His nickname was "seizure boy" -- not a nickname he welcomed or ever wanted. Once, while waiting for the school bus, he collapsed in a seizure and while on the ground, in the dust, the bullies kicked him until a younger neighbor intervened. His teachers weren't much better. Most of them were intolerant, indifferent, or uninterested. He dropped out of high school in the first week of his senior year.
This was my little brother who had epilepsy from the age of four to twelve. During his school years, he was frequently absent, got in trouble, and was set to the principal's office regularly. He was incessantly bullied, and, as you might imagine, developed a strong dislike for school. When he was 12, a brain surgery stopped the seizures. However, it took many years for him to catch up socially, emotionally, and academically.
In the last few years I've become aware of the impact that my brother's schooling had on me as an educator. I understand why my heart races and my palms perspire and my throat constricts when I see children -- particularly boys -- who are excluded and misunderstood. When I was a kid, there wasn't much I could do to protect my little brother from the cruelty of others. I'm approaching my 20th year working in schools, and when I reflect on these decades, I see the connection between my brother's experience and my mission to create classrooms and schools where all children feel safe, valued, and understood.
Who Will You Get to Know This Year?
I share this with you because when it's connected to my hopes for this coming school year. I hope that if there's a student in your class who resembles my brother -- a student who is struggling, who is an outcast, who is odd or strange or has some kind of physical, social, or emotional difference -- that you'll reach across that perceived chasm and get to know the person on the other side. I hope that you'll find out who he is and what he loves to do and how you might be able to make his daily life just a little bit easier. I hope that you'll recognize your own fears and apprehension, perhaps fears of the unknown or the "other" or fears of your own limitations to help. And I hope you'll reach out anyway.
We all have these students, these Others, in every class we teach. Sometimes it's obvious who they are (such as the kid who has grand mal seizures on the playground)-- and sometimes we're not even aware of who we've made into the Other.
Meeting the needs of all students starts with honing an awareness of who we make Other -- who we see as fundamentally different from us, who we've closed off our hearts to. For some, those others might be members of a specific ethnic or racial group; they might be recent immigrants who don't speak English, or they might be transgender children or homeless children or extremely high energy boys. Meeting the needs of all students starts with having hard conversations with ourselves about our own biases.
The only way to break down those biases is to fill our brains with more information about those we perceive as Other. As we learn more about just who people really are -- about their complexities and full personhood, our stereotypes will fracture. We will learn that the "out of control boy who won't sit still and is socially awkward" also loves animals and collects change to donate to the animal shelter and will read anything about how to care for dogs.
This year, be honest with yourself. Identify a student (or a group of students) who you've made Other and then invite one of them to lunch. Push yourself to connect, to listen, to see whom he or she really is. Meeting the needs of all students starts with knowing who your students are.
I also encourage you to reflect on who you are coming into this work of teaching children: Who are the groups of students that you're especially dedicated to supporting? Who do you identify with or particularly empathize with? Being aware of this commitment can embolden us and keep us connected to our core values, as well as help us bridge the gaps of difference.
An Epilogue to My Brother's Story
My brother eventually completed his high school graduation requirements, then graduated from college, and became a physician's assistant. He's been very successful given his traumatic childhood, a success he credits to our remarkable mother who was a fierce lioness of love.
May all children be raised by a lioness and a lion; may all students be taught by a teacher who sees their full humanity.