Have you heard of exam season? Exam season is when students are most productive. Really. We will clean our rooms, wash all the dishes, our roommate’s dishes, sort through an entire semester’s worth of laundry and bake cookies for the entire class. Anything but study for exams. So here I am, procrastinating, because I have an exam on Thursday but somehow writing this blog post seemed way more urgent than studying.
I recently saw this post on Facebook, about how potato should be spelled.
There’s so much truth in these kinds of posts which make fun of how crazy the English language is. So it got me wondering, how on earth did I learn how to spell? Because, come to think of it, when it came to those spelling tests in grade school, I either already knew how to spell the words or I spelled them wrong. The quizzes never taught me a thing.
Looking at that teasing text marker on the screen, I found the word because. I learned how to spell that word by an acronym my teacher gave us: Big Elephants Can’t Always Use Small Elevators. It was a funny image so it stuck. When I was struggling to learn how to spell the word “does” (I kept mixing up the s and the e) I tried to make up an acronym for myself (Deers Only Eat Snow?) but was unsuccessful. I kept confusing it with the word dose. I finally started to get it right after I was playing a word game on the computer and realized that it is spelled the same way as does – the plural of doe.
Sure, I probably picked up most of my spelling by reading books. But each tricky word came with a personal experience which taught me how to spell it. I learned how to spell does because it helped me win a computer game. Here are some anecdotes I recall which helped me learn how to spell specific words:
- Dessert. On a family vacation in Eilat, Israel, while eating breakfast in the hotel dining room, we noticed a sign advertising a tour of the desert. My father pointed out the spelling mistake – and for years since then he would occasionally ask, “When are we going on that dessert tour?” Doesn’t that sound delicious?
- Egg. These are my grandmother’s initials.
- Dictionary. One of my favorite books ever is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. One of the kingdoms Milo visits on this magical journey is Dictionopolis, on the way to rescue princesses Rhyme and Reason, two more words I specifically remember learning from that book.
- Mississippi. Who can’t spell the name of that state? It’s got a perfect rhythm to it – m-i-s-s-iiiiii-s-s-iiiiii-p-p-iiiiiii. But what about the other states? I learned how to spell Northampton and Massachusetts because that was where I lived. But Wyoming I learned from a geography game whose object was to teach me to map of the united states. It had this little airplane and it would send you to a state and you had to fly over the map until you found it. The names of the states were in large, bold letters. I saw them enough times to remember their spelling.
- Eunuch. Where would I have read that in a book? (Remember that I studied the bibile in its language of origin – Hebrew). My mother was the musical director of an original play about Queen Esther, in which there was a funny dance scene called “Eunuchs in Tunics.” I saw that show a hundred times and knew the soundtrack by heart.
I concluded that a positive, personal experience was really what helped me learn how to spell. So what happens if you have a negative experience? Well…Let’s just say, I still can’t spell the word “bureaucracy.” (I had to Google it.)
For my summer job, I’m working at Camp Shutaf – a summer camp for kids with and without special needs. I double as a councilor and a personal guide for a teen with Down Syndrome.
Yesterday during lunch, I was handing out cups of water to the campers and as I observed the room out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly found myself thinking: wow, this is so normal. I was reminded of going to summer camp myself: color war, swimming, relay races, getting popsicles at pickup time. Had I been observing the camp from the outside I may never have guessed that “special needs” is even in the mission statement of the Organization.
First it made me think I must have special needs, if such a scene felt so normal to me. Then I remembered one of my favorite quotes from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon:
“Everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.”
There were two incidents at camp which really made me think later that afternoon. The first was with a kid who is almost ten years old but not even three feet tall. Right before my eyes he burst into our homeroom and spilled every cup with liquid all over the floor before I could stop him. When asked why he did that, he replied simply, “I was upset.” I thought, hey, sometimes I feel like tossing a few cups of grape drink across the room when I’m upset. But I don’t, because I’m an adult and I learned not to. The important thing is to recognize that these instincts still exist inside of us, and just because we may have learned earlier to restrain them, does not mean we are different from this boy. He just has special needs, one of them being that sometimes he needs to be physically restrained when he is upset in order to calm down.
The second incident was with a camper with Down Syndrome. I was playing catch with her when a CIT approached us and requested she join the group activity. I had not had a lot of experience with this camper so I could not anticipate how she would react. She told us clearly that she did not want to join the group, and preferred to stay where we were and continue our game of catch. We talked her into it using bribes and ultimatums and whatever else we could possibly think of, and finally managed to convince her to join the group. Immediately my camper started hitting other campers. I didn’t see the first time and was not able to stop her the second, so I took her hand and kind of dragged/lead her upstairs to see the camp director and have a talk. After the fact it seemed obvious. She had told us clearly what she wanted, and we refused to pay any attention to her preference, so she got mad and started acting out. Wouldn’t it have been better to just stay where we were and keep playing catch? Kids with Down Syndrome don’t always communicate clearly, so when they do, I thought, maybe we should pay close attention to what they’re saying instead of holding the camp schedule as a higher priority. I recognize that there could potentially have been other technical challenges such as shortage of staff hands or not wanting to spoil her, but neither were relavent in this particular situation.
