Getting the New Kid

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

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There are days in our teaching careers when all we can do is go home and cry.

In some cases we may cry because of what our colleagues have said or done, or we may cry because we have somehow failed our students. We may cry because of the stressors of the daily grind of home-work-grad school-home-with-no-break. We may cry because we have more month than money.

On a particular day, I cried because I met Callie Sue. You're all smart enough to know her real name wasn't Callie Sue.

Callie Sue came to my classroom door looking scared, tired, and unhappy. Her grandparent had the look of being overwhelmed on her face as she stood in the hallway to greet me cautiously and an appearance of distrust with her 10 year old grandson in tow. He stood beside her, leaning up against the hall wall, cell phone in-hand. His longish hair appeared disheveled and unwashed. He looked at me over the top of his glasses, trying to appear as though he didn't care about what was going on. I had no advance notice of Callie's arrival, which isn't unusual in schools across America. Looking at these three, it would have been easy to pass judgement, but I quickly checked myself. I have met many a child at my classroom door and have learned to let all the stuff brought on by appearance be cast away as far as I could cast it. No room for that. No time for that. There's only time for seeing this child-TRULY seeing this child for who she was.

There stood Callie. She was looking down at the ground, wearing forlorn looking sneakers, dirty leggings and t-shirt, a coat that was well-worn, her brown hair hiding her sweet brown eyes. She had on scratched up pink glasses which slid half-way down her nose.

Grandma introduced Callie Sue to me and said, "She can be a real trouble-maker. If she needs spanked, you call me." I could tell right away that these children had already seen their fair share of difficulties. I told Grandma to hang on just one moment, that I wanted to get Callie into the classroom so she could get set up at her desk with the assistance of my paraprofessional, then we could have some quiet time alone.

My para and I looked at each other, each speaking without uttering a word. We knew this girl needed to be with us; we knew she needed everything we could give her. We knew we may have some really big tears to shed, but knew we would see Callie shed even more.

I introduced Callie Sue to our class of 9 sweet babies, every one of whom approached her and said hello without rushing her or making her feel as though a herd of elephants was going to trample her. Our classroom's self-appointed hostess, Macie, took over her role as Callie's guide and new best friend. I knew with my para's watchful eyes and gentle coaching combined with Macie's happy support, Callie would be in good hands while I went out to talk with Grandma.

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Grandma started to share some pretty heady stuff, things which caused me to look over at her grandson and see didn't even make him flinch; it was clear their story was not new to him-he'd been through this before…this whole "getting situated in a new school" thing. My heart was starting to ache. I caught the attention of the custodian and asked her if she wouldn't mind taking him on a tour of his sister's new school so that if he came back to visit, he would know where things were. Gladly, she escorted him around the building, buying me enough time to get the overview of a story for which my morning coffee had not prepared me.

Callie's story involved a variety of abuses at the hands of those whom she should have been able to trust. Her story was fraught with rejection, ridicule, and foster homes. The pain and indignity this precious child suffered overshadowed the goals noted in her I.E.P. My heart began to weep as I listened to Grandma share her story of how she was working hard to do right by her grandchildren, but whose work at a minimum wage job required her to be away long hours to make ends meet. Callie and her siblings went home to a babysitter who was not affectionate nor did she care to provide a clean place for the children to rest after a long day at school…but it was the best she could provide, so the best had to be good enough.

As this woman shared the details of Callie's needs, the expression on my face and words coming from my mouth may have led someone to believe I was surely going to be nominated for a Best Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award.

You see, that is what we have to do. It is our responsibility to listen. We listen to the joys, the happiness, and the victories. But we also have to listen to the things which are so very apart from the norms of many teachers, and those times when we are called to listen to the horrors endured by children, we have to be…we have to be…well, we just have to be professional when our gut is screaming in rage, "LET ME TAKE THIS CHILD HOME AND LOVE THEM!"

Grandma left with her grandson and I walked back to my classroom's hallway. Standing with my hand on the locker, I doubled over in what felt like an ache so deep in the pit of my soul that I didn't know what or how I would handle what I'd heard, let alone process it in such a way that I would be able to be the best for this child.

How could I worry about meeting IEP goals when I really just needed to worry about meeting this child's basic need for love, comfort, and security? IEP goals seemed too far away.

My para and I made it our mission that day to cause this girl to know she was woven into the fabric of our classroom's family. My students needed no prompting from us-that's what's great about kids…kids who come from difficulties just "get it" so innately that no adult needs to provide direction.

Callie Sue sailed through her first day without issue.

I went home and called my folks. We have talked daily for many years and I figured they'd have words of wisdom to share from their 82 and 87 years on this earth.

Knowing I couldn't share any specifics, my mom could hear the quaking of my voice. She reminded me that I am in this role called Teacher because of one reason: it is my mission, and with mission comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes difficulty. At that moment, the waterworks started. No longer able to contain myself, I sobbed to my mother-the kind of sobbing that comes from such a deep place in our bodies that we don't even know how it left us and leaves us completely spent. Mom assured me that my para and I were perfect matches for whatever needs this child must surely have, and that we had a great chance to love her to success, even if she left us too soon because of another move.

Another move? This child could not leave us! We had too much work to do!

The clarity provided me by that one conversation with my mother will stick with me forever. As a young teacher or a new teacher, it may be the pie-in-the-sky desire to save the world which brought you to this career and you're reading this thinking, "Well, duh…that's what we are here to do!" I promise you, after many years in the field, you will begin to see things very differently, and in some cases, you will lose your fervor, and while I pray this never happens to you, Callie Sue arrived at our classroom door at a time when my vision and passion for teaching children with special needs had started to slip a little bit.

The universe has a way of reminding us that if we listen to our instincts and if we do not run from our calling, we will be reminded of what is important to us at the precise time we need to be reminded.

Callie Sue's story is still not completely written, but she claimed she wants to be a teacher.

RELATED ARTICLE - Should I Become a Teacher?

At a time when teachers are running away from the profession for jobs with perceived lower stress and higher pay, I cannot think of a better reason to be late on my VISA bill's minimum payment-because that's all I can afford to send. It was my mission and vision to be sure our part was performed so Callie could get to college and be a teacher.

The Callie Sues of the world need committed teachers who are willing to meet their special needs with love and compassion FIRST and then address their academic needs and individualized learning plans with all the vigor and rigor they can muster. A child who feels safe will feel safe enough to learn.

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I think the Callie Sues of the world will be glad you are committing yourself to being the change. Don't run away from special education because the cases across which you may come might be rough or feel too hard to work with. Those are the reasons you should run TOWARDS special education career!

Learn more about a special education degree.

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