Just Another Child

His mother dropped him into the third grade class one morning in late January with an apologetic smile and a hasty admonition.

"He's a real handful!" she said. "He takes ritalin after breakfast and lunch. I left it with the lady in the office."

"We'll work with him. We'll manage. He'll be fine!" the teacher tried to reassure. But, the mother was already backing out the door.

There he stood with his small chin and bottom lip set firmly as he stared back at the twenty-two pairs of eyes curiously giving him the once-over. They saw thick red hair partially obscuring intense blue eyes set in a narrow, almost elfin face. He was small for a third grader, though his records revealed he had been retained twice in kindergarten and was actually two years older than most of his new classmates.

"We are so glad you're here," the teacher smiled encouragingly. "We know we were getting a new student, and the boys have been wishing we'd get another boy."

After some quick introductions and welcomes, he took his seat with Rachel, Augustin, Chris, and Jonathan. This seating arrangement lasted maybe ten minutes as his inability to sit in work in a group became increasingly apparent. He would make faces at the other children and then burst out in a loud voice, "They're laughing at me!" or, "He's making fun of my name!"

His next seat was situated next to the paraprofessional's desk in the back of the room where he could see and hear but not be quite so distracting to the other children. Soon his loud outbursts of talking were joined by barking noises, restless fidgeting, tics (head-shaking), and sporadic movement around the room. The faces of the other children registered wide-eyed, gaping-mouthed shock. Some of the strange behaviors elicited giggles, but the bizarre actions frightened more than amused.

Several days passed. The new boy's behaviors and the attitudes of the other children worsened. The teacher and the paraprofessional took turns trying to keep their newest charge on task and working with the rest of the class. When his behaviors became too disruptive, he had to be removed form the classroom.

His behaviors were raising eyebrows, and the word "crazy" was being whispered in the teacher's lounge. But, he was not a bad child, bad in the sense of intrinsically cruel or hurtful to others. He could be manipulative, crafty, and deceptive if he saw that doing so would help him get his way. He might put stubbornly, refuse to cooperate, or even throw a tantrum if his was were denied, but he was not bad. In fact, he hungered after approval and acceptance just like any other child. Clearly, this child had special needs which would require very special strategies.

Many people have remarked how cruel children can be to one another, but children can and do exhibit wonderful kindness and understanding when they are led to do so. Pretending he was just like her other students would not have worked, so the teacher tried another approach, one of honesty and a heartfelt belief in the precious nature of every child. The teacher sent him on an errand with a note which read, "Please send some paper clips after you have kept this child with you five minutes." Then she spoke to the rest of the class:

I need to ask all of you some questions. What would you do if you found a baby bird that had fallen from its nest? What if you found a tiny kitten that had no mother? I feel so proud and happy that each of you would try to help a baby animal. Remember when Kacy had the asthma attack? Did she do it on purpose? Was it her fault? What about when Shawn broke his foot? Did we put him out of the room or make fun of him? Did we say we didn't want to be friends with either of them because they were hurt or sick? Of course we didn't! they needed us to help and be patient. We don't turn our backs on people who need us just because something is wrong. Girls and boys, we have someone in our class who needs us now. He is not doing all the things he does because he wants to be different. If our new student could choose anyone in the world to be like, the would choose to be like you.
Together, the class and the teacher formed a special plan. The teacher explained how she would ignore many of his quirky antics, and the students agreed to do the same. Everyone decided to make extra efforts to be helpful and patient.

After that conversation, the class began to help and even protect him. Students would volunteer to sit by him and help with his work or ask him to join their groups. He became an eager teacher's helper. He proudly displayed completed work and shared orally his knowledge of discussion topics. Gradually, classroom time began to improve for him, and things might have worked out differently if he could have stayed n that safe haven.

While his classroom behavior became at least tolerable, his actions elsewhere continued to single him out as disturbingly different. He could not ride the school bus. He could not get along with the other students or follow directions from the driver. In the cafeteria and on the playground, his outbursts and outlandish mannerisms made him an object of ridicule for children form other grades and almost a sideshow attraction for the adults. Disgustingly enough, some of them sniffed for anecdotes of his behavior like hungry dogs after bones.

One would hope that the miracle occurred, that he began to progress socially and academically until he blended with the others, but real life is not often so kind. In real life, he had to be taken completely off medication to be tested for Tourette's Syndrome. These weeks were a nightmare at school for him and those who had to deal with him. He then spent five weeks in a mental institution undergoing a full evaluation. Although his doctors felt he was making progress, his mother checked him out when she discovered that his welfare money went to the hospital when he was there. He returned to school on a different medication that made him sleepy but did not help him attend to work or control his behavior. He could not even get his name written on a piece of paper. Even with the teacher's and students' best efforts to help him, he could not function in the classroom. His mother avoided contact with the school and his teachers.

On the last day of school, his mother came to pick him up. Amidst the excited chatter of children and parents eager for the summer, the teacher tried to explain to his mother about his grades, his recent behavior, and the need to plan for his next school year. The teacher tried to explain, but his mother was already backing out the door.

Nancy Wilkes