I had been surprised to hear from the parents of a child I worked with 30 years ago. At that time, I was a resource teacher for the state of Arizona, specializing in children with developmental delays, ages zero to five. Their son had been one of my students. In fact, he had been one of my favorite students.
At the time, he was three or four years old, with a diagnosis of “significantly developmentally delayed.” That was all we had to go on. Language was a severe problem, motor coordination was an issue, and he seemed to struggle with sensory input overloads.
But every day when I saw him, he was cheerful and ready to try whatever I asked of him, no matter how hard. He had a great sense of humor, too. He laughed at things that I laughed at, and that gave me hope that I was succeeding as his teacher. That’s when I first realized the value of a sense of humor as an indicator of learning ability.
A couple years ago, while teaching second grade, I received a new student. He was angry, he was unruly, and he had no skills. I mean, no skills. He could recognize only a few letters of the alphabet and numbers up to five. He did not know that two fingers plus two fingers always added up to four. No matter how many times I showed him in those first few weeks, he always had to do it himself and count the fingers to make sure it was true.
But within a few days, I realized that he had a great sense of humor — just like the other boy, 30 years ago. He could make others laugh, and he enjoyed this talent immensely.
At that point, I knew– again — that he could be taught. And while I could not guarantee how much he would learn, I knew he had only begun his education, and it was not up to me to set limits for his development and intelligence. It was up to me to restart the process and let it run its course.
I started by farming him out to kindergarten classes as a helper. He enjoyed his role and felt less vulnerable with the younger children. What’s more, he was exposed to a curriculum that was more attuned to his educational level at the time. When he came back to me, I asked my aide to work with him one-on-one, to help him develop the skills he was lacking.
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that his learning disabilities were too significant. Despite everyone’s efforts, we could not support him enough in my class. I began the paperwork and started the process to get him into a full-time resource setting. As it turned out, we had the perfect class on campus, and we were able to make a smooth transition to the more appropriate learning setting by the end of the year.
Over the next two years, I saw him regularly and was thrilled at his progress. When his teacher told me he was starting double-digit addition, I literally excused myself, went into the men’s room, and cried. The magnitude of him being able just to attempt that simple mathematical procedure was overwhelming.
And then came the word that his family was moving. I was worried, he was doing so well, would he have to start all over?
But then last week, his former teacher emailed me to let me know that she had heard from his new teacher, and he has smoothly moved into his new class and continued to improve. And what’s even more important to me, he had re-established himself as a leader and was a delightful addition to the new classroom.
Will this boy go to college? Will he become a famous politician or a well known professional?
I have no idea, but that’s besides the point. I know he feels accomplished and recognizes that he has valuable skills and a role in his own world.
That email was the first gift I got. Dinner with my friends from 30 years ago was the second.
They brought me a newspaper from Florida, where they are now living. On the front page was an article about their son, the little boy I had worked with so many years ago. They shared some of his life since I had last seen them — that he had been diagnosed with fragile X syndrome (FXS) — and gave me the article which detailed that their son, at 34, had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.
He still struggles with some language issues, he has a susceptibility at times to events that cause sensory overload, and he lives in a group home that houses others with fragile X. But to see the pictures of him up there with the Rabbi, to know that he had decided he wanted to do this and he studied tirelessly with the help of many others who ensured that it happened, that was was another amazing gift that I never saw coming.
All those years, I taught on faith. Faith in my students, faith in my ability to recognize their needs, and faith that somehow, when they left me, they would be okay.
Sometimes, faith is all teachers have — unless they get lucky, and someone gives them a gift.
Originally published on Tucson Citizen