Take Me Home Country Roads

There is something deeply satisfying about living in the country. I grew up in the country but, had a seventeen year sabbatical in urban living. Now, don’t get me wrong…I enjoyed my time in the city. The convenience of having everything within five minutes of me was so nice. Choosing from a plethora of restaurants was  ultra-convenient.  Yet, the peacefulness of the country lured me back.

Yesterday I stood in the side yard, looking out over the land. I was reminded how nice it is to not be smack up against one’s neighbors. There is a certain freedom when living out “in the middle of nowhere”. There is something to be said for being able to walk down the road looking at views that could be on a picture postcard. Bright red barns in the distance, llamas across the road, crooked fence posts securing the property lines. Being able to breathe.

My neighbors in and around the small village, that I live outside of, are the best. Really. I am happy we picked this little piece of the country to call home.

“Take me home country roads….to the place I belong.” They might be John Denver’s words but, they ring true in my heart too.

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The Children That Changed Me–Part Five

The series that I’ve blogged on for the past several days has been a stroll down memory lane for me. I have had many, many students over the years and more stories than I can possibly tell in just a few short days. Each of my students touched me. Each of them special in their own way. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them. Being a special education teacher has been an adventure. An adventure I am still on. Most of the time when people ask me what I do, I reply “I’m a wife and mom with all the challenges that come with that, a home school teacher, and I teach in special education.” Then a lot of the time I get this response…”Oh, it takes a special person to teach kids like that.” Hmmm…… I’ve given that response some thought.  I don’t consider myself all that special because I teach individuals with special needs. The truth is I feel blessed to have had the opportunity.  It sounds like a pat answer, but it isn’t. I truly mean that. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination….and there were many days that were frustrating and I felt like giving up…but than again nothing in life of any real value comes easily, does it?

Unfortunately, over the years, I’ve had educators tell me that they didn’t really see the point of having my students in their classrooms. “They aren’t going to learn anything anyway.”   “I don’t know what to do with them.” (As if they were a thing, instead of a person!) At first I found it extremely frustrating. After awhile I realized, if  the teacher could not look beyond the disability to see the child, then it was their loss. Not all teachers were that way. Thankfully, there were many who reached out, worked hard, and met the challenges that special education entails. Both the students and the teachers walked away from the school year having learned something new about each other.  I’ve learned that special education isn’t perfect. It’s a lot of trial and error. Sometimes it’s going back to the drawing board and figuring out something new to try. It’s about not giving up.

One of my greatest treasures of the   “special ed world” has been getting to know my student’s parents. Sure there have been some… um…..how shall I say this, interesting ones.  Yet, most of the parents I’ve met have been good people. I consider it a privilege to know them. Are parents of children with special needs perfect? No. Do they sometimes get angry, or frustrated, or feel sorry for themselves? Sure. They are human. Are they thankful, and happy, and see even the smallest improvement as something to celebrate? Yes. I don’t think parents are perfect. I do think they are real. Many of us will never know the pain of watching our child struggle to eat without a tube. We won’t understand the feeling of knowing that our child can’t be on the local soccer team because he/she can’t walk, much less run. We won’t be able to commiserate about what it is like to see our child struggle to read or write and not have them feel dumb or stupid….or different. Or what about the parent that has a child trapped inside his/her own head, who is smart and funny and creative–but is unable to communicate it, because autism has stolen that from her? Every time, over the years, that I met with a parent I kept this thought foremost in my mind. These parents love their child, imperfections and all. They are requesting my help because they want their child to meet his/her full potential. Whatever that may be for that particular child. They want a chance for their child, just like any other parent. That’s it. So, if there are any parents of children with special needs that are reading my blog today. Thanks goes to you. Really. You are the ones that deserve it.

The Children That Changed Me–Part Four

The year is 1997. I’m still teaching in the same county, just a different school…one closer to my house. This would be the school I would teach in for the next ten years. I liked this school. I met many wonderful teachers and a lot of interesting students while there.

When I started at this elementary school I had seven years of experience under my belt and was fresh from the inner city experience. I felt like, since I survived that, nothing could slow me down now! The first day I met my new teaching assistant. She sized me up right away. Checking me out to see if I was up to par. I guess the “evaluation” turned out okay since we became fast friends both inside school and out. We were the dynamic duo of our little school….and boy, did we have some adventures together!

