Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The tribe has spoken

It takes a village to raise a child.

People say it so much that it sounds cliche, but if you have a child, then you know it's true. What you do as a parent is important, but you can never underestimate the power and influence of the other people in your child's life - especially the people who are with him when you are not. You choose some of the people in your child's village; others are assigned to you. You hold your breath, hand over your child to the village elders, and hope for the best.

I've been thinking lately about how much courage it takes for parents - any parents, but particularly those whose children have developmental challenges - to trust the village that is the public school system. I've been thinking, especially, about two different public school villages: the village at the regional elementary school that Bud attends and the village at the Morningside Elementary School in Port St. Lucie, Florida, that Alex Barton attended.

The villages are a study in contrast, though my hunch is that the boys in question may not be. I don't know Alex Barton, so I don't know what his school year was like. My sense, though, is that this year in Kindergarten, Alex, who is in the process of being tested for Aspergers Syndrome, exhibited some combination of aggressive behaviors, verbal and physical outbursts, emotional dysregulation, anger and defiance. So did Bud in his second grade class this year.

As I said, I don't know Alex Barton. My only information about him comes from this mind boggling news story. I'll sum it up for you: It seems that Alex's Kindergarten teacher, at wit's end with Alex, adopted an intervention strategy straight out of the reality television program Survivor. She gathered together her class of five-year-olds and held a tribal council, in which each child was encouraged to tell Alex exactly what they thought of him and his behavior. Then the children were asked to cast their votes on whether or not to keep him in the classroom.

They voted him off the island.

The day after Alex's horrifying experience at school, I joined Bud and his classmates for a field trip to a farm museum. As we prepared for the trip, I wondered how it would go - How would Bud manage the dramatic change in routine? Would my presence at a school event be a comfort or an additional source of stress? And I wondered what I would see in the interactions between Bud and his classmates. Out of necessity, we have kept my presence in Bud's classroom at a minimum this semester - a quick kiss goodbye at the door each morning with no time to linger to watch Bud with his peers as he settles in to his day. So, I wondered how Bud's classmates were reacting to him these days, after a year of witnessing what was probably startling and possibly troubling behavior from him.

I was surprised by what I saw.

Bud and I had a completely different farm museum experience from the rest of his classmates. While they gathered in small groups to learn about milking cows and raising chickens and churning butter, Bud and I set off on our own, seeking out the places that were quiet, peeking at cows from a distance, making sheep noises to each other, and walking, walking, walking, walking towards emotional regulation as we tried to work out the jitters and find a way to settle in.

But though Bud and I did not spend the day with a group, we were never outsiders. When we passed children on the grounds, they greeted Bud. They engaged with him when he responded to their greetings, and they gave him space when he didn't. By noontime, we'd found a rhythm and I convinced Bud to join a group from a distance, for just a few minutes. He stayed near (but not with) the group, and then, with a little encouragement from his teacher, worked up the confidence to reach out and stroke the downy feathers of a remarkably docile chicken.

Later, we joined the larger group again for ice cream. Bud's friend Kelly plopped down on the bench beside him, asking about his ice cream and reporting on her own, and then, when the ice cream was finished, she raced out to the field with some other children to roll down the hill. Without prompting from me, Bud ran out to join them.

Then Bud asked his teacher if she'd play hide and seek with him. She readily agreed and ran to hide while Bud closed his eyes and counted. Several children saw what they were doing and asked if they could join in. Tom was one of them. When it was Tom's turn to be "it," he closed his eyes and counted while Bud pulled me over to "hide" with him behind a slender birch tree which left all but a tiny bit of us in plain sight. Tom finished counting, looked up, and looked directly at us. Then he turned and walked in the other direction and said, puzzled, "I wonder where Bud is!"

Tom's words weren't striking - but his tone was. He wasn't playing down to Bud. There wasn't a hint of condescension in his voice. He didn't sound like an older boy playing with his baby brother. He sounded like an eight-year-old playing with another eight-year-old. Tom got it. And when he "discovered" our hiding spot a few minutes later, the thrill of the find was genuine for all three of us.

Later that day, when the field trip was over and Bud was at home with Nana, I met with the school team about Bud's IEP for next year. I recounted the story of our day, and especially Bud's interactions with his peers and his game of hide and seek with Tom. They smiled and said they were glad that I got to see what they see every day. Then one of them offered, "That's what inclusive education is all about."

And that's it, isn't it? That is what inclusive education is about. It's what all education should be about. It's what should be at the heart of the villages that raise our children. All of our children.

