Dear Kindergarten Teacher,
Hi! My name is Dominick, and I am going to be in your class this year. I’m very excited, but I’m very nervous too. It seems that many school districts act as if every incoming student is starting from the same level playing field. Most Kindergarten teachers don’t get to read medical and therapy records about their new students prior to school starting. That means that you don’t know about me, and what I’ve been through, and a five minute conversation with my mom really won’t give you enough of an idea.
I was born nine weeks early, and spent two months in a NICU unit, trying to survive. While there, I had the littlest, tinniest brain bleed – not enough to mess me up permanently, just enough to cause me delays in virtually everything that I do. I did not roll over at five or six months like other babies – I didn’t roll over until I was eleven months old. I didn’t crawl until I was 18 months old, and I didn’t walk until I was two. I was already a year behind when I turned two. I also didn’t talk at one year old like my peers did. I didn’t start talking until I was two. By then, my peers had at least fifty words in their vocabularies, and were starting to put two words together.
I had speech, occupational and physical therapy at my house, along with a teacher, every week for three years. They pushed me hard to do the next thing on the list, and they taught my parents what to do to encourage me. But, my brain is slightly damaged, and I take more time to learn things.
I don’t have “traditional” cerebral palsy, but I do have “soft neurological signs” which means there is definitely a difference between my right and left sides. Anything that requires two hands, like cutting meat with a knife and fork, or tying my shoes takes me forever to learn to do.
When I turned three, I attended a special needs preschool through the local Intermediate Unit. I had a wonderful teacher, and an aide, and received speech, occupational and physical therapy there too.
My Early Intervention team, my preschool teacher, and my parents will tell you that I have made A-MAY-ZING progress over the past five years. However, when I hit your classroom, and get compared to 25 other kids, you are going to find that I am the Caboose. While the rest of the train keeps getting pulled along, I will be at the very end. I will be the one who needs things explained more than once. I will be the one who finishes my work last. I will be the one whose printed letters are too big, and too sloppy. I will be the one that is removed from the classroom to go to Speech Therapy. I will be the one who has trouble making friends, because the other kids recognize immediately that I talk slower and struggle to do things. While they may not be mean to me, they may also not willingly include me. The other students may see me as a “baby.” I will struggle with my self-esteem, because I am always the last to “get it,” the last to finish an assignment, and the last to be picked by other kids.
My parents, grandparents and family friends love me, passionately. They tell me every day that I am a miracle, and they build me up, and help me to believe that everything is possible. But, I’m going to spend seven hours a day in your classroom, where I am going to struggle every day. Despite my parents support, it is you, teacher, who is going to determine how my first official year of school is going to go. For me, it’s a crap shoot. You may find a soft spot in your heart for me, and go out of your way to enjoy my sense of humor and my big heart. OR, you might find yourself frustrated with me, wishing I was not a part of your class. Can I remind you that how I feel about school and learning are going to be formed this first year, and if I don’t have a positive, successful year, there is an excellent chance that I will never like school?
Please help me to have a great year. I’m a good kid, with lots of potential, but I’m telling you flat out that I’m not ready for some of the stuff you are going to throw at me this year. It’s not my fault. I was born this way, and I’ve been fighting through it for five years.
Hi! My name is Kayla. My parents had me when they were 18 and 19 years old. Dad got in trouble and went to jail. Mom developed a drug habit. We live on welfare. Sometimes we have our own apartment. Sometimes we share an apartment with other people. Sometimes we just stay at someone’s house for a few days. Sometimes I go with Grandma. Twice now, people from the state have picked me up and left me with strangers called foster families. I have been at four different schools in the last four years. When I change schools, I get a new teacher, with new rules, and new expectations. Never, ever, is the new school using the same books or in the same place as the school I just left. My last school was no longer teaching cursive writing. This school is. All of the other kids have been practicing cursive writing for three months. I just got introduced to it today. I’ll never catch up!
