Where the inside of my mind leaks onto the screen.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Changed My Life

It wasn't until April 15th, 2009 that I was even aware that a little boy (Jonathan) in Adam's primary class was autistic.  I'd seen him sit on his mother's lap (she was their teacher) during singing time, but in a class of Sunbeams, that was certainly no red flag.  But when I received an email from his grandmother thanking me for a small kindness Adam naturally showed, I became more aware (and tried to be more understanding) of the unique challenges of that particular primary class.

The following December, I was approached by the primary president who asked if I'd be willing to move to the 4 year old class for the following year.  Informed that the class would be split based on the large number of kids, I easily answered, "Sure, as long as Adam is in the other class."  It was that first Sunday in a class of four year olds and with a new team teacher (Jonathan's mom) when I really got a chance to see how amazing both Jonathan and his mother are.

Through the course of our year together, Kristal never had a problem keeping the attention of our fidgety class while never taking her eyes fully off Jonathan.  The amount of energy she used during every minute of primary was such an example to me.  Thankfully, Jonathan and I hit it off immediately.  Although he's non-verbal, he communicated pretty clearly to me with just a look of his eyes which said, "I'm really smart.  In fact, sometimes, I'm probably smarter than you.  Wanna see what I can get away with?" 

So I got down on my knees and put my hands gently on his shoulders and looked right back.  "Yes, Jonathan.  You are really smart.  Really, really, smart.  I'm pretty sure you'll be a lot smarter than me someday.  But for today, you are 4 years old.  So I get to be the boss.  Go ahead and try.  Wanna see what I won't let you get away with?"

I watched Kristal all year, and took my turns with Jonathan while she taught (and carefully supervised me through the corner of her eye).  When the time came to reassign teachers for the next year, I thought and prayed and talked with the primary presidency, and I was given the opportunity to continue with Jonathan - without Kristal - for the next year.

It has been a challenging year.  Our class is huge and full of my son and his gaggle of Type A personality friends.  Only 2 of our horde are girls, and coming from an estrogen-challenged household, I struggle to relate to their more emotional nature.  We have three teachers in order to accommodate the need to occasionally take Jonathan out and still have two teachers in the room.  While two of us have been constant from the start, we've had no less than four people in that third slot.  We've tried several methods of organizing our class, some of which have fallen just short of disastrous nightmare. 

I've had good days and bad days.  After discussing with Jonathan's parents that I was afraid that our constant changing of teachers was causing Jonathan some undue anxiety, I discussed with the primary presidency a plan to restructure our class in such a way that I could be exclusively with Jonathan.  The next week, I arrived at church refreshed and ready.  The primary president pulled me out of class to let me know we were getting another new teacher, and that she and I would alternate weeks being with Jonathan.  I tried to be okay with it.  Then I went and hid myself in a classroom and bawled.

That's when I realized something.  Somewhere between April 15th, 2009 and now, my life changed forever.  I have had the unique opportunity to befriend - no - to love an incredibly little boy named Jonathan.  His parents are right there and always doing what is best for him, and still I melted down at the thought of asking him to continue to feel anxiety about switching teachers each week.

The primary presidency reconsidered, and I've been given until the end of September as Jonathan's personal buddy.  At that point, I'm being transitioned out so that I can teach a different class next year.  Which is good.  (Imagine me nodding my head decidedly.)  In the meantime, I'm working to re-establish a routine since our crazy year has been anything but conducive to an ideal environment for Jonathan.

As such, I expected a "bad" day today.  That smart little 4 year old is now an even smarter little 6 year old who has figured out that if he doesn't want to be in class, all he has to do is make lots of noise.  I talked to his parents who agreed that I probably needed to tough it out and get through some noise to establish that he stays in class unless there's a really good reason to leave.  I prepared the other teachers and the class that Jonathan might make some noise today, but that we could all help each other out by paying attention to the teacher.  And I hunkered down, expecting a fight.

The secretary in the primary presidency is a special education teacher at one of the local elementaries, and she has been an incredible resource for me.  Knowing that with the start of school tomorrow, Jonathan was probably extra excited today, she stopped by to say that if I needed a break today to let her know. 

Two Important Sidenotes:

1. Jonathan doesn't like my hair curly.  When I do wear it that way, he pulls it in a non-malicious way that just seems like he's trying to straighten out the curls.

2. Jonathan is a runner.  One must be constantly on guard, and even at that, Jonathan gets away at least once or twice per Sunday.  If I'm lucky, I get to him before he leaves the room or reaches the piano.  When I'm not, I end up literally chasing him down the halls of the church.  I wear flats a lot.

Well, today we'd made it 20 minutes in when Jonathan decided that pulling my hair (already straight today) was a fun experiment in cause and effect.  "When I pull Sis. Fife's hair, she seems to get instantly frustrated.  That's kinda fun."  So I gladly took Sis. Okerlund up on her offer.  She took him to help deliver roles to the other classes, and I didn't see him for 10 minutes or so.  And then he ran into the room, with the primary president and Sis. Okerlund following behind.  Neither of them reached him before he opened the accordian doors to the baptismal font.  And I just laughed as poor, significantly pregnant Sis. Okerlund looked at me and said, "I'm not as fast as I used to be.  Wow.  That was borderline disastrous!"

I know I shouldn't feel triumphant about a moment like that.  But for all the times Jonathan has reached the bass notes of the piano or grabbed a handful of name sticks or slammed the door or turned off the lights or... before I could catch him, it was SO nice to see someone else just a little too late.

The best moment, however, was in speaking with Jonathan's dad after church.  With the exception of one battle-of-wills over a different teacher's watch (which I wouldn't let Jonathan take down to it's component parts - a favorite activity of his), we had a very calm class time.  The one battle was scream inducing, however, and unknown to me, his dad had come to observe though the window.  "I came to check on him," he said, "and I saw that you clearly had it under control.  I didn't interfere, because I wanted to make sure Jonathan understands that there is a chain of command." 

My countdown to the end of September has begun.  As in I only get 5 more weeks with Jonathan.  I thought of that as I held him on my lap today, quietly singing the ABC's to calm him down.  I thought of that today as he stood on a chair with his arms wrapped around my neck.  I thought of that today as I projected myself several years down the road to when he is inches taller than me. 

Jonathan has changed my life.


Kris said...

LOVED reading this post. Reminded me of when I taught Special Ed (oh how I miss it!). I'm so glad he changed your life and that you got to meet such a special boy. You've made a huge impact on his life.

We had two autistic units at the school I taught Special Education at and I had to mentor the new teachers in how to set up their classrooms and work with kids with autism. They soon learned to wear tennis shoes to school for the runners. :-) Some of those kids can run fast!

Logan Gifford said...

This post really touched me. Not sure why. Maybe because there is a child much like Jonathan in my own ward. Maybe because I love being around special education children, I love the spirit they have. I also feel where you are coming from with the parents looking in and feeling their trust. My primary class is alot of young men who are very rambunctious and hard to contain, so I understand how you feel. I can especially relate to the fact that these young men have changed my life forever.