A Light in the Attic
A lot of teachers don’t know what the hell to do with kids who are diagnosed with a disability. And if they have to deal with a kid who’s merely peculiar- who may or may not have something- that’s doubly difficult.
It’s one thing to approach disability as an abstract concept, or to read about it in a book. But when you’ve got a room full of kids for whom you’re responsible, and all of them are different, but some of them are different, what are you going to do?
In elementary school, I wasn’t diagnosed with anything until grade seven. But I was disabled all the way through.
This is how each of my teachers handled teaching in general, and specifically how they handled teaching me. As usual, all names have been changed.
Kindergarten: Mrs. Bennett
I got her in her last year of teaching. She was a reed-like, grandmotherly figure who had been around forever. She had a peculiar habit of speaking about herself in the third person, and would often startle me by suddenly SPEAKING REALLY LOUDLY TO EMPHASIZE A POINT. Never in anger, but in enthusiasm, and perhaps due to a misguided notion that children learned that way. I was deeply unhappy in kindergarten, but it wasn’t her fault. I wasn’t used to being in school- it was one of the biggest transitions I’d ever dealt with. And I was afraid of the washrooms because they were so dirty. So for most of kindergarten, I really had to drop a deuce.
Mrs. Bennett was the first person to ever notice there might be something wrong with me. She was pleased that I was one of only three kids in her class who could read, but concerned that I didn’t seem capable of making even the simplest arts and crafts projects. Mrs Bennett told my parents that she showed me a flash card of a pyramid, with the word “pyramid” on the back, and asked me what it was. I didn’t know, so I turned the card over and read the word aloud. She thought this was unusual, and perhaps evidence of something wrong. Her hunch was correct, but my parents laughed it off.
Grade One: Mrs. McCaul
She wasn’t just one of the greatest teachers I had, but one of the greatest people I’ve met. She was warm, enthusiastic- when she liked something, it was always “awesome!”- but also tough and solid. You didn’t want to mess with Mrs. McCaul, but if you did, after she finished dishing out discipline, she still liked you. She was a crusty, big-hearted veteran with two decades of teaching experience behind her.
She possessed a keen intuition which led her to do extraordinary things in a matter of fact way, as if they meant nothing. There was one girl in my class who had a debilitating phobia of staircases. I found out later that this was because she was legally blind. For half the year, Mrs. McCaul had to cajole this girl up the stairs every time we had a class up there. One day she told this girl to deliver a note to one of the teachers upstairs. When the girl left, Mrs McCaul turned to another girl in the class and said, “Could you go and wait at the bottom of the stairs? When Lisa comes down, congratulate her on a job well done.”
One afternoon, Mrs. McCaul had some time to kill, so she decided to fix my speech impediment. While the other students were busy with their work, she called me over to her desk and asked me to count out loud to fifty. I couldn’t pronounce the TH sound, so I stalled when I hit thirty. “What you need to do, is put your teeth on your tongue and blow. Can you do that?” I could, and did. We worked through it together. After several minutes I was ready to try again, and I nailed it. Mrs. McCaul gave me a small certificate- which I still have taped to my bedroom wall- and I never had problems with the TH-sound again.
Grade Two: Mrs. Heard
She was odd. Mrs. Heard was another veteran with decades of experience behind her, but I could never quite get a grasp on her. She wasn’t at all warm, but she wasn’t uncaring either. She seemed at times to be not entirely there. She was never mean, but could be abrupt and unpredictable.
I found out years later that she took a special liking to me. It wasn’t at all clear at the time- perhaps she didn’t want to be seen to be playing favourites.
At a parent-teacher interview she said, “There’s something different about David, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. He sees the world in a different way. Sometimes he misses the forest for the trees. He reminds me of myself, a little bit.”
In hindsight, I realize that Mrs. Heard probably had Asperger’s. She’s the only teacher I knew in elementary school who did.
Grade Three: Mrs. Danvers
I remember her the least of all my elementary school teachers. Like my teachers before her, she had been teaching forever. Mrs. Danvers was probably the sternest teacher I had. She was a hard woman. But she was immensely skilled, and never unfair, and both myself and other kids recognized this. Even at the time I remember thinking that she must be giving me a good education. On the way out of the classroom at the end of the last day of school before summer, she stood at the door, shook our hands, and made each of us solve a math problem before she let us pass. I realize in hindsight that she was probably adjusting the difficulty of the problems for each student, based on what she knew we could handle. I got a very easy problem, and I was terrible at math.
Grade Four: Mrs. Paisley
She’s the other candidate for the sternest teacher I had. Mrs. Paisley had been teaching elementary school since she was nineteen, due to some unusual arrangement, and so even though she was only in her forties she’d been teaching for over twenty years. She was the first teacher I had who was motherly rather than grandmotherly, though I don’t want to give the illusion that she was soft or yielding in any way. Mrs. Paisley was a war horse. She demanded respect and order, and usually received it. On the rare occasions she didn’t, she meted out discipline in a way that ensured the situation would not repeat itself. Like Mrs. McCaul, her instincts were sharp. This was the year everything fell apart for me, and Mrs. Paisley knew what was going on before anyone else did. When my parents expressed concern about me, Mrs. Paisley debriefed them on strategies she’d been using for months to make the classroom environment more manageable for me. “I’ve been breaking assignments into chunks,” she explained. “So he doesn’t get overwhelmed.” My parents were surprised that she hadn’t told them that I was struggling. Mrs. Paisley shrugged. “I saw a problem, and I dealt with it.”
