I am going to call you Jake in this letter even though I know your full name. I remember exactly what you looked like in my 5th grade classroom and I can still recall your voice from when I had you again in 8th grade history. You had no diagnosis. No special instructions. You looked like any other child. You had a list of “problems” from your previous teachers and your mom was trying her best to help you through them.
When I met you, it was only my second year of teaching. Our district had just restructured and moved me from 7th grade science to a 5th grade position. I was so excited to be in elementary school and thrilled that I got to teach all the subjects to my very own self-contained classroom. I had high hopes and expectations of what I would and could do with your class, but I wasn’t expecting a child like you.
You were this short and stocky walking history book. You knew everything about WWI and WWII and wanted to talk forever about the facts. I didn’t always have the time to keep listening and it would make you incredibly frustrated if you couldn’t finish all you had to say to me about the subject. Your handwriting was nearly impossible to read and you hated writer’s workshop even though you had so much to say. I remember how angry you would get and how you would shut down on me when it was time to write. I tried to use all of my kind teaching tactics to encourage you, but sometimes I would get just as frustrated and tell you to just finish your work.
I remember how much you wanted to fit in with the kids at recess and classroom game time. You struggled to connect with the other students. They weren’t interested in your stories about history and tattled on you when you told them you could turn a pen into a gun. They didn’t include you and made fun of you and no matter how many classroom meetings I had to talk about friendship, inclusion, tolerance and love, they still kept you outside of their circle and I could see the loneliness in your deep, dark eyes.
I remember how angry you would get when the kids would push you out. You didn’t know how to process your anger and your weekly meetings with the school psychologist didn’t really help. She gave me tips for 4 square breathing and told me to set firm boundaries with you. And when you banged your forehead repeatedly against the cinder block wall of our classroom until it busted open and bled everywhere, she helped your mom check you into a treatment facility. I went home and cried that day. Partly because I felt like I was failing you. Partly because I didn’t know what to do to help you. Partly from the relief of you being gone for an entire week of school.
A few years later, our district restructured and I was moved back to middle school. I saw your name on my class list and a few days later my eyes locked eyes with yours for a brief moment in first hour of 8th grade American History. You towered over me now and you rarely made eye contact with me. I could tell you had learned to retreat inside and stay there. I remember middle school myself. It was brutal and I cannot even imagine what it must have felt like to be you in our low-income district with a single mom working hard to feed you. Your clothes never smelled clean and you wore the same hoodie almost every day. My heart ached for you.
Jake, you knew every answer to every question in my class, but never took a note. You never completed an assignment. You never wrote the essay question on my test. You never participated in the small group talks. But you could tell me every reason for the start of the Civil War. You knew every detail about the battles and could describe the workings of a musket. You knew more than I did and were the only one who watched the movie Glory when I showed it in class while everyone else passed notes and whispered.
Oh Jake. I tried harder to connect with you that year. I encouraged you and praised you frequently even though you wouldn’t do your work. I remember your smile every once in a while. Then you made a threatening and racist remark toward another student in an angry rant of frustration. I had to follow our school discipline protocol and you were suspended. Then I lost you. I tried to be your ally, but now I was just another person not to trust.
Jake, I want to say I am sorry. I am sorry I didn’t know about Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome or anything sensory related. I am sorry I was a newbie teacher and lacked the confidence to go rogue and follow my gut the way I do now. I’m sorry I had only one special education class in my undergrad and it barely even scraped the surface of ASD. I don’t even think that phrased was even used then. If I had known better, I would have done better.
I would have modified your math and spelling assignments so there wasn’t so much writing. I would have let you dictate your incredible stories to me while I wrote them down for others to enjoy. I would have scrapped the lessons a little more and had even more meetings to build friendship and community to help you engage and teach you empathy. I would have given you a buddy to help organize your folders every week. I would have found many more ways to let you shine and praise you and stop putting you in a box to be like the other kids.
I would have let you speak your essay questions out loud to the class to replace the grade on your test. I would have let you skip my class to see the counselor more regularly. I wouldn’t have marked your assignments missing and instead let you keep them in my class to finish later. I would have tried harder to understand your brain in spite of the 100+ other middle schoolers I met with every day.
I should have researched every stinkin’ method to help a child with your symptoms and “problems” succeed instead of trying to put you on the same path as the other kids. I would have listened to my instincts a bit more. To know that you were different and needed something different. I would have gotten you a 504 or IEP so that the other teachers could help you just the same. I would have been then, the teacher that I am now.
Oh Jake. I am sorry. I often think of you and wonder how you are. I hope you graduated from high school. I hope you found your niche in life. I hope you made some friends. I hope you found love. I hope you understand that you have a beautiful mind and that our school system wasn’t ready for the gift of you. I hope you know you are special and unique. I hope your heart isn’t too hardened toward people who didn’t know how to navigate a relationship with you for so long. I hope you have found happiness and peace and a way to express yourself. And I hope if you ever think of 5th grade or 8th grade, you think for maybe just a minute, that your teacher cared. Because I really, truly did.