Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mrs. O'Brien and Mrs. Nemire

Wylie’s teachers have all been angels. Every single one of them. If the heavenly host were comprised of teachers, those most lovely of wing, most honored and battle-worn must certainly be Special Day Class (SDC) educators and their aides. And of the heavenly host, Mrs. O’Brien is then arch angel Michael to Mrs. Nemire’s Gabriel.

Laurel O’Brien teaches 1st and 2nd grade SDC at Calimesa Elementary School. The districts in our area took over SDC education from the counties after Wylie completed kindergarten. This was no small affair in the life of my child. Wylie had adapted to the county class, transportation on the special bus and the routines, environment and campus of the county school program. I remember myself being very anxious about the transition from the county program to the new campus, new routines, new school, new teachers…of course, Wylie would be anxious as well. For others who have been through this process with a special child, when you begin anything new it’s almost like you hold your breath until the routine is established…then you can exhale. Laurel’s quiet calm demeanor and wonderful authentic spirit assuaged any anxiety. Wylie instantly warmed to her and Robin (Nemire). It was such a blessing to place Wylie in their care each day.

This class experience was the first departure for Wylie from intensive speech and language emphasis. To be sure, Wylie still received therapy from a gifted woman (thank you Mrs. Ferguson!), but speech and language therapy became one part of Wylie’s instructional week instead of its focus. Indeed, there were fifteen students in the class and fifteen different stories and histories incorporated into the class mix. Some children needed speech, some needed other forms of therapy, some could read and write, some could not! This is where Laurel and Robin really made a difference. They worked brilliantly together as a team creating smaller groups of learners. They were diligent to preserve structure—so important to Asperger kids and other special needs children—and yet, creative in their use of time as well. Wylie began to embrace school and for the first time began to participate in relationships with other students within the learning environment Laurel created.

I, too, started forming relationships with the class. The bus schedule for morning pick-up would have required Wylie to ride for almost an hour to get to the campus which is only fifteen minutes from our home. Because of this, I opted to drive Wylie to school. In those initial days of 1st grade, I walked Wylie to his class and watched him play on the swings until the bell rang. Little did I know that my over-protective nature and Wylie’s strong desire for our routine would open the door to several more friendships with other SDC students and teachers. It was natural for me to greet the other students as they arrived and hung up their back packs. Gradually, I learned names. Eventually, I learned stories and heard about everything from birthday parties to family vacations!

It was also my pleasure to volunteer in the classroom once a week and help with parties. I usually brought my guitar so we could make up silly songs or sing Christmas carols. A couple of the higher need children especially warmed to the music. One boy who refused to open his eyes and didn’t speak at all would turn his face to the sound of the guitar and move his hands and smile while we sang. This wasn’t unnoticed by Laurel and Robin and they loved it when I was able to be there. What I learned from being with these children and getting to know them was that they all had pockets of potential; some of the pockets were smaller than others certainly. But, the beauty of the SDC (and, in particular, this class led as it was by our resident arch angels), is in the way it opens up the pockets. It was as if Laurel and Robin were expert tailors (angelic tailors!) able to find just the right combination of curriculum, patience, method, and love to turn the pockets of potential inside out! To literally bring forth the child’s best and build on that level. As a practical matter, this would never happen in a traditional class room for these kids.

Wylie’s progression during these two years is testimony to the hard work and dedication of these two women. But, there are so many other success stories. To really appreciate them, you have to get beyond standardized testing and federally mandated performance measures. How do you quantify or “grade” watching an autistic child who barely makes sounds one can call speech grow over the course of a year to the point where polite conversation can be exchanged? Or, observing a child who could barely trace capital letters—much less recognize them—write his name correctly? Laurel’s abilities opened up pockets of potential inside human lives that will forever change their futures. Her angelic influence in Wylie’s adventure is essential and foundational to his success story. I have no doubt that Laurel and Robin were the guardian angels of Wylie’s potential while he was in their care. Without them, who knows what pockets might have remained closed off to discovery?

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