I go through a few awakenings several times of year. My first is usually during the September Back-to-School sales when I smell fresh crayons, ogle reams of loose leaf paper and run my fingers over Number 2 pencils stacked so neatly on the stores shelves. As a former elementary school teacher, I consider the beginning of a school year more like my own personal New Year’s celebration. I loved setting up my classroom and envisioning all sorts of learning moments for my students. I made resolutions to have a productive, successful and enjoyable year full of creativity. Just a few years into teaching, I “retired” to raise a family of my own. I miss those days of new books, new students, and year-long learning and teaching I was custom to.
In preparing to teach I took early and elementary education classes throughout college. I stayed up-to-date with teaching trends when I was a full-time educator while reading journals and going to conferences. Being a general education teacher who only knew typically developing, I tiptoed around special education classes but never fully immersed myself in them. I knew the very basics (i.e., special ed existed), and that’s all I really cared to know. I used to tell my classmates who did venture into special education, “Thank God for people like you because I don’t think I could teach it!”
I did take a few courses offered specifically for special education, but I either took those classes because it was required for my degree or because I needed to fill credits with electives. I didn’t want to waste an elective with something useless so I opted to challenge myself with topics in special education. I thought that in the off chance I had one or two students in my classroom over the 20 year teaching career I was expecting, knowing some of the special ed terms could prove useful.
I taught at various schools over time and never saw more than just a few special education students at one campus. I also never saw the autism we have crowding special ed classes today. I ended up leaving the teaching field two years before Ronan was born—it felt like an eternity at that point because diapers, naps and Playskool toys ruled my day with my firstborn. I had long packed up my teacher books, math manipulatives and formal training away to enjoy all things baby at that point. Because I had great experience with typically developing and a small smattering of special needs, I recognized that Ronan’s development was slowing down. I panicked but knew to call the early intervention team right away. I was praying what I saw in Ronan was “just because he was a boy and boys developed slower than girls.” I froze when the county assessment team ran their many tests on Ronan discovering he was indeed losing skills. This happened after his early days through most of toddlerhood--Ronan had fit many of the textbook milestones of a typical baby but something had started to change after his well-baby visits. Those typical skills Ronan had at one point were fresh in my mind as his older sister had just accomplished many of them with lightning speed and accuracy. But, Ronan started to slip away right in front of me and with it my confidence as his parent.
Even though I wanted to cry my eyes out, I put on a brave face and listened to the early intervention (EI) team rattle off not just the one concern we had (Ronan wasn’t walking at the time), but a list of other issues and delays. When we got the final report of global developmentally delayed, I was forced to reach into the very depths of my brain to remember everything I had learned about delays in child development. I had to wake up part of me that I hadn’t thought about in years. I tried to remember everything I learned in one summer course about special education. It was as elective class and one of the most inspiring of my college career. I remembered studying public law, educational supports, related services, specific diagnoses, finding resources and knowing what options educators had when working with the special needs population. I needed that information now! I adored my professor who challenged each one of us and saw us as individuals and continued to draw upon my past to help my son’s future. I thought I might try to find Dr. E to ask some questions but I quickly found my old textbook and notebook and started the learning process over again.
I pored over every word in those books. I took new notes alongside my old notes since I feared I knew nothing of what was to come for Ronan and his great needs. I read that textbook for days recalling that laws were enacted to protect my child. I knew timelines were in place once children were flagged as delayed. I discovered our EI team was already out of compliance with their timeline obligations. I rediscovered specific therapies that could help certain problems Ronan had. Over those intense days I’ve never felt a time crunch as severe as when I first walked into finding Ronan’s special education support.
I continued to read until I read and reread again what I’d forgotten so long ago in class. To jog my memory I called a former college roommate who was a special education teacher. She helped me organize the questions I had and gave me ideas of what else I needed to have answered. I was again meeting with the EI team but this time to discuss placement and therapy for Ronan. I wanted him to have exactly what he needed to close the gap in his development. Brainstorming, re-teaching myself and listening to someone who worked directly with children like Ronan was the awakening I needed to transform me from typical parent to special needs parent.
Through more delays but with me marching headstrong into getting Ronan into an appropriate education, I gained some of my confidence back. I took the role as special needs parent and advocate seriously and haven’t slowed down since Ronan’s initial placement so many years ago.
When I started writing about Ronan’s experience I had a constant thought of that one special education class I took one summer so long ago. The constant thought included contacting my professor Dr. E. I had a nagging feeling to find her. I wanted to tell her what I was experiencing with Ronan. I wanted to tell her how thankful I was for guiding me in the early 1990s. She needed to know how her dedication to education carried me through many tense moments with Ronan ten years after that one class. Dr. E helped me feel stronger about Ronan’s future and his ever-important education because of how much I learned through her.