Sometimes my mom goes to a place called rehab. When that happens, I usually stay with Grandma. Those are the best times. It’s quiet there, and Grandma always has food, and Grandma sets an alarm and makes sure that we are up in time for school. Then, mom gets out of rehab, takes me back with her, and it’s good for a few weeks. But, something always happens, and she starts to party again. Sometimes she and her friends party until two in the morning, and I can’t sleep. Most of the time, if she parties, she forgets that she has to get me up in the morning. I miss a lot of school.
Look around at all of these other kids. They are looking at the clock. They can’t wait for school to be done. I dread the bell. All of those kids will get on their buses and go home. They know where their home is. It doesn’t change. They usually know what they are going home to. When I get on the bus today, and get dropped off at “home,” I may find Grandma there waiting to take me, or mom crying with all of our stuff packed up so that we can move. I never know. It’s hard to care about or concentrate on fractions when so much else is going on in my head.
Hi! I’m Mark. I’m told that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Honestly, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I am way more logical than most of my peers, I am much more comfortable with mechanical things than I am with people sometimes, and I can get caught up in a hobby or activity to the total exclusion of everything else. So yeah, I’m different, but maybe in a good way? People say that they can talk to me for five minutes and realize that I’m an Aspie. I guess sometimes I “lecture” about my favorite topics rather than “converse” about mutually entertaining topics.
If my IQ was tested, it would most probably come back in the gifted range. I’m smart. I may have truly advanced abilities as far as memorizing, or computer skills. However, I think we can all agree that my brain is wired differently than most people, and no amount of “therapy” or education is going to change that. I see things differently, and therefore I react differently sometimes. I find the world to be a random place where virtually anything can happen at any time. The rest of the people seem to accept that without difficulty, but it bothers me every day. How can you guys stand it when the schedule inexplicitly changes? Don’t you want to KNOW what you are doing next? See, us Aspie’s, we are planners. We like schedules. We have a much easier time moving from one thing to another if we know in advance that it’s going to happen. If I could, I would have everything scheduled to within five minutes, every day, all of the time. It comforts me. If makes me feel in control. Along those lines, if I get to school and there is an unexpected substitute, I can feel my day starting to fall apart. If that substitute starts doing things in a different order, I totally feel like the world has shifted on its axis and that we are not safe. I start to worry about things, like will we have enough time for recess, and will we get to lunch on time? Schedules and consistency are important!
So, my brain works a little different. Let me give you an example: The teacher is doing a lesson on inference, which I’m told is being able to take little bits of knowledge, put them together, and come to a conclusion. So the teacher says, “This truck driver just pulled into his driveway. He has been driving for twelve straight hours. How is he likely to feel?” The rest of the class immediately shouts out, “He’s tired!” I’m the only one who is like, “What a bogus question. First of all, the law states that truck drivers can only drive for eight straight hours without taking a one hour break, so that couldn’t have even happened, unless he broke the law, in which case he should be arrested. Second, how in the world did 24 people come to the conclusion that he is tired? Maybe he drank four cups of coffee and two energy drinks. Maybe he is wide awake. You can’t KNOW that he is tired.” Not all teachers seem to appreciate that kind of response.
Because I am logical, I have a great deal of trouble with “generalization.” The rest of you people, who are termed Neurologically Typical, all seem to agree that a “vacation” is a wonderful thing to be looked forward to. When you use a general term like “vacation,” I am sometimes overwhelmed with questions – because in my mind, there are beach vacations, and city vacations, and amusement park vacations, and camping vacations – those things are not the same thing at all. For some reason, when one student says, “We went on vacation,” everyone else nods their head like that is good enough. It is not good enough for me. I want to know if you rode in an airplane, or drove. I want to know how long it took to get there. I want to know if anything unexpected happened. I cannot just accept “vacation” as a stand-alone word. Likewise, when I see a kid get their hand pinched in a door on Monday, and I see a kid face plant in the playground on Tuesday, I don’t see those things as related events. The rest of you neurotypicals seem to have this protocol that you follow – get the teacher, take the kid to the nurse….blah, blah, blah. I, however, see those as completely separate events – they happened to different kids in different places, causing different types of injury. How can the protocol be the same? Oh, and here we go again… “injury” – another catch-all word that can imply fatality, or booboo. How can one word describe the entire spectrum of accidents and the wounds received?
