Monday, January 9, 2012

Workday Blues

Today Andrew was in tears, deep in the throes of the type of heaving sobs that yanks the breath right from your chest, leaving in its place an emptiness that you can't quite swallow. And eventually that emptiness has nowhere else to go but to sputter out of your mouth in quick, gasping hiccups, making it impossible to breathe. This is the kind of crying you generally save for only the truly deserving moments, the kind of tears you reserve for when you've had your heart broken, or your parents sell your childhood home, or your dog dies.
Jan. 2010 - home from my first day back at work
after maternity leave.

But none of these cases had applied to Andrew today. On the contrary, it was during play time when Andrew, a verbally limited nine year old student with autism, simply broke down. A quick, short scream escaped his little mouth first, startling me from across the room where I had been cleaning up after our reading activity.

Having just returned to school from a ten day winter vacation, my students don't generally respond well to abrupt changes to their ordinary routines. Everything in my classroom is regimented, the flow of the day predictable and manageable. Each of my six students has their own individual schedule for the day, clearly laying out what lies ahead. At 10:30 Andrew eats his snack, which consists of two Oreos and a Capri Sun. At 10:50 we head to art class, which leads into dance at 11:40. The day moves forward, one activity spilling into the next as each child checks each one off their schedule. It is meticulously ordered and there are generally no big surprises or disruptions. And that's the way my kids like it. Actually that's the way they need it, finding a small sense of comfort and peace in an otherwise chaotic, overwhelming, and unpredictable world. It gives them order. Something they can actually control. But when that routine is thrown off course, by say a half day or an extended school closing, my kids can have a tough time recovering as they struggle to digest all the change. And it is a very real struggle, often manifesting itself in the form of a wicked tantrum of the likes you've never seen.

And that's exactly where Andrew was this afternoon, soaking up all the residual tension seeping off his classmates (who were also struggling to readjust). I often caught him twisting his fingers and squeezing his hands together, a nervous tendency of his that usually indicates that he's uncomfortable in some way. Or nervous. Or sick. Or thirsty. Or bored. Detecting the problem is half the battle with my kids, especially Andrew who is predominantly nonverbal. Such severe speech and language deficits make communicating difficult for him, at times even impossible. The upside though is that I know Andrew. In fact, I know him very, very well. So I can usually read his body language within the context of the situation to decode what it is that's bothering him. And I usually play dumb just a little so that he's forced to use language (picture symbols) to tell me what's wrong, a way of encouraging him to build sentences and use his words.

When Andrew's scream reached my ears today, I knew I must have missed one of his earlier, more subtle cues to tell me he was upset. Sitting in our class rocking chair, Andrew swayed back and forth in the seat, screaming more loudly, twisting his fingers together violently as if they were wet dish towels needing to be wrung out . And even though I'm used to seeing this type of behavior, day in and day out (emotional coping strategies and self-soothing skills are extremely underdeveloped for my students), every so often, it gets me, stinging my heart and resonating deep.

That same tension and fragility that seemed to be consuming Andrew at that moment was no stranger to any of us. In fact, over the last few months, it's slowly seeped into my own skin as well. A slow growing anxiety that has settled onto my shoulder, whispering negative affirmations in my ear all day long.

You can't meet the demands of being a teacher. Oh, and you're missing out on your babies being babies. While you're at work all day, they are doing new things, and laughing, and crying, and needing their mother. But you are not there. You're here. And you're missing everything. And before you know it your babies won't be babies anymore and then you will have really missed it all.

And these are the thoughts that torment me at work all day long. The only difference between my torment and Andrew's is that I'm supposed to know how to cope, how not to fall apart. But the truth here--if I'm being as raw and honest as I'm capable of being--is that going back to work, away from my babies all day long, is absolutely excruciating for me. When I'm away from my girls, it takes all my focus, willpower and devotion to put my head down and just work. Not just to filter out home from school, but to actually separate the two completely, tucking my own children deep into the back my head so that I may fully devote myself to other people's children. The problem is that I can't seem to do that. All day I am thinking about my babies and missing them so much I feel as if I myself may crawl into the rocking chair and have a good cry.

But I don't. For the most part, I keep it together because my students need me to. And even though they're not my children, I do love them and want them to learn and grow and succeed. With such severe disabilities working against them, the last thing they need is a basket case, postpartum teacher. What they do need is stability, and patience, and to feel generally more at ease.

And so I called Andrew over to me and went through the laundry list of what could be upsetting him. But his hysteria only heightened, escalating to the hysterical sobbing previously described. Having used up all my tricks (visual supports, offering him water, a snack, anything I could think of), I resorted to my intuition, which at that moment was telling me loud and clear that this child needed to be hugged.

So I hugged him. And Andrew hugged me back, wrapping his arms around my shoulders tight and sobbing into my neck. Rubbing his back I whispered to him that he was ok, that I would keep him safe, that he was all right. I rocked him back and forth and allowed him to cry and to bury his head into my sweater and to block out the rest of the world. To hide in this hug for as long as he needed to.

And then, for the first time in my three years of teaching, it happened. I cried in the classroom. No dramatic weeping or big sobs. But as I held this child, all of my own anxiety and despair seemed to rise to the brim as well, escaping in the form of a few quiet tears on my cheeks as I consoled Andrew. Although I soon wondered if maybe it was him who was consoling me. Either way, maybe it was just what we both needed.

We got on with the rest of our day. And we survived, which I guess is all that really matters. I went home to my babies, soaking up as many minutes as I could before bedtime, mentally preparing myself to say goodbye again tomorrow morning.

No comments:

Post a Comment