Last week, I was doing my thing with Saleem–checking in with him, as I do every day, about Good Choices and Challenges, writing his note home. He was, as he usually is, initially defensive, initially self-centered–I moved him, as I usually do, through understanding the impacts of his actions on others, helping him strategize for next time. I reminded him, as I always do, of the times I saw him doing the right thing, the positive impact that has–every day, Saleem does at least ten things that violate the social contract, and as necessary as it is to process at least two of those things in depth, it is equally if not more crucial to draw his attention to the times when he’s successful. He asked me, in a voice of initial outrage, why he got a note home every day when other kids didn’t: gently but truthfully, I helped him accept that he presented, right now, with a need that other kids don’t have.
As I did all this, I felt someone’s eyes on me–the grandfather of another student, one of the students who didn’t need a note. I lowered my voice a bit, talked up the successes, monitored to make sure Saleem wasn’t uncomfortable with the audience that he actually didn’t notice that either of us had. The bell rang, Saleem darted off, and the grandfather approached me.
“I don’t mean to eavesdrop. But you are an excellent surrogate parent. And a child psychologist. And you are grossly underpaid for the work that you do.”
I thanked the man as his grandchild popped out of the classroom and into his arms–the boy sweet and easygoing, his learning uncomplicated. It is always in some ways gratifying, when someone outside of my profession recognizes some of the challenges within it.
But then it made me think a bit, about what “paid” even looks like. I thought about the things I’ve been able to see and do, the kind of impact I’ve been able to have. Jose Luis at my first elementary school, a third-grade boy who had never spoken a word when I got him, not because he physically couldn’t, but because the process of communication had never made sense to him. He hit, he kicked, he bit, he screamed–I took him into my class from another class that couldn’t deal with him, because I felt like I might be able to do something here. I figured out that he felt calmer with exactly three legos in his hand–one blue, one red, one green. We used those three legos for all kinds of little lessons, and one day, I heard him speak for the first time–asking me for the legos. Blue. Red. Green. I taught that kid to talk. I will never forget that.
Even now, there’s an outsider art gallery I go to at times, a day program for adults with developmental disabilities, where the clients create and sell their work. One of the artists makes amazingly detailed paper replicas of the medical equipment that has haunted his imagination since early childhood–he was born intersex and physically compromised as well as developmentally delayed, and his art plays out his anxieties about who he is and who takes “care” of him. It is not hubris on my part to say I helped get him where he is right now–the art program would not take him until I and my coworkers got his behaviors under control.
I think of Finn and the pathways, how I’ve helped him develop a system for understanding his actions and the responses they bring. I think of Ja’Neesha, who bites a lot less now that we taught her to blow kisses. And I think at last of Saleem, playing on the slide after the bell, with skills he didn’t have before I got him. It’d always be nice, I guess, to have a bit more money. But there’s another kind of payoff, and it makes me feel so rich.
What do I make? Let this guy break it down for you. I make a difference. And most days, that’s good enough.