So, if you are following this, you can see that I have trouble with inference, and I have trouble with generalization. This leads to me sometimes having a hard time with “vague.” Vague does not work for a logical brain. If there is any word in the English language that I truly despise, it would be the word “maybe.” Maybe means nothing. Almost any question can be answered by yes or no. Maybe….based on what? When will you decide? Along with “maybe,” the phrase, “we’ll see” should immediately be banned from speech. Along with my discomfort over random, changing schedules, having an adult not be able to make a decision makes me extremely uncomfortable.
Along these lines, my logical brain wants everyone to simply say what they mean. Yes/no. When you say to me, “In a minute,” my logical brain starts to count down sixty seconds. Because that is a minute. If you go past a minute, you have just lied to me. I don’t take that well.
As school has progressed, and the work has gotten harder, we have reached a point in Language Arts where you are going to start asking questions of us students, like, “What do you think the Author had in mind when he wrote this?” As the other students start coming up with answers, I will sit there sweating, wondering why I can’t answer this, and wondering how the other students do. My answer is, “There is no way to know that.” And, apparently, I would be incorrect, but I do not understand why. Likewise, you are going to start teaching Figurative Language – similes and metaphors and idioms. You will talk about these things like they are some kind of gift to us students…. “Figurative Language is fun! It’s how we play with language.” Figurative Language is not fun. Figurative language is entirely groupings of words that don’t mean what they say. “You’re pulling my leg” somehow means teasing….but my brain will automatically go, “I’m not even touching you.” “It’s raining cats and dogs” will automatically make me look out the window. Why can’t we just say what we mean, and say “It’s raining hard?” You will work with me, and work with me, and send homework home, which my parents will help me with, and I will still have difficulty recognizing figurative language when I hear it, and I will never use it in my own speech.
You will also switch us up from writing basic, fact filled essays to writing imaginary stories about people. If you assign me a fact based report from science or history, I may very well write you one of the best reports you’ve ever seen. But, when you tell me to write an imaginary story about Bobbie and Susie going to the Tasty Freeze, you will undoubtedly be disappointed in my two paragraph recital. You will tell me that I didn’t include any emotions or feelings, and I will tell you that there is no way for me to know what Bobbie and Susie were feeling because I am not them, and they aren’t real. You will talk to me about imagination, and pretending. Around and around it goes, until you are in a position where you have to decide to fail me on this unit, or whether you need to change the criteria for me.
I will be a challenge to you this year, because my brain doesn’t work the same as everyone else’s, and therefore, I don’t learn the same as everyone else. But, I’m smart. There is an excellent chance that I will follow the rules in your classroom better than anyone else, because I like rules. Rules are logical, rules keep order. I am not going to be able to see everything your way, because I can’t, and you are going to have to figure out how to deal with me.
My name is Elise. I am just about the sweetest little thing you have ever laid eyes on. I am also one of the most sensitive kids you’ll ever have. I am only 7, but I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. No, my parents aren’t abusive. Everything is fine at home. However, I am what is called an “all or nothing thinker.” For me, everything is black or white, there is no gray area. Things are either right or wrong. There is no in between for me. I am absolutely, positively a rule follower – it would be unthinkable for me to not jump at your command, and I will NEVER, EVER talk back to you. Sounds good, right? Well….something is going to happen this school year, and it won’t be such a good thing.
See, I always feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I have always followed the rules. It’s so simple! An adult tells you what to do or not do, you do it, and bam, you never get in trouble and everybody likes you. Except sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the other girls call you a “goody goody.” Sometimes the boys tease you for being a baby. Sometimes things happen, like the teacher yells at the whole class and tells us to put our heads down, and I start to cry, because I’m being punished even though I didn’t do anything wrong. My parents say that I take everything personally, when it has nothing to do with me. But, they are wrong. If it happens in front of me, if I see it, it has everything to do with me.
