Ja’Neesha has acquired, over the course of the past few weeks, a homework folder, several paper decodable books, a few stolen math manipulatives, many pictures drawn for her by a sweet group of third graders, a very tentative understanding of “first work, then recess”, and…a best friend.
I first met Shamika a couple months ago in the context of informal recess observation of my other two first graders, before Ja’Neesha joined us. Primarily focused on whether or not the boy over there did anything particularly Unexpected , I still made a few mental notes. As she pulled one child off the monkey bars and yelled in the face of another one, young Shamika went in the category, “May not play well with others.”
And so, I was a bit nervous when Mrs. K expressed a preference for putting my new student’s seat right next to Shamika’s, on the grounds that Shamika would probably benefit from what Ja’Neesha was learning. “Her attendance is really terrible, and she hasn’t really gone through the kindergarten stuff yet. I thought she had an IEP, but it turns out she doesn’t–it was just that the resource specialist at her last school snuck her into the program because it was so obvious she needed help.” One of the most heartbreaking things about the way we do special education is that in most places, it’s still the “wait to fail” model–young children with screamingly obvious learning differences don’t qualify for services because the gap’s not wide enough yet between them and their peers.
And so, they sit together–the child who’s been labeled since the day of her birth, and the child who still needs a label teased out. The child who gets a 1:1 aide, and the child who will muddle through this year like she did the one before it, because maybe it’s dyslexia, but it could be crap attendance. And as it turns out, each is exactly what the other truly needs.
In Shamika, Ja’Neesha has found a steadfast friend and constant helpmate–someone to wait outside for her at recess, someone to bring her tissues and blocks and toys. Someone who will never tire of showing her how to do something. Someone who will protect her from any hint of playground teasing, with the same kind of fury I saw two months ago.
And in Ja’Neesha, Shamika has found the unconditional acceptance that she will honestly never get from any other peer. She’s found a child who has no preconceptions–who simply doesn’t notice what the other kids notice, who is utterly indifferent to “fat” or “slow” or “not so friendly”. Ja’Neesha gives her a chance to reinvent herself–to be the one helping, not the one being helped. She can be the smart one, the good girl, the role model. The one who can read, not those words but at least those letters, the person who can explain what has to happen next. The one who will try to do this difficult math assignment, because she needs to show Ja’Neesha that first graders persevere. We tell Shamika that Ja’Neesha will learn from her, and Shamika brings her absolute best self to that table.
It’s hard, and it’s irrelevant, to say who’s helping whom.