One little girl in particular always kept us on our toes. I will call her Vonda. I will not use her real name to protect the innocent or not so innocent as the case may be. She was EXTREMELY ADHD along with having learning disabilities. Now, I know a lot about ADHD…when I say she was EXTREMELY I mean it. This is the same girl that would walk around the room and touch everyone as I was trying to teach. I don’t mean a hand on the shoulder, or even a tap. I mean a full out ” squeeze you ’til your eyes pop out” hug. Or she might decide to give you a new hairstyle if your back was turned for a split second. The girl was constant motion. One day, right in the middle of a lesson, she jumped up, raised her arms to the ceiling and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Give it up for Jesus!” Okay. I love Jesus, but to be honest I wasn’t in a worshipful mood right then. I didn’t feel the need for a tent revival. I asked her to have a seat. My assistant told her to sit down….she did not. She bounced around praising Jesus instead of doing her schoolwork. You can imagine what the rest of the class looked like with her conducting her very own “come to Jesus” meeting and me attempting to have a lesson. All of them went wild, like monkeys at the zoo. Later that day, I informed her mother about the incident. Her mother apologized for her daughters impromptu church service…but she laughed. She said, “I have to tell you this story about Vonda.”

We were at church the other Sunday. Everyone was listening to the preacher, preach. We were all into the service, when Vonda started acting out. I didn’t want her to interrupt the service so I gave her “the look”. She ignored my “look” and continued to be disruptive. I whispered for her to sit down and be quiet. She looked the other way. I had, had it! She started in again and so I reached over and gave her a pinch on the leg to let her know I meant business. At this, she let out a loud, high pitched shriek. The congregation thought she was calling out because she was “in the spirit”. I just let them think that, as I gave Vonda another look. She was going to be “in the spirit” again if she didn’t quit!

I had a good chuckle over that story. Her mother and I bonded that day. We both knew what we were up against.

Not all my stories are easy to tell. Some hurt. Some stories I have chosen not to share because they still haunt me today. Stories of child abuse, drugs, and neglect…and a system that many times failed my students. My heart broke. My anger flared at the injustice of it all. When a person is passionate about something…sometimes emotions get in the way. Such is the story that I am about to tell……

I had a new student. I will call her Shelly. Shelly came from a home that was dysfunctional to say the least. Long story short it was all about neglect and emotional abuse. She had grandparents that loved her, but a mom that I don’t really think understood what real love meant.  I really liked Shelly a lot. She was a good kid except when she had “melt downs” and flipped desks and pulled over cabinets and threw things in a rage. You see Shelly was emotionally disturbed. She had a difficult time controlling her impulses….because mom saw fit to do drugs and drink alcohol while she was pregnant with her. She chose those vices over her own child’s health and well being. Shelly would never be “normal” because of her mother. The blame should be laid directly at her mother’s feet. Anyway, as a special education teacher I had to have meetings with parents at least once a year to go over progress.  I don’t know if mom was just having a bad day or what, but as we sat down at the table for the meeting she says to all the school personnel, “the fact that Shelly isn’t making much progress is YOUR fault.”  Now, I am usually a fairly calm and collected person. It takes a lot to get me truly riled up. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to come across that table at her. To scream in her face, “NO. It’s YOUR fault. YOU made the choice to do cocaine. YOU chose to DRINK. YOU chose this life for your daughter before she was even born. How dare you!! Go home and look in the mirror. YOU. YOU. YOU. Your daughter is damaged because you thought that YOU were more important than her and her future.”  I didn’t say this. Instead I just sat there and stared at her. I had to detach myself from it. From the situation. You see, over the years I learned that I can’t fix everyone. It’s not possible. Even though I wanted to help, I could only do what I could do,when my students were with me. Unfortunately, some times I had to turn kids over to situations that were less than desirable…because that is what our system says to do.

Tomorrow I will finish my blog series…my teaching-the later years.

The Children That Changed Me–Part Three

In 1995 I started teaching in a new school system. I was placed in an inner city classroom that consisted of nine streetwise boys…all of whom had some sort of emotional disturbance. I admit at that time I was naive’. I had no idea what lay ahead of me. Let me just suffice to say that during my two years at this particular school I got bit, spit on, threatened, hit, bruised, called every name imaginable and then some. Unfortunately, my assistant and I had to spend more time keeping order than actual teaching. I learned many lessons during my time at this school, with these particular students. Even though these kids had seen and done things that no child really should have to deal with, or an adult for that matter, I was allowed to catch brief glimpses of the truly young children that they were. One young boy had several members of his large family that were mentally ill. An older brother had “a breakdown” one night and broke every window in the house with a ball bat. Then chased his mother and siblings around the house threatening to kill them….until the mother called for help. The next day when this student came into the classroom he was tired, irritable and angry….and really, who could blame him? His own emotional instability didn’t allow him to process what was going on in his life. I appreciated that I had mental health counselors at my disposal to help with the kids, but I still felt inadequate to even make a dent in this child’s life.