Because I’m a nerd, I’m going to borrow a metaphor from the world of mathematics. In Vector Algebra, a vector is called “normal” if it is at a right angle to another vector. The consequence of this idea is that normal vectors show us new dimensions. Any time a new “normal” vector is added, we have another direction to explore. The world grows. Lots of new combinations can be formed. On the other hand, staying on the same line or the same plane isn’t necessarily normal; in fact, in most cases it’s not.
Following this idea, here’s a list of what I think would be considered normal and not normal:
- allowing for lots of alternatives
- recognizing that each child is unique
- striving for individuality and celebrating differences
- trying to stick with one plan
- assuming that all children move in the same direction or fit into the same space
- striving for homogeneity and discouraging creativity
I believe there are endless valuable lessons to be learned from kids with special needs, because when you deal with special needs kids, you have to get creative. Usual methods we use in public schools just don’t work, because the kids are not necessarily even rational thinkers. Some kids will just sit down in the middle of the street and refuse to budge no matter how many times you explain to them that they could get run over by a car. You can’t just pick them up and physically force them to move, because they could be 19 years old and six feet tall. You have to find ways to appeal to them, you have to treat them with utmost respect and give them unconditional love, because they don’t respond to anything else. With non special needs kids it’s easy to forget that they need these things too, but if we look at the success of schools around the world, it is clear that love and respect are just as crucial to a child’s growth whether or not they have special needs.
And anyway, as we know, everyone has special needs.
Ever seen that headline? I Googled it before I wrote this, so don’t tell me you have.
“You’re not starving. I can’t see your bones.”
“You won’t grow up if you don’t eat vegetables.”
Children are expected to put all kinds of revolting foods into their mouths without arguing about it. I think that is an unreasonable expectation, seeing as our taste buds develop at all different stages in our lives, and not everyone’s develop the same way at the same time. We know that our sense of smell and taste are indicators for things which are not good to put into our bodies, such as spoiled food. It makes perfect sense that they should also indicate food that is not spoiled, but simply will not go over well in the digestive system. So don’t tell me I don’t know if I’ll like it or not. Trust me, I know.
It’s a hard life being a picky eater. Your body has an aversion to a variety of foods and although you are hungry, you can not bring yourself to eat them. If a picky eater told me they were starving, I’d believe them. It’s difficult to force your body to consume something it so clearly does not want to digest. You can sit there for hours thinking about how mom won’t let you have dessert if you don’t try eggplant quiche, but the concept of placing it on your tongue is so repulsive that it’s worth it to give up chocolate cake just to avoid the eggplant experience.
I still will not touch broccoli. And guess what? Now that I’m a grown up, nobody cares.
Do you have moments when you just want to bury your face in your hands and shout, “Those @#$%*@# bullies!” Know what I mean?
A few days ago I was babysitting an adorable two-year-old. We were at the playground, and I was waiting for him at the bottom of the hill while he skated down on his little toy car. When it took longer than usual for him to arrive, I got a little concerned but told myself it was nothing. Finally he came flying toward me, hysterical with tears, his face red with anger. A short distance away two boys were in his wake, cheering and laughing and pointing at him. I wondered how they could live with themselves, proud for making a two-year-old cry. I wanted to do terrible, awful things to them right there in front of their parents, who were ignoring the entire scene. But instead, I scooped up my kid, and looked those evil creatures straight in the eye with so much anger, and said, “Don’t. You. Dare.”
I was horrified by the whole incident. I was upset with myself, that I had not been there to protect him. But mostly I was shocked at the cruelty of these two children. Had I somehow forgotten how mean kids can be? Or had I simply blocked it out, because it seemed so impossible? How can anyone triumph in the tears of a toddler?
Cornered is a story I wrote which was featured on the Figment.com homepage a few weeks ago. From reading the comments and reviews, you might conclude that it is a story about bullying, written from the point of view of the bully. As the author I would like to say that this is not just a story about bullying – it’s about the failure of the adults to prevent or in any way deal with bullying. Yes, the story is told from the point of view of a bully, who just so happens to have an abusive father. However, the circumstances in which she is being raised are no excuse for her behavior, and they certainly do not protect other children from being scarred for life by her words. (By the way, according to Figment it only takes 5 minutes to read, so go for it!)
The way the saying really should have ended is, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will scar me forever.”
I was picked on from 3rd to 8th grade. That’s what happens when you get good grades in pretty much everything when you’re 10 years old. I was in an all-girls school, and the sort of attacks which happened were mainly constant commentary on my looks, my actions, or even things my teachers or friends did that somehow involved me. When I was in fourth grade a girl threatened to punch me in the face and break my glasses. What had I done to deserve that? God knows, probably ace a multiplication test. The worst incident was when my English teacher published six of my original works in the year journal. Since most students only had two pieces published, this was an obvious act of favoritism. There was a clique of about six girls who were straight up plotting to kill me for it.
Where am I going with this? To one very simple conclusion. As adults, it is our responsibility to never underestimate children in any area of life. Just because they’re small does not mean they’re less capable, less powerful, or less intelligent in any way than a grown person. On the contrary, they are more powerful than us in many ways we refuse to see. We must be willing to know their true abilities if we have any hope of protecting and teaching our own.