhere in the school, because it’s better for my program if no-one defines me as That Woman Over There, I Think She Does Special Ed. I help kindergarteners line up; I pop in during story time. Before most parents found Velcro, I tied truckloads of shoes.
In some cases, though, I make a formal introduction. For the upper-grade classes, I have my speech all written out. Indulge me for a moment while I share it with you.
I begin by simply saying, “Hi, I’m Ms. Beth”, and then showing them the props. I hold a cane in one hand, a pair of crutches in the other. Raise each item high, turning them around. “What is this?” “What are these?”
“What is the same, about both of these things?” Kids notice form–they both have straight lines. A perceptive child may draw attention to the curves on the arm rests of the crutches, making a comparison to the crook of the cane. Both of them taper at the part that hits the ground. You use them to walk with. They’re both shorter than me.
“What’s different, between them?” Students notice colors, quantities, size. There’s two of the one. Those are silver–that’s made of wood. Someone tries to act it out–you use that one like this.
In teacher talk, we call this activating prior knowledge–setting the stage for the content to come. I give the kids a minute to talk amongst themselves about similar and different, use whatever the teacher uses to get them back together.
“I’m telling you this for a reason. And I’m bringing exactly these two things here for a reason. I had them to show you, because I’ve used both these things.”
“When I was your age, a lot of things were the same, for kids at school. I went to a school that was a lot like this one. I learned reading and math, and my teacher was really excited about science: we did a lot of experiments in class, just like you’re going to do.”
“I was the same as all of my classmates, but one thing about me was a little different. We’re all a little different, really. We’re all born with differences. Some of us are boys, and some are girls. Some of us have brown eyes, and some of us have blue eyes. Some have light skin, some have dark skin.”
“Well, I was born with blue eyes, light skin, and something called osteochondromotosis. Let’s go ahead and clap that thing out–it’s a huge word. Osteochondromotosis. (IEP connection to inclusion student in class: uses word attack skills such as chunking and blending. Zing!) It means my bones developed a little differently. It means that some of my bones stick out.” I take a deep breath that they don’t see, roll my left sleeve up. Show them. My elbow, for those who have not seen TeacherBeth in person, is a rather odd thing. Two inches of benign bone tumor protrude from it, making it look like it was broken once, and then poorly set. Some kids gasp. Two, today, covered their faces. A couple of them try to say something polite about it. There’s usually a boy who really thinks it looks cool.
“So here I am, born with blue eyes and light skin and a bump on my elbow, and I’m wondering–what do you think it was like for me at school sometimes? How do you think the other kids felt about me and the bump on my elbow?”
Some kids give the stock answer–kids should be nice. It doesn’t matter. Others imagine things playing out so much worse than they actually did. “Everyone teased you.” “School was just terrible.”
I let them know that, well, everyone’s right. “Most of the kids were nice to me. Some kids never noticed. And yeah, there were a few kids who noticed, and they did everything they could to make other people notice, too. I got a lot of teasing, from some of those kids. And you know that’s not right. You know how I felt about it. You know they got in trouble, and the teacher made them stop. But even now, I remember–I remember what it felt like. And part of why I’m here is to tell you, I understand. If something like that happens to you, if kids are cruel to you because of something about who you are, there are people you can talk to. I’m one of them. Tell me.” I gesture to the teacher, to the paraprofessional if she’s in there. “There are grownups who can help you. It’s not tattling. Tell them.” Students nod, solemnly. No matter how many times we say this, it’s never too many times.
“So, anyway, here I am at school, with a math book and a science experiment and a bump on my elbow, and in 4th grade–right where you are–it’s time for something even more different about me. Because the bumps on my bones aren’t just on my arms: they grow on my legs, too. Little enough that they don’t stick out. But big enough that the doctor lets me know–you need an operation, or you won’t walk normally when you grow up.”
“Who here has had an operation? Who knows a kid who’s had one? I missed a couple weeks of school, and the best thing about that whole time was the cards from my classmates–I still remember looking at them, in the hospital, missing my friends and feeling so happy to know that they were thinking about me. You can do so much, for the people around you, when you do just a little thing, to show that you care.”