But it wasn't at the heart of Alex Barton's village.

In the midst of a difficult, troubling year, Alex Barton's teacher called his village together and rallied them against him. Bud also had a difficult, troubling year and, interestingly, his teacher also called his village together for a tribal meeting. Unlike Alex, Bud was not there for the meeting. And the agenda for Bud's tribe's meeting was distinctly different: one of the special ed team members came in to talk to Bud's class and help them understand Bud a little better - help them understand the things that are difficult for him, the things that are easy for him, and the things they could do to support him through the challenging times. Like Alex's village, Bud's village came together. But Bud was embraced instead of exiled.

Because that's what inclusive education is about.

Inclusive education recognizes that it takes a village to raise a child. It recognizes that Kelly and Tom and the other children in the class are an important part of the village that is raising Bud. And - more to the point - it recognizes that Bud is an important part of the village that is raising Kelly and Tom and the other children in the class. They need each other, and they know it.

Our children's lives should not be played like a game of Survivor. The real-life stakes are too high to take our cues from a reality game show. Our kids need to know that survival doesn't mean pushing others down and fighting to be the last one standing. They need to know that survival - real survival - means that we all emerge, triumphant, standing together at the end.

Bud's tribe has spoken. I hope Alex's tribe is next.

37 comments:

Niksmom said...

Oh, Mom-NOS! I want to move to **YOUR** village! This is so eloquent and so moving; I'm so glad to know that things are going better at school and that Bud is finding (and making) his place in the tribe. As it should be.

WherestheBox said...

Wow, this blows me away! It is so easy to hear all these stories and be fearful of what your own child will encounter. What a wonderful "tribe" he is in!

BeThisWay said...

I'm just sad you can't see the standing ovation I'm giving you.

Bravo!

Jeni said...

This post really does my heart good - to hear of how children, when taught properly, can reach out and be assistive and especially, inclusive, to those most in need of being included in the realm of every-day accomplishments for many but which may be really difficult for others to master. If only this type of theory were to be incorporated into every aspect of life!

kristina said...

Just reading this reminds me that we're all part of a bigger (virtual) village---looking out for those who need a little or a lot more.

Jenn said...

Mom-NOS, so well put!

-Proud member of the virtual village

kirsten said...

when i heard that news story it made me feel sick.

and once again i marvel at bud's village. he has an amazing and enviable situation.

hooray for bud, and i wish i could give all those kids playing with him big hugs.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, well said! I hope my son has a "village" like yours in the public school system. The key is to stay involved and know what is going on in the classroom. Your stories are always so positive & uplifting!

J

Bea said...

This is the post I needed to read today. Bub and I are off on that same field trip this morning, and I anticipate much the same kind of atmosphere - but I can only hope that will continue into kindergarten and beyond.

Mark said...

wow,what a fantastic story from you and a scary one in Florida.My son is starting kindergarten this year in an inclusion classroom. I can only hope he has experiences like Buds.
Thanks for alleviating my fear for a few moments.

mommy~dearest said...

What an excellent post. Hooray for all the "Tom's" out there! It's so wonderful to hear that some schools are really getting it, and truly including everyone.

Bad mommy said...

My son's experience in his current school has been similar to Bud's. He has trouble with a couple of boys, so they are kept separated. But this school has worked so hard to include my children and help my children. My heart is full, and I want to do anything that I can to help this village. Believe me, I am fully aware of the alternatives.

I am grateful that Bud's current situation is so good for him! Real learning is beautiful.

Em said...

Your experience on the field trip is wonderful! And I'm so glad Bud has been having a successful year. And I'm horrified at Alex's experience in his school district. No child - one with special needs or one without - should ever be exiled. I don't know the outcome of Alex's story (which I'm sure extends beyond the tribal vote) but I really would love to know the rest of that story.

cathy said...

Wow. Your post really touched me. It was so wonderful to hear how Bud's class has rallied around him - I actually got teary eyed - and heartbreaking and absolutely maddening to hear how Alex's class rejected him - at the prodding of his TEACHER! I'm blown away by that.

I'm so thankful Bud has his village!

telemommie said...

What a great post! I think this is what "Autism Awareness" should be about. Making people aware that these are kids who want love and acceptance like anybody else, they just need extra help. I've had a great experience with my non-verbal 3 year old starting school this year. The teachers, therapists and other students are my new heros. My faith in humanity is renewed by these people. I know there must be good people in Florida and I hope this family finds them fast.

Beth said...