Grade Five: Mr. Angel
After five years of having tough-but-fair, middle-aged female veterans as teachers, I was handed off to a young, soft, inexperienced man. It couldn’t have been a bigger disaster.
I was coming out of a profound mental health crisis, professionals were desperately trying to figure out how retarded I was, and my parents were realizing that I needed extensive accommodations at school. Fortunately Mrs. Paisley was assigned to be my grade five teacher- she’d be teaching a grade four/five split. This was perfect. She already knew me, and she had so much experience that nothing could phase her.
Two weeks into the school year, myself and the other grade fives in her class were shuttled off to a brand-new teacher in a new classroom. Also, the new class would be a grade five/six split. Instead of being one of the oldest kids in the class, I’d be one of the youngest.
I don’t handle transitions at the best of times, and this was the worst of times.
Mr. Angel was in his late twenties, and his only teaching experience was a few years of E.S.L. in Japan. I remember the first time I realized this wasn’t going to work out. It was the first time I met him. My parents had called an emergency meeting a week before I was transferred to Mr. Angel’s class. After the meeting, he took me to his classroom to show me around. He was still unpacking boxes. Mr. Angel tried to be chummy and warm, and enthusiastically showed me a box of old National Geographic magazines. He was really fucking excited about them. He was excited about everything. I hated him.
He had no idea what he was doing. He had no experience with disability. He had no experience with eleven-year-olds. Over the course of the year, we saw him wither and die. I swear, there were times when it looked like he wanted to cry. I’ve never seen anyone more over their head.
Needless to say, he did not give me the support I needed, because nobody gave him the support he needed. Mr. Angel never adjusted to teaching. After several years he was kicked upstairs to the position of vice principal and- as far as I know- never taught a class again.
Grade Six: Mr. Gordon
I didn’t think this was going to work, because Mr. Gordon was a happy-go-lucky jock, and after Mr. Angel I halfway believed that all male teachers were fucking incompetent. But Mr. Gordon was solid and safe. Whereas Mr. Angel was a guy, Mr. Gordon was a man. He had two kids at the school- one in my grade- and he had this overwhelming sense of dadness to him. He was a corny, suburban, dependable dad. But on top of that, he was a natural teacher. He had sharp instincts, but more importantly, he knew what he didn’t know. Mr. Gordon knew he didn’t know me. So he asked my parents lots of questions, and listened, and followed through on the plans they collaborated on. At this point, after a year of dead-ends, things were bad for me. So Mr. Gordon and my parents were meeting together practically every week. He didn’t mind. It was obvious that he really enjoyed his job.
Mr. Gordon was also the first teacher I had to encourage my sense of humour. I’d had the tendency for years to doodle all over my worksheets and, on every assignment which was remotely creative, turn in something weird, morbid, and often disgusting. He loved it. He wrote funny remarks in the margins. He told me I could be the next Ray Bradbury. I believed him.
Grade Seven: Mr. Eklund
Mr. Eklund was a great man. Along with Mrs. McCaul, he was probably the best teacher I ever had. He was young- around the same age as Mr. Angel- and didn’t have a lot of experience. But he was the school’s science teacher, and approached life as a scientist. He was curious and observant, knew what he didn’t know, and tried to expand his knowledge. Mr. Eklund seemed to be using the scientific method in every problem he encountered. He developed a hypothesis, and tested it, and if it was disproven he went back to the drawing board. He was calm and methodical. Nothing perturbed him.
I would maybe wonder whether he was Aspie, except right underneath his Teflon surface was a remarkable sense of warmth and humanity. He had moments where he was confused and exasperated by our behaviour, but he was never angry. He obviously cared for us, and wanted what was best for us, and many of his hypotheses were developed to figure out what that was.
Mr. Eklund had to meet with my parents on a weekly basis- at least- because my life was a nightmare. I had recently been diagnosed with a learning disability, and nobody knew how to accommodate it. I was suffering, but nobody knew how to alleviate it. Mr. Eklund listened to my parents, and paid attention to me, and came up with ideas, and tried them out. And when an idea didn’t work, he saw that as useful information rather than a setback.
Grade Eight: Ms. Wescott
Ms. Wescott was in her early thirties, but the way she taught and the way she behaved was exactly like the grandmotherly teachers I’d had in the past. This was because she came from a family of teachers, and growing up, she paid attention.
Ms. Wescott didn’t take any shit from anyone. She cared- she wore her heart on her sleeve- but you couldn’t expect to mess around with her and get away with it. She was tough and quick-tempered, and her instincts were razor-sharp.
Ms. Wescott gave everything she had to her career. She wasn’t married and she didn’t have biological kids. There were rumours she lived in the school. Other than the janitors, she was the first to arrive and the last to leave every day. There was no doubt about it: we were her children. She watched out for us, and taught us everything she could, and if we put a foot out of line, my God, we learned better.
My parents had to have meetings with her on a regular basis, because my academic life was still a mess. Ms. Wescott listened, and gave her opinions, and followed through on the plans that were devised. She was observant and meticulous. Nothing escaped her eye. One thing she didn’t have was a great sense of humour. I believe Ms. Wescott took her job too seriously, and took her students too seriously, to find much humour in teaching. I remember writing a really morbid poem about how I didn’t expect to do well in life. When she handed the poem back to me, she said, “You know, I worry about you sometimes.” It was clear that she meant it.