These kids weren’t sweet and lovable like some of the other students I had in the past. They were tough, and closed off. Walls had been built up, long before I came on the scene. To be honest with you I spent a lot of those days tired and totally depleted mentally, physically and emotionally. Early on it struck me that at the end of the day I could go home. Home to a husband that loved me, an infant son, a house in a middle class neighborhood where I didn’t have to concern myself with drive-by’s, drug deals, or gangs. A place where I could be refreshed and where I felt safe. My students didn’t have that privilege. I cried for them. I spent time wondering if having me for a teacher would make any difference at all to them. To this day, I’m still not sure. I like to think I did something positive, but I don’t know. I learned that sometimes life, is difficult, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t. Sometimes we just do the best we can. Then we have to let it go.

The Children That Changed Me–Part Two

The time was 1992. I was twenty-four years old and a new bride. After marrying I moved and started teaching in a large suburban elementary school. By 1994 I had a classroom of Danny, Brittany, Josh, Lori Beth and Lilly. My little class was a hoot! We were a motley crew of red hair and freckles, big brown eyes and giggles, glasses,  hand clapping and tiny little feet. I enjoyed that class so much. I have to admit Lori Beth was a favorite. I don’t think Lori Beth’s mom would mind for me to tell you that she has Cri-du-chat syndrome. (French for “cry of the cat”) Lori Beth was a licker. If you got within an arms grab of her….you were hers to lick. She licked everything. Most days I went home smelling like spit. I loved her though. She was a happy little girl. I remember thinking one day, that the world looks on those with “disabilities” as different, or dumb (or unfortunately, much worse). Although it has been my experience that most of these children that I’ve worked with have been happy. Really happy. Not fake happy to try and fool others. They usually don’t sweat over the small stuff. Life is what it is and they move on. Usually, with a pretty good attitude, all things considered. Now, I’m not here to say that my students were all sugar and sweetness. They could have attitudes, cry, throw themselves to the floor, pitch a royal fit, and if they were really into it—spit on me or bite me. Hey, it’s all in a days work. The thing is they didn’t hold a grudge, they moved on. One minute they are kicking on the floor, the next they are holding my hand telling me they love me. I love my students for that…..because I always knew where I stood with them. Plain and simple.

Now, back to Lori Beth. In the beginning of school year ’94-’95 I became pregnant. This was all new to Lori Beth. She was amazed to watch as my stomach grew bigger as the school year went on. Her mother asked if it was okay for Lori Beth to touch my belly. She had been talking with Lori Beth about how there was a baby growing inside of me. Now for a  2nd grader with a syndrome that causes mental retardation, going all abstract about babies and how they are inside a woman’s belly, is no easy feat. I gave LB’s mom credit. LB treated me as if I was a precious piece of art. She even contained herself about the licking. I knew she wanted to lick her hand and touch me….it was killing her, but she refrained. (her mom must have given her the lecture about not licking her pregnant teacher. haha!) I was due at the end of the school year…as a matter of fact I missed the last three weeks of school that year. Lori Beth’s mom asked if she could be allowed to bring Lori Beth to the hospital to see me and my new baby. She wanted Lori Beth to see the culmination of all this big belly-ness. True to her word, mom and Lori Beth showed up to see me the day after my delivery. What a precious sight it was. There was Lori Beth listening to her mommy explaining that this was Kendrick, the baby boy that had been growing inside me. She looked at me. She looked at him. She looked at her mom. She was putting it together. It was an “ah ha!” moment.  Chalk one up for real life learning that day.

My goodness, Lori Beth must be somewhere around 22 years old now. All grown up. I miss her.

More stories, more students, tomorrow…….We’ll take up in the year 1995.

The Children That Changed Me–Part One

As a mom, of course my own children have changed me. I am definitely a different person because they are here. I love my kids all the time, and most of the time I like them too…especially  now, during the teen years, but that is a story for another day.  This particular blog really isn’t about my own kiddos though. In this blog I’m talking about my other kids. The kids that I’ve spent 20+ years with. The kids that have challenged me…and changed me. I choose to dedicate this blog to all the kids out there that are fighting against the odds with both grace and goofiness, spirit and hope, determination and grit….and above all love. You see, I’m a special education teacher/consultant/advocate—whatever you want to call me…. and these are the stories about my kids.

“Aunt Mabel looks different”. My mom’s sister was born in the 1930’s, well before special education law went into effect. A child that was born at home, after a long delivery on my grandmother’s part.  A child that, due to reasons I’m really not sure about, was born mentally retarded. I understand that the doctor told my grandmother to just put her in an institution. She wouldn’t amount to anything. My grandmother refused and my Aunt Mabel went on to live a happy life. A simple life by a lot of people’s standards…but, it suited her fine. She brought a lot of joy to her family in her own way, and when she passed away a few years ago, in her 70’s, a hole was left in the hearts of those who loved her. Although my aunt wasn’t my student, she was my first understanding of “special education” and I learned a lot from her.