I get worked up about things that other kids don’t. When we have a D.A.R.E. speaker come in, a police officer (one of the highest authority figures in the land), and he says that drugs are bad, and alcohol is a drug, I believe him. Why wouldn’t I? But, then my dad pops a beer on a Saturday, and I flip out. Beer is alcohol, and alcohol is bad, and my dad shouldn’t be drinking one. He’ll become addicted, become an alcoholic, we’ll lose our house and he’ll go to jail. When I tell my dad that, he gets a little steamed. He asks me why it’s sold at stores if it’s bad. I can’t explain how it can be bad, but still be legal. My black and white mind set really can’t work that out. So who is right, the police officer, or my dad?
So, here is what is going to happen in your classroom this year, teacher. You are going to tell the class something, like no recess, and the boy sitting behind me is going to call you a….well, I can’t say it, but it starts with a “b” and rhymes with witch. This is going to blow my gaskets. First, I am going to be shocked that this boy said something out loud that I wouldn’t even dare think. Then, I am going to become enraged that kids like him break the rules all of the time, and never seem to get punished. I am also going to think that I am your girl, I’m your helper, and because I love you and respect you, I am going to think that I am obligated to let you know what was said. But, just as soon as I decide to raise my hand to “tell,” a little voice whispers in my head that I am going to be a “tattletale,” which I know you don’t like either. So, I sit there, playing this scenario over and over in my head, trying to figure out what is the “right” thing to do, and the next thing I know, math class is over, and I’ve missed the whole thing. I have no idea what we were even talking about in math. So, I know I have to get past this and concentrate on school work, but I can’t. I literally can’t. I become consumed with the thought that I know something that you should know, but that I can’t tell you without causing myself more trouble. I worry about this all afternoon, to the point that I have a stomachache.
On the bus home, I can’t wait to tell my mother what happened, because she will know what to do. She realizes immediately that “something is wrong,” and I tell her what happened. Her reaction is nothing like I expect. She can’t understand why I feel morally compelled to tell the teacher. She can’t understand how this is any of my business. She doesn’t understand why I can’t just drop it. When my father comes home, they have a whispered conversation, and then dad talks to me in the same way. That I need to stop being so sensitive. That I need to mind my own business. That it’s not my job to inform the teacher about everything that she misses. They just don’t understand!!! This is a big, fat, hairy deal for me! I have thought about nothing else for five hours. And, I will lay awake tonight thinking about it some more. My anxiety about having this unresolved issue will eat away at me, until I am a nervous wreck.
Teacher, will you recognize that my anxiety is extreme for a child my age? Will you fall into the camp that it’s “just my personality” and that as I mature, I’ll “outgrow this?” Or, will you start wondering about my mental health? Will you start thinking words like obsessive or compulsive? What will you do? Will you ask for a conference with my parents? Will you refer me to the school psychologist? Will you and I work out a hand signal system so that I can let you know from my seat that I am becoming progressively anxious, so that you can help me follow the “action plan” that we have set up for me? Or, do I get to deal with this all on my own, until I am twelve and self-medicating?
Teachers – As a new school year is beginning, I want to remind you of how very important you are. Your job has become more and more difficult over the years, and sometimes it seems that nobody knows that but you. In none of those letters above did we talk about math lessons or writing practice. We talked about kids and their issues. I know for a fact that some people will read those above letters and say, “Well, yeah, a teacher might have to deal with one of things this year.” Are you kidding me? Half of our elementary teachers will deal with ALL FOUR of those things this year. It would not be unusual for a classroom to have one child with delays, one child in foster care, one child on the Autism spectrum, and one child with significant anxiety. That’s a normal classroom today! I know that your profession is being attacked, and I know that you don’t get nearly enough credit for what you do. I’m not the only one who recognizes that what you deal with in a seven hour day is sometimes the equivalent of being head trauma doctor at the busiest Emergency Room in the state. As this school year begins, please remember that what you do is critically important; those children NEED you. Everything that you do for them, from educating them, to helping them deal with their issues, to helping them discover a new interest – everything that you do can help to make your corner of the world a little bit better. If there is anything better than a teacher who loves their students, who actually takes a child by the hand and guides them through obstacles, if there is anything better than that, I don’t know what it is today. I wish for you the best year of your teaching career.