“When I came back, I was the same person I’d been before, but things were a little different. I came back in a cast, on crutches, like these. I stayed on them for a month or so, while my leg healed. And I could still do reading and math and science and all that, but there were some things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t run laps at pe. I couldn’t carry my lunch to my table. I couldn’t open the door and get myself inside.”
“So, what do you think happened to me at school, for that month? You’re right–people helped me. They’d carry my tray. They’d open the door. Do you think they were just teachers, or did other kids help? Exactly–sometimes, the best person to help is another kid in your class.”
“I had two more operations while I was at school. I went to school on crutches, in middle school and in high school. And now, I’m an adult, and because of the surgery I had as a kid, I can walk pretty much the same as anyone else. But sometimes, my bones hurt again, and that’s when I use the cane. You probably won’t see me doing that at school–but if I do, you know why.”
“The doctors can’t fix the bump on my elbow. They said they could try, but if it didn’t go well, I’d lose the use of my wrist. I wouldn’t be able to use my arm the way I can right now. So I told them to leave it alone–it looks different, and sometimes, people say things about that that make me feel self-conscious or upset, but I’d rather look a little different than not have two good arms. Usually, honestly, I wear long sleeves to cover it–but now that you know, I’m wondering–can I trust you all to not point, not stare, not make fun of me? Maybe I can wear short sleeves in this class.” It is a testimony to basic human goodness, the emphatic nodding from so many of the kids. They’re pumped. They’re signing up. They are Gonna Help the Grownup. I’m having a corrective emotional experience right now, in this overcrowded hot classroom with new posters on the walls. I am so very hopeful that they’ll apply this–not to me, but to each other. I can look at these faces and really believe that they will.
“So now, you know something important about who I was, when I was a kid, and a little bit about me now. But the most important thing I want you to know about me now is that right now, I feel so lucky to be a teacher here, and I feel especially lucky because of the kind of teacher I am.”
“I’m not a classroom teacher, like your teacher is. I’m what’s called an inclusion teacher. Inclusion means belonging–it means feeling like you belong. It’s my job to help keep our school a place where everyone belongs–a place where everyone does what it takes to make our school a safe, friendly, welcoming community. And it’s also my job to help support students who may learn a little differently, who may need a little extra support in, say, math, or reading, or how to make friends.”
“And one cool thing about my job–I don’t just get to work with kids when something’s hard for them. I also get to work sometimes with kids who are ready for a little extra challenge, like bonus math, or research on the computer. So you never really know why I’m working with different kids, you know? You don’t need to think that I only work with one kind of student, because the truth is, I get to work with every kind of student. We’re all learning at this school, and my job is to help kids learn.” I throw this in deliberately, just like I sometimes build a connection with the most popular kid in the room deliberately, because kids are insanely observant, and they all have their own opinions about why people do what they do. Awhile back, a student once told me, “you’re the leader of all the mental kids”–he was, well, a rather special case, who had self-selected into my army, but his perception did tell me something important about how I needed to be Mindful of Spin when it came to my job description.
“I’m excited about this year, and I’m glad you’re all a part of it. You’ll see me in here sometimes, and you’ll see me on the playground. Maybe you’ll have lunch with me. Maybe I’ll invite you to my office to do math.”
“I love being an inclusion teacher. And I love being here. And I hope, this year, that we all feel like our school is a place where it’s okay to be different. I hope it’s a place where, if a kid like me comes to the room on crutches, a kid like you can open the door. I hope it’s a place where we all really understand that it is never okay to give someone a hard time for something that’s a part of them–that we accept each other for exactly who we all are.”
Giving this lesson terrifies me. It brings me right back to who I was when I was their age–the schoolyard jibes I still remember, the fear that I felt in the operating room. But it also brings me back to what it felt like to read the messages that I now realize my teacher must have made all the kids write to me: we miss you. Get well soon. Come back. It reminds me of the kindness so many people showed to me–what it felt like to crutch-crutch towards the door and see a stranger running up to hold it open as I passed. And at the end of the day, this lesson is my adult self, connecting with my child self, processing the heart that I have and the way I make my living in light of what was true for me when I was growing up. That stuff happened. It did. And it made you who you are. It’s a kind of closure beyond what most people imagine, and I’m grateful, sometimes, that this story is my story. I’m grateful that my story can connect to other stories. I’m grateful for the stories we’re still writing, even now.