At the beginning of my senior year of high school I had almost enough credits to graduate. I was able to take a couple classes in the morning and by ten o’clock I was on my way to the elementary school next door to complete my independent study at their special education preschool. It was a good year. That was the year I met Joey. Joey was non-verbal, in a wheelchair, and he had seizures. He was the ripe old age of five, but he was full of personality. Those who think that you have to talk to communicate have never met this little guy. He laughed and smiled…and it was contagious. Joey taught me a lot about laughter that year. He also taught me about having a servant’s heart. He depended on me to move him from his chair to the floor–and to do that gently. He taught me how to deal with pain. Joey had a major seizure one day, unfortunately he bit his tongue–hard. I know it hurt, and I was helpless to do anything. His jaws were locked down and there was not much to do until the seizure was over. I learned to put myself in his place, and think about how I would want to be treated…even if I didn’t have the words.

That same year I met Carrie. A precocious two and a half year old. Grand-daughter to my former 3rd grade teacher. Carrie was a petite powerhouse, with almost white,blond hair and a million dollar smile. She could have you wrapped around her little finger in no time flat. She was talented that way. Carrie also had brain trauma and limpness on one side of her body….from being in a car accident as a infant. She had been born perfectly “normal”. Everything worked. Everything was good….until that fateful day that changed her young life. Carrie taught me that, but by the grace of God, I could have had the same thing happen to me. Traumatic brain injury could happen to any of us. It only takes one bad accident to change everything. Every time I saw Carrie, I didn’t feel sorry for her, because she didn’t feel sorry herself. She kept smiling and learned to figure out how to do things on her own–even if it was difficult. A lesson for all of us.

In my first two years as a “professional”, I met Luke, Malisha, Shonda, Jeffrey and Todd. Brent, Michael, Daniel and Travis among others. We all lived in a small town in the mountains of East Tennessee…..and we were going to the Olympics! It was an exciting time. The day of the trip was cool and overcast. We just prayed that it didn’t rain! The troop was ready to go. We were bringing “the heat” to this little get together! I couldn’t have been more proud. Each of the students participated. Even if they didn’t place, they put their entire heart into it….and they were brave in the attempt. So many times, those of us that are able bodied, think to ourselves, ” I can’t do this or that”. I think we probably miss a lot of opportunities because we are too scared to just do it. The courage and tenacity of my students was what made my students special….not their mental or physical disabilities. My kids taught me to press on, past the obstacles. Go, go, go and don’t look back. Keep running. You can’t win the race if you don’t try.

Tomorrow I will be continuing my story from the year 1992….come join me for some more lessons from the heart.

Friendship–The Perfect Blendship

I have a lot of friends. Last night I was pondering all the ways that friends have touched my life through the years. Facebook has allowed me to get back in touch with childhood friends, friends from jobs I’ve had, high school, college, home school groups, teachers groups, church, family, friends of friends……. People can like social media. Or not. One thing is for certain, it has opened up a whole new world of communication. There is something comforting about being able to chat with a childhood friend that I haven’t seen in twenty years, yet the banter between us feels as if we just saw each other yesterday. There is something nostalgic about talking with a college dorm mate. We share memories that no one else knows about. There is a bond in my friendships that social media has allowed me to strengthen….and for that I am grateful.

I don’t know if you ever feel this way….but, sometimes I wonder about my own life. How many people have I touched? Has my life made a difference to others? You know what I mean. Sure, I have family that loves me. (and that is definitely the most important) But, how do my friends down through the years remember me? Do they laugh when something crosses their mind? Do they smile when they recall a certain memory? Most people have friends that come and go throughout their lives. A few friends that are forever. Some friendships might be brief, and others are a part of you– as if you were separated at birth. Every friendship has a reason, and each one has a season. Each is important. Through the years my friends have laughed with me, cried with me, been my cohorts in crime (not really, Mom!). They have challenged me with new thoughts or ideas, listened to me as I explained how I felt, worked with me, danced with me, shared joys, and held hands during sorrow. Advice, compassion, anger and a multitude of other emotions.

Social media has allowed me to reach out to my friends in ways that I was unable to before. I love to write, but I would have never been able to find the addresses of all these people that the internet has brought my way. Does the internet take the place of face to face relationships? Of course not. (although a lot of my friends online I DO know face to face) It sure does “bring it home” though, that a lot of people have touched my life through the years—and I’ve touched theirs too. It kind of makes the world seem like a much smaller place.