Wonderful post... Thank you for sharing this. I'm so glad he's having a positive, inclusive experience. I wonder if you've considered printing off a copy to share with his teacher at the end of the year?-- It would probably mean more to her than people would ever think.

Lisa said...

This is my first visit to your blog, I came from a link at kirstencan- what a great great post. What a wonderful school and teacher your child has. I look forward to reading more.

ghkcole said...

i don't get anonymous' point; maybe that is why it was anonymous?

anyway, i just wanted to say RIGHT ON. What YOU said. Ditto.

Casdok said...

Very well said. Can we move to your village too!

Julie said...

I loved this post

Steph said...

I hope you don't mind, I linked to this post as part of a discussion about this story that's going on at Current.com. I think your viewpoint is so valuable, and your story very touching.

If you're interested, you can find the link and discussion here: http://current.com/items/88983857_teacher_forces_the_only_friend_the_five_year_old_boy_has_ever_made_to_denounce_him_publicly

Maggie Rosethorn said...

Mom-NOS: What a great day for you and Bud. And what great classmates he has. I'm so happy that it is working out well.

Like you, my heart broke when I read the story of Alex, and I have to admit that I'm glad I don't live there because I'd probably be in jail for protesting in front of the school!

Anonymous...consider it fiction if you want, you coward. You don't even dare sign your name. We know truth when we read it. Yes, I'm sure Bud and Mom have bad days as well as good days. We all do, we are human. The fact that she prefers to post about good times is normal. Most parents prefer to talk about the good times in public and leave the bad times for private times.

Special Needs Mama said...

This piece is beautiful and eloquent and a top notch bit of advocacy and diplomacy. Someone should send it to Alex Barton's teacher. Maybe she'd learn something.

Daisy said...

I feel for Alex and his family. It's so, so sad that the teacher didn't know enough about Asperger's to work with him, not against him.

Jordan said...

This is an important and helpful take on a very sad story.

I think inclusion works beautifully when the adults in the classroom AND the ones raising the other children have open minds and hearts. Without those two elements, you can get an Alex Barton-like disaster. What a disaster it was.

Good for Bud and all of his classmates. They will all be better for knowing each other.

Mcspannar said...

Wow, what a beautiful post, Kirsten*can brought me in your direction. Actually it has me in tears. There is hope in the system for this special and precious children. I feel absolutely terrible for Alex but I am excited for your Bud. It's reading stories like this that makes me proud of what I do when I am not on Mummy leave.

Angela said...

Beautiful post!!!!!

vintagechica said...

Very well said friend. Very well said.

faceofautism said...

This was beautiful. How lucky your son is. I wish that all children had such a tribe.

kristi said...

TERRIFIC!! I have seen how TC's classmates interact with him........they are wonderful!

kyra said...

i love this so much. i am moved by bud's school village: the teachers, IEP team, the classmates, you in times like this, coming along for support and to share in the whole experience.

this IS what the school village ought to be. but why is your story so exceptional? because, sadly, it seems to be.

Gemmanerys said...

I've long admired you and your blog and I recommend it to any and everyone who I think has a remote interest in Autism and Special Needs.

As I wipe the tears from my face, I can honestly say that I think this was one of the most moving and eloquent of your posts ever (with the possible exception of Stealth Grief).

You so totally ROCK!
Many thanks to you, and your hubby, and especially to Bud for posting.

autismfamily said...

This sounds like a good field trip. I used to go with my son long ago when at another school. But we were encouraged not to go off on our own and stay with the group and my son had difficulty with that.

The same happened with the summer autism day camp. I was informed if I go as well than I stay with the group. This was hardest when visiting the Zoo as my kids like to go about seeing all animals and we are faster as a family than a large group that lags behind.

Glad you were able to do your own thing on this trip.

GFCF Mommy said...

Absolutely wonderful post. I wish all our villages were like yours. Mine is slowly trying to be. I hope Alex's tribe will learn and grow too. My son's school had a crisis with an ESE teacher earlier this year, (who has been removed--and was removed immediately, for which we are all grateful) but the "tribe" were able to pull together and in the end, things have become much better. I pray the same happens for Alex.

Katherine

Jamie's Girl said...

Thanks for turning this horrendous story up on end, and making it a clear example of this does not happen to your son. He is included, which is all we ask for at this age. To help these children make their way.

roxtarchic said...

wonderful story, inspiring and heartbreaking. thank you.

Mary Poppins said...

I just stumbled onto your blog...and boy am I glad! I loved this post!