This post is written in response to a Writing Workshop prompt provided by the splendid Josie, who blogs at Sleep is for the Weak.
What Today Meant
I work in a school for children with special needs – specifically, Asperger’s and speech and language disorders. I have worked there for just over two years, a time during which my life has changed immeasurably as my own children have grown and matured, but also with the development of my understanding and admiration for the children I work with. I joined the school armed with a shiny new diploma in How To Be A Teaching Assistant, but precious little else in the way of experience or expectations.
My own children are what is known in the ASD community as ‘neuro-typical’ – that is, they have no social, emotional or intellectual impairments that significantly affect their everyday life – and I had never worked in any school beyond volunteering to listen to my kids’ friends reading. Back then I had no idea what to expect, but these days it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my idea of a normal day at work is a few worlds removed from what a TA might experience in a mainstream school. I’ve supported children through some hugely challenging behavioural episodes, been on the receiving end of a few fists and feet, dodged more than a few items of furniture and helped rebuild relationships that have been shattered by the daily battles of living with ASD.
However, I have also been privileged to witness the huge and world-changing progress made by all the students I have worked with. I take a certain amount of personal pride in this, because I believe that I’m good at my job, but the progress and the achievements are theirs and theirs alone – I and the staff I work alongside are there merely to support, not to smother, protect or take any credit. I see these achievements every day: the selective mute girl who now chats freely with friends (although not yet with staff); the boy with Tourette’s who is setting himself up as a DJ and rapper; the girl with dyslexia who was a school refuser but has just taken her GCSE English exams. These are all things which we as a school observe and celebrate.
However, there are also a million tiny things, moments no-one else would notice but which are massive and life-changing for the children concerned. Today I saw one of these moments on the face of a boy who used to struggle with crippling social anxiety. When he first came to us his fear manifested itself as bullying and physical violence towards people and property, usually followed by agonised remorse and complete social withdrawal during which time he couldn’t leave his home.
This boy (let’s call him Isaac) has worked hard with his education and therapy team during the last eighteen months, and has made such great progress that with support he is now able to access a few lessons a week in a mainstream secondary school. More than this, on Saturday at our school Open Day he went on stage in front of a hall full of people and played drums while a group of staff played and sang the Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’.
My own son attends the secondary school where Isaac goes, and he saw Isaac’s performance when he came to Open Day on Saturday. On Sunday, after some thought, my boy said to me, “Mum, I know that boy who played drums yesterday; he goes to my school sometimes, I see him at lunchtimes. He was really good. Next time I see him I’m going to introduce myself and tell him I liked it.”
This filled me with deep and quiet pride, that my boy should have recognised Isaac’s achievement and felt it necessary to pass this along. I hugged him and said I thought Isaac would be really pleased if someone said hello to him at school. However, I also thought I should warn Isaac first; the shock of an unknown person apparently singling him out in a busy school dining room might be too much for him.
So today, when I saw Isaac, I said that my son had recognised him from school, had liked his drumming and would probably say hello to him and have a quick chat next time they saw each other. Isaac blinked, momentarily nonplussed, but then a jolt of pride and success made him suddenly luminous. He grinned at me, a thousand-watt flash of utter delight that a stranger should have noticed him and thought he was good at something. I was suddenly and blindingly reminded anew that apparently tiny things mean so much to the students I work with.
And that’s what today meant. More than this, though – that’s what every day means, even the terrible dark days where I feel I’ve achieved nothing and been ignored, verbally abused or even injured in the process. For these students every day is an incomprehensible challenge, but each achievement is worth so much more because of the effort that goes into it. Supporting children to overcome their particular challenges is what I do for a living, and this makes me proud every day.