It’s 11:30 on a typical Thursday, and Finn and I are having yet another power struggle. There’s a math quiz, which he and his inclusion partner, Yosef, both need to take individually, in a quiet spot. Yosef is soft and eager and will get much of it wrong–while he remains deeply challenged by the actual concepts involved in math, it has never occurred to him that a quiz is something you can refuse to do your best on, and many years of adult praise have left him very heavily invested in putting numbers and stuff on papers with his name on it. One quick glance at Finn reveals that he’s in fighting mode again–seeing math not as a concept to be mastered, but an enemy to be defeated, and utterly prepared to inflict collateral damage on anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire. I look at the para who supports both of them, gesture to Yosef and the quiet table on the other side of the hallway. She nods, and mouths a thank you. Finn and I get started.
“I’m not going to do this.”
“It’s in your inbox, buddy. Work plan?”
That’s the shorthand we’ve designed–to make clear that participation of some sort in an activity is an absolute non-negotiable expectation (inbox), while simultaneously stating that there can be some flexibility in how that plays out. The IEP goal, verbatim:
Given an assignment which has multiple components for completion and indirect verbal prompting paired with a graphic organizer, Finn will develop a “work plan” with 3 or more sequential steps, identifying reasonable expectations for himself and areas in which others can provide assistance, on 3 of 5 opportunities as measured by teacher observation/work samples.
“I don’t want a work plan.”
“Because you can already do all of it, without assistance?”
“No.” I know what’s coming next, but I let him say it anyway, because I’m hoping one of these days, he’ll realize what it sounds like.
“Because I don’t like math. I don’t like to do it.”
Normally, my approach is to let that sit for a few minutes–giving him no additional stimulus, making no argument, just tapping the inbox and waiting for his next move. Which is typically a long, fruitless rhetorical about the injustices of math instruction, pleading hyperbolic offers to do anything but math right now, enormous real tears and a wee smidge of yelling, then finally the realization that none of that shit works. Because this seems to be the pathway Finn needs to travel. It was, his mother told me, exactly how things unfolded with reading–because before Finn became the current prodigious literati who topped out at high school passages on the standardized comprehension test, he had to be five years old and confused about phonemes. It had to be difficult, before it got easy. And difficult is not something Finn comfortably sits with.
He doesn’t seem to know how to say “It feels too hard.” But he’s gotten really, really good at saying “I don’t like it.” I hear him now, preparing himself to launch into the dead-end pathway, and it honestly feels a bit too hard for me to deal with–all the words and flailing before he gets it done. I speak before I can stop myself, as I envision what’s ahead for us.
“Finn, do you genuinely think that I like what I’m doing right now?”
“You’re absolutely right. I don’t. But I’m doing it. Because it’s my job.”
An incredulous noise. “Really? It’s your JOB to make people do things they don’t want to do?”
“Sometimes, dude…yes. Sometimes, it’s my job to make people do things they don’t want to do.”
And then, a shred of what I recognize as functional echolalia–Finn saying to others exactly what’s been said to him, so that the pronoun doesn’t match but the message is correct. Like a kid who says, “Do you want juice?” when she’s asking for juice, herself.
Finn shrugs his shoulders, and the words tumble out. “Imagine how hard that must be.”
I sit with that for a moment, gut-punched in the best possible way, because his voice is quiet and perplexed when he says that: his words don’t have the bitterness that the other words had. He is, I realize, actually doing himself what he’s telling me to do. And I realize it’s time for me to return the favor.
“Finn, thank you. Thank you, because I think you can imagine. And I’m glad you’re trying, a little bit, to do that. I think you are starting to recognize how sometimes, people around you have a difficult time with something, and I’m really glad you can do that.”
“Now, understand something: I can do that, too. I can imagine how hard it is to be Finn right now.” He quirks an eyebrow from under the table, looks up at me in an invitation to continue.
“I can imagine being an incredibly smart and gifted fourth grader, who usually finds that things come very easily to him. I can imagine him looking at that test and realizing, wait, maybe not all of this is easy. There might be some he doesn’t know, and no matter what, motor skills are tricky sometimes so it might take some effort to draw the right kind of angles. I can imagine him not wanting to do any of it, because then he might have to admit that there’s one he doesn’t know. I can imagine him wishing there was a world where he only had to do what he wanted to do, and he didn’t have to do what he didn’t want to do. So I can imagine exactly this happening.”
Imagine how hard that must be.
I’d like to say that Finn immediately comes out from under the table, that we hug, that we talk more, that an understanding is reached. The truth is less inspiring. I’d said what I wanted to, for myself as much as for Finn, and I let the words sit for a few minutes, below the table with him. I don’t know if the speech did anything. He may have just gotten bored.
Finn comes out and takes the math test. The work plan involves him attempting 75% of the problems independently in order to satisfy the requirement: every additional problem can be done open-book and counts for another minute of earned computer time. Spared from a situation in which he’d have to admit that he doesn’t, initially, know how to do something, he finishes it all in time for lunch. Even with the tantrum, he gets done before Yosef.
Ultimately, Finn’s challenges are not about math. Ultimately, my teaching is not about math with him. We move, day by day, through a world that does not initially line up with his understanding, his expectations, his preferences. A messy human reality that, unlike the computers that give him such comfort and satisfaction, he will never fully be able to grasp or control–that he cannot turn off when he wants to leave the room. I try to move this utterly black-and-white child through a universe of gray, to help him accept that “not perfect” is good enough, that it’s okay to fail, as long as you try. I help him make a plan, without knowing the end yet, and I try to convince him that these plans are worth working on.
Imagine how hard that must be.