Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How the Love of Animals Saved My Student

As I travel across the country and see young children and teens, I feel homesick for my classroom and remember some of my former students. I thought I might share with you some stories about them so I don’t miss them too much.

It was around September when T. entered my special education self contained classroom where students work towards an occupational diploma and not a state diploma. The only thing I was told was that she had witnessed her mother being killed by mother’s boyfriend, who then killed himself. When the murder/suicide took place in April, T. refused to leave her bedroom or go to school so she was put on homebound instruction. The grandmother then moved to my school district so she could have a fresh start and hopefully not be so afraid. This terrified me because I was totally unprepared to teach this eleventh grade 18 year old child who walked in my classroom with a stuffed animal under her arm. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing or triggering some flashback and wished I had some training in psychology during this time.

She barely spoke to me and only answered questions with one word answers and she looked as scared as I felt. I noticed that she liked to draw and asked her to draw for me. Her amazing artwork led me to make sure she was enrolled in an art class. Her academic level was much higher than it appeared due to her lack of communication with others. Since my eleventh graders have to do unpaid internships at a worksite, I was quite concerned about where to place her for work. The job coach and I decided that volunteering at the Humane Society would be a good place for her and her grandmother was notified. Grandmother did voice her concerns about whether T. would actually go and whether she would be able to do the job.

On the first day when the school bus was to deliver her to the job site, T. comes to me with her stuffed animal (I think it was Sonic the Hedgehog) and could barely part with this security blanket. I promised to watch and protect the animal and would have it close at hand when she returned. My concern was that she wouldn’t get on the bus but she did and it helped that the job coach met her at the job site when she arrived. The job coach stayed with her that whole first morning and T. would continue to go 3 hours each day for the rest of the semester. When T. returned, she had a shy smile on her face, retrieved her animal and went about the rest of the day. As T. spent more and more time at the Humane Society, she would smile more and talk more than I ever expected. She even stopped bringing Sonic the Hedgehog to school. I was very surprised when I got a call from the grandmother that T. had been invited to a volunteer dinner and they were planning to go. Her grandmother thanked me over and over for the miracle that took place in this girl’s life. Now T. talks at home, laughs, and even tells stories about school which is such a relief for the grandmother. When I called the Humane Society, they just raved about what a great worker she was and how well she worked with the animals and the workers. I believe she found the unconditional love that she needed from those animals.

As we prepared for the Christmas holidays, the students were excited about presents they might get and ones that they would give. I was amazed how sensitive and protective the class was towards T. even though nobody told them about the trauma she experienced. I knew this holiday would be hard for her and didn’t know what to say or how to comfort her other than to continue to brag about her academic and personal growth. Her artwork was fantastic and the art teacher wanted her in an advanced class for the next year. One day after class and before lunch, T. mentioned to me about her mother and what had happened. When I told her that my mother had passed away too a few years ago and how much I missed her, she just looked sadly at me and said that we were both motherless and needed to help each other. I agreed with her and she smiled as she left the classroom. At that point I felt confident that I hadn’t further damaged this sweet girl by doing any more emotional damage in her fragile life.

During the second semester, I changed T.’s job assignment to only three days at the Humane Society and two days at a local nursing home. She was not happy about the change but she adjusted. Again, she excelled in whatever she was asked to do and they loved her there too. I felt it was important to help her adjust to change while she had a support system because we couldn’t be there for her forever.

Even though I don’t teach her this year, I have followed up with her current teachers. She is now in a paid employment position because she has to earn 360 uninterrupted paid employment hours to graduate. It seems that she is doing well and continues to flourish. When I think of the miracle that took place in her life during the year I had the privilege of teaching her, I am truly glad that I went into the field of teaching and was there to see it all happen.

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