A few years ago when that initial thought of finding my professor popped into my mind, I did contact her. I found Dr. E’s email address on my university site and sent the following message:
Dear Dr. E,
I took your EDC 402 class many years ago during a summer in the 1990s (it was so long ago I can't remember exactly when). I thought I would take the class for a quick credit, to help with the general education tract I was pursuing in early childhood and to fluff up my future teaching credentials. I never wanted to pursue the special education field so I thought taking this course was going to be a blip on my college screen.
You may not remember me at all, but that class and your charisma for the field of education stayed with me all these years. I learned so much and truly enjoyed going to school. I worked incredibly hard and earned very good grades. My final paper was the best and I received an A. One of the individual projects I utilized sign language to retell a story from a book about a young girl who could not hear. She could communicate though and did so through dance. I enjoyed that project and remember that my classmates were spellbound as I signed.
I am writing you to let you know what an impact you had on me. Since graduation, I taught for 10 years in regular education. I left the area in 2001 when I got married and had children of my own. I have 5 kids now with my older son having many special needs. I have gone back in my mind to our class to remember specific terms, methodologies and other helpful resources. These days, I home school two of my children and incorporate sign language daily with all of the kids.
I've wanted to say thank you when I encountered special needs children in my teaching days since your class gave me confidence to work with such a fragile population. I never worked with special needs students full time but did appreciate the knowledge you bestowed for those few instances I did work directly with them.
Now that my own child faces many issues, I want to thank you even more. The weeks we spent learning about special needs children in that class are invaluable to me. I wish I had more time to research again so that I can provide the right assistance Ronan will need.
I've turned the negative side of raising a special needs child into a sort of therapy for me. I never thought I'd be the parent of this exceptional boy so I try to find the upside to his life and how it affects our family. I contribute to an online newspaper and have some wonderful comments for my articles that keep me writing more and more.
Thank you for taking time to read this and just to know that you were and still are an inspiration for me. I am so glad to have made the choice to take your class, to really understand the topic then and to be able to use it for my own child now. I hope other students are as grateful as I feel now, even all these years later.
Cathy Jameson, '93
Dr. E wrote me back soon after:
Thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to write me such a kind note. It came at a perfect time for me.
I believe that I remember you. You were in the class that met in the morning from 9-12:45 two days a week in White Hall. It was a hot summer and some days it was unbearable. I believe you sat in the second row near the door (toward the back I think) and you had dark brown
hair, longish and wavy if I remember correctly. That class had phenomenal students in it - one of them being YOU.
I read a piece about John Elder Robinson which I found very interesting. Some of my students (future school psychologists and current teachers) read his book this past semester….For the past two years, I have been working on a Master's Degree program in special education that would also give students special education certification to teach elementary/middle school students or middle/secondary students. It was approved by the Board of Governors on May 12th so I am very excited about that.
I am glad that you are writing and submitting your work. I am looking forward to reading your articles. There is an organization called National Organization of Rare Disorders that might be helpful to you at some point in the future. I would be very happy to talk to you to see if I could provide you with any resources to help you and your family….
I couldn’t have been more proud of that response. I did sit there in that spot, with cut off jeans, in flip flops and braids. I was so impressed that my professor was still teaching, still reaching out to future teachers, still hopeful and just as encouraging as I remembered.
I continue to think of Dr. E when I go through certain educational procedures with Ronan—most especially the annual I.E.P. meeting. That time is more of a reawakening for me as I imagine myself a student again drawing on those glossary terms, laws and facts from my former textbook. If something new has been brought into Ronan’s educational plan, I hit the books to learn the new words, laws and facts. I then envision Ronan being positively supported because of all those terms, laws and facts I have finally grasped. I don’t feel like I always have to cram for an exam or perfectly type out a final paper during this process, but I do everything as factually and professionally as possible to ensure those education meetings and conferences I attend will meet my child’s needs.
A final awakening moment for me is at the end of the school year, and that time is quickly approaching. So many things need to be organized for Ronan’s next school year before we close the chapter to his current one. I’m again on my toes reading and preparing for upcoming transitions for his academic success. Thankfully, this year, Ronan’s confidence and love of learning tells me he is in a safe educational placement now and that I have secured Ronan’s needs. I feel like I can almost ease into summer which is also quickly approaching. I am looking forward to the short break Ronan and I will have from the intensity of his school program. I may even enjoy some fresh air and play outside with the kids instead of feeling drawn to the special ed bookshelf I gravitate toward during the school year.
I used to be tempted to cut classes in the summer, and for some courses I did do that. I never ever missed one of Dr. E’s classes though. It was too important to stay. I didn’t know it at the time but my own child’s education depended on me being there. One may never know where their past decisions will bring them, but I am confident that my encounter with Dr. E so long ago was more than a chance coincidence.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.