"As you have done it to these the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me" (Matthew 25:40)
About five years agoI had my first teaching experience at a school for teenagers with mental disabilities. It was during my brief career-one and a half year before I handed in my resignation, to be precise - teaching in a state school. I was still on maternity leave after giving birth to Achilleas,my youngest, there was still a three week time to go before I'd be due to teach in a regular high school. But the district supervisor called me in and said they were short of stuff and really,couldnt I just help for a while by cutting my maternity leave short?
I was asked first because of the nature of the job, which would have to be chosen and not imposed. It was really a matter of four weeks, he said, no more than that , until this other regular teacher that was on leave would return to her post. Then I'd be able to go teach in a 'normal' high school in my neighborhood ( there was this law that stated that teachers with more than three kids had the privilidge of teaching in their own town).
I thought it would be an interesting experience.Teaching English to teenage kids with mental disabilities? Why on earth not? I had no experience or training whatsoever in teaching kids with special needs, but it seemed this was not a prerequisite. I was told their mental disabilities varied,that it was deemed of not the severe kind, whatever that meant. I just said yes,because I am all for trying new things and because frankly I like teenagers, they're my favourite group of kids, with or without disabilities.
So it is my first day at that special school. I am at the headmistress's office. She is kind and smiling. She's showing me a notebook where the previous teacher wrote her lesson plans. It read: 'The alphabet ,The numbers,Countable-Uncountable nouns'. A sigh of relief on my part. So they do know something after all. Suddenly the song I've prepared for that day seems inadequate but oh,well,I'll improvise. Somehow.
Then the nice headmistress hands me a key. I ask what this is for.''To lock yourself and the kids in your classroom'',she explains matter-of-factly. I stare at her, blank expression of incomprehension on my face. She goes on to explain how some of the kids have this tendency to sneak out of the classroom in the middle of the lesson, stroll in the corridors or even end up in other people's classes. No amount of scolding, rewards or punishment works, simply because they are not lacking in good intentions, they are lacking in concentration and impulsivity management skills.
I take my key, my cd player and my own good intentions and head for the classroom. Walking down the corridor, my inner little devil whispers in my ear, in a cartoon-like manner:'' So is this why you left your precious school in other people's hands, to spend your days locked up in a classroom with a bunch of retarded kids? Well done,Eirini....''
I determinedly brush the little devil aside and walk on. A bunch of boisterous kids are waiting for me at the end of the corridor, curious faces beaming at me. They let me in and as I go on to lock the door and introduce myself, 14 teenage faces (9 boys and 3 girls) eagerly look on, submitting me and my attire to the strictest scrutiny. While we are in the middle of getting to know each other's names, the two tallest kids at the back start fighting, first they exchange verbal abuse then it's on to real action. I rush to the back of the classroom to keep them apart, while a boy warns me ''let them be Miss, they always do that''..
When they are done fighting and I get back to my desk,a whiny voice complains loudly about having misplaced her notebook while another boy shouts a swear word at noone in particular, then grinns at me sweetly. Then another girl comes up to my desk and loudly announces that she needs to go to the toilet, right now or else she'll do it in her pants. I look for the door key to unlock the door and escort her to the toilet, but the damn key is not on the desk next to my books where I last put it! No doubt smuggled by one of the little rascals. The sweet girl that has to 'go' says 'Its OK, Miss, I'll waaaait''.As another fight seems imminent at the back of the class, I try to distract them by playing the song I have chosen for today, but when I try to plug in the CD player I realise that all the sockets in the classroom have safety plugs and to unplug them I need a special key from the headmistresses office, as I am informed.
Then it dawns on me: ''Oh my gosh, I am in charge of a class of toddlers on their first day at daycare! I'll never be able to teach them anything, let alone any English..'' As the fight at the back is raging on, a tall boy starts walking to and fro 'to stretch his legs' as he says, the girl that needs to use the bathroom starts whining again that she can't hold it any longer and in the middle of all the noise a sweet girl with Down's Syndrome smiles like a cherub at me at the front row. I stand there hopeless, then my eyes mist at my inadequacy and tears of helplessness start rolling down my cheeks, which I try to hide by fumbling with the CD player.
But the boy who is strolling up and down the classroom is more perceptive than I reckoned. He comes closer, leans over me and announces ''Hey, she's cryin''. Slowly the class gets quieter. The girl that has to go comes to my desk herself. ''Why are you crying, Miss?''. No use lying. ''Because it is my first day here with you and I so wanted to teach you stuff but it seems that I am not good enough for you''. A boy suggests'' ''Try shouting at us or sending one of us to the headmistress's. It works''. ''But shouting gives me a headache'', I admit ''and the headmistress will think I am not a good teacher if I send one of you away on my first day here''. 'Have you taught any other kids before? '' asks the girl. ''Yes I 've been teaching for 15 years at private schools and at my own school. But it seems I am not a good teacher after all, not for you''. Dead silence.The tall boy says, tentatively ''Maybe you should try more, maybe not give up right away.'' Then, in an act of magnanimity and before I realise what's going on, he unplugs one of the sockets by using a plastic pen of his own, another boy announces that he just 'found' the classroom key on his desk and hands it to me and the girl that has to go reassures me that she can wait until break.
Then we listen to this song . Eight times in a row. And on the eighth time,we're all singing at the top of our voices.
Then the bell rings and I unlock the door. The girl that had to go, comes over and says:
'' Next time we'll try more''.
Then she grinns and off she goes.
Love, peace and compassion