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Compassion in the Classroom

How does a teacher's attitude affect the life of a child?

Recently, while catching up on the case of Wendy Portillo, the teacher who, in May 2008, led her class in voting a 5-year old boy with Asperger's (Alex Barton) out of her classroom, I clicked into this story from one of the local Florida papers. Several comments on the article reminded me strongly of the controversial comments made by talk show pundit Michael Savage, who said that autism is “…a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out.” I found myself wondering -- how would my life have been different if my teachers had thought this way?

One particular incident comes to mind.

It occurred early in the sixth grade. I had spent the majority of fifth grade pacing the periphery of the playground, alone. Since I was not flourishing, my father moved me to a new school district, in my new stepmother's neighborhood. My stepmother immediately enrolled me a summer program, where I met my first friend. By the time school started, I was already becoming part of the kid community.

I liked my new school a great deal, and especially loved my art teacher. She always showed an interest in me, mentoring me and nurturing my talents. It was in her classroom that I had worst meltdown I had had for some time. By then, I had become quite adept in white-knuckling it through each day. I would then return home, tense and exhausted, and shut myself away in my room to recover. But this day, a sequence of events developed that pushed me over the edge.

We were learning sculpture, and I had decided to sculpt one of our cats. I set to it with my customary intensity, lost in the joy of doing what I loved. As it shaped up, I was very proud of the product. It looked just as I had hoped. At the end of the class, a classmate appeared with a cardboard box, to gather up all the sculptures for storage. But, as she dropped my sculpture into the box, it toppled. I watched in horror as my beloved sculpture tumbled through the air - becoming impaled on the side of a box. I felt a wrenching in my gut...all that work, gone!

I had to fix it. I grabbed it and began frantic reconstruction. My classmate was annoyed. She had a job to do - and she didn't want to get into trouble. We argued. I insisted that I needed to fix it immediately. By our next class the following week, it would be dried, and ruined. She insisted I let it go. I became more and more distraught and agitated. A tussle ensued, as she tried to sidle me out of the way so that she could complete her task.

Reaching my breaking point, I slammed my hand down on the table and screamed, "NO!," startling the girl into jumping back. Then I fell apart, rocking and weeping, staring blindly at the table before me. I don't remember much after memories do not begin again until the moment I began to calm down.

I was sitting, in a chair, with my back against the wall. My vision was focused on a single tile on the opposite wall, and I heard a single, repetitive, sound: "Crack! Crack! Crack!" It was the sound that my skull made, as I compulsively whacked it against the wall. I didn't know why I was doing it, except that each burst of pain seemed to somehow diminish the overwhelming tension that had me wrapped so tight that I felt like a spring about to snap.

Gradually, I began to become aware of a soft sound...a voice. My teacher's voice. Slowly, it began to make sense: "It's OK, Lynne. It's OK." As the crisis subsided, I began to become more lucid. When she was sure she had my attention, she calmly addressed my original worries. Then, when she thought I was ready, she asked me if I was ready to return to class.

When I stood to go, I was startled to realize that my teacher and I were alone in the classroom. The rest of the kids were clustered by the classroom door, slackjawed and staring. I felt a wave of shame and embarrassment wash over me...the whole class had stopped, over me. I found myself repeating, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." As we advanced toward the other kids, they seemed to back away. The shame and embarrassment grew to hopelessness. I had waited so long to fit in and have could I have blown it so spectacularly in just a few minutes? My thoughts went to a very dark place.

But then, my teacher's arm tightened around me in a comforting squeeze. I realized then that if I was questioning my own worth and abilities, she wasn't. And I knew in that moment I couldn't give up. I had to prove her right. With a new strength, I walked toward the group of children with my head held high, determined to face whatever lay ahead. There are few days that pass when I do not remember that moment. And I often wonder what would have happened if she had handled it differently.

The brief dark moment of hopelessness in that classroom rates as one of the very worst moments of my life. It wouldn't have taken much to break my spirit. If she had behaved as Mr. Savage recommended, or if she had handled me as Ms. Portillo handled Alex, I believe that I would have retreated from the world for good. I would have believed the dark thoughts - and they would have set the tone for my life. Something I find truly chilling.

Kids on the playgroundOn the playground, when I shyly approached my friends, I expected rejection, perhaps some teasing. But I didn't get any of that. They asked me questions. They wanted to understand. How much of that behavior was influenced by my teacher's example? How quickly would it have changed, if she had called me up to the front of the classroom, and asked them to list the things they didn't like about me, as Ms. Portillo did?

My teacher taught me a very important lesson... that the actions of a single person in a single moment can make or break a child. That's a lesson that I pray that Ms. Portillo has learned through this controversy.

She'll need it in her new job...where she will teach sixth grade.

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