Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

How Ya Do Things

Currently trending on the local Facebook is a miserable story that turns unexpectedly delightful. The clickbait merchants of the grand Internet love this stuff: “Twenty Seconds Into This Clip, Your Heart Will Melt”, and all that.

This particular Awwwww Generator (<http://tinyurl.com/nk2rs7b&gt;) is about miserable middle-school behavior, and this time it happens in an actual middle school. Here’s a little bullying for you!: the typical stuff that happens in the seventh grade. I’ve taken to sometimes using “seventh-grade” as a pejorative adjective – with due respect to the couple of teachers I had in the seventh grade that did help me to now recall my experience as more than phys-ed awkwardness and that yahoo who lived in locker #280 and delighted in keeping me from getting my stuff from #279. That sort of crap.

The story runs thusly: at a middle school basketball game, one of the cheerleaders, named Desiree, took some verbal abuse from at least one jackass kid in the crowd, and half the home team came to her rescue. For openers, seventh-grade boys emerging from their sphere of awareness can be a pretty big deal. These particular kids may have been able to use their status as athletes to some greater good; so okay!

The detail in the story that causes this to be a bigger story is the fact that the cheerleader in question has Down Syndrome. In a moment that suggests that in some cases, humanity can separate itself from the rest of its prey-on-the-weak animal kingdom … the spectator who decided it was okay to verbally beat on somebody else (who is dealing with a challenge not of her own making) was put in his place.

Now they’ve renamed the gym “D’s House”, to suggest that Desiree is not only welcome, but she owns the joint the same as anybody else at that school. And does she ever. It’s an unofficial re-christening, but at the same time someone has already designed a new logo for a banner which will probably be made in time for the next home game.

The image that caused my eyes to spring a tiny little leak was the photo of Desiree flanked by some of the athletic kids that came to her defense – holding hands with two of them, as the caption reads, “Now Desiree, who they call Dee, never walks to class alone.”

With luck, this will demonstrate to the rest of that Wisconsin school, and to the rest of the online hordes who happen across the story, that it’s important to take these kinds of stands sometimes. And treat people decently.

At this moment, I need to shine a little spotlight on a former workplace of mine.

For most of thirteen years, I taught in the town of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, which is halfway between Worcester and Providence, Rhode Island. As with all towns everywhere, it had its strengths and weaknesses. But one thing its public schools did really well – exceptionally well – was maintain an environment in which special-needs students were part of the team, like everybody else.

There is much more “mainstreaming” of special-needs kids in public schools than there ever used to be, when I was a student myself – much more inclusion of these students in “regular” classes. It can present an extra challenge for teachers, but I haven’t met any teachers who didn’t throw their entire container of professional expertise at the challenge when it was presented to them (or hit up their learned colleagues for help).

In Uxbridge, while I was at the high school, we did have a few students who were developmentally-challenged enough that they did have their own curriculum, and spent the majority of their school day together, under the tutelage of some genuinely remarkable special-ed teachers. In a subset of the education industry which sees a level of turnover and burnout that can be entirely forgiven – special ed is a hard, hard business to be in – Uxbridge High School had a set of special-ed teachers who had been there long before I was hired, and I think are still there, years after I moved on from that school building. They were devoted to their craft in a way that impressed their “regular ed” colleagues – and probably impressed their students, at least by way of being there at the beginning of every new school year and thus providing a familiar and safe welcome for them.

Additionally, their work impressed the student body. Students rarely actually said, “boy, those special ed teachers do a great job” – but they showed it in the way they treated those developmentally-challenged students.

When those kids ventured out into the hallways, on their way to lunch, or on their way to the rare class into which they had been “mainstreamed” (not, I should note, needing any escort, at least for protection from bullies) – or, yes, at athletic home games in the gym – I never saw any “regular ed” students giving them a hard time. Nobody made fun of them. Everybody who passed them in the hallways smiled at them, or at least let them go on their way unhindered – and every so often, I got the sense that they were having thoughts like, “yeah, maybe this quiz I’m about to flunk isn’t the biggest problem anyone ever had and I should get over myself a little.”

So, bravo to the seventh-grade basketball-playing boys who have made their school quite a bit better just by doing the right thing. Sounds to me as if they’ve changed the culture of their school. With luck (or whatever), perhaps this will lead to other people doing other decent things, treating other people well, et cetera.

But a gentle shout-out, again, to my former colleagues back in Uxbridge, who – however they did it – figured out how to create that kind of atmosphere a long, long time ago, such that it didn’t require an extra special, clickbait-worthy effort. It was just how ya did things.

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March 13, 2015 - Posted by | current events, education, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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