While serving time teaching Middle School, I was introduced to students with autism. All different kinds and degrees of autism, but my favorite memory is about a boy named Nique. He was indeed unique.
When Nique was integrated into my seventh grade classroom, I wasn’t sure I’d be capable of educating and engaging him. I also worried about how the other students would respect or treat him. Unsure of how to best support this student, I did the next best thing. I enlisted other students to look out for him.
Nique was a quiet young man who seemingly wanted to be left alone, yet also wanted to belong in a classroom with peers who accepted him. In truth, Nique was in a class in which many of the students had challenges far worse than autism. Some could be clinically diagnosed as assholes.
Poor teaching was allowed in my class. Bullying wasn’t. I knew at some point, I may lose my cool and verbally abuse a bullying student. That would result in one or more outcomes, the most likely of which would include termination. Now, as The Godfather of this classroom, I gained the respect of some tough and influential students. They knew I wouldn’t take any of their crap, and if I didn’t reciprocate that respect to them, they wouldn’t take any of mine. Think of them as my middle school street capos.
Just before Nique arrived, I informed these capo students of a few conditions I needed their help enforcing. Nique didn’t like loud voices, argumentative behavior, pencil sharpening, or the incessant use of erasers. Humor would be tolerated but may fall flat. In short, we’d pretty much need to change the atmosphere of our classroom completely. The capos nodded, knowing they had the order from the boss.
It’s worth noting that Nique didn’t make these requests. I was informed of these needs by request of his Special Education Teacher who did have a well constructed IEP, (individual educational plan) for Nique. Before he entered the class on his first day, I informed the class we’d be welcoming a new student. I then described how the classroom was going to change to make him feel welcome, and provided some clarity on what would happen to any student who wandered from the guidance. “You’ll be sleeping with the fishes,” yaddy yada, they got the point. Fortunately I didn’t have to be too threatening. It wasn’t because I was a ruthless, violent middle school dictator. They simply knew that I wouldn’t like them if they were mean to this boy. In that regard, Nique was a ‘made’ middle school man.
They day he arrived, and without the bribery of sodas, the Capos did just as I had hoped. They kept a keen eye on Nique, and the loud pencil sharpener. They made sure it was clear to the rest of the classroom how this was going to work. The best Capo I recruited was not just the toughest girl in that school. She was flat out the toughest student in the school. In addition to being tough, Hannah was wildly smart, a great athlete, and someone I didn’t want to mess with on any period of the week. She was also extremely funny, and I could trust her. You could say Hannah was my Joe Pesci.
Once a week, our class would spend an hour in the computer lab. (Yes, this was over a decade ago, and before the proliferation of laptops and smart phones.) Fortunately, for the students, I wouldn’t be teaching them any computer skills since I possessed none. Therefore, a different educator with computer skills would teach them a lesson each week on how to use the computers properly. The computer lab teacher was pretty fixated on rules, and ran a tight computing ship. In fact, she spent most of the time lecturing the students about what was forbidden on the computer, rather than showing them how the internet could be useful and educational without assuming every student in the school was a pervert. (Why not just teach them how to not accidentally download porn, and to erase your web browsing history?!)
To move things along, I suggested she show them something useful, such as how to create a power point presentation. I only suggested it because I didn’t know how to create one, and I had only heard the term powerpoint once. It sounded cool. Even though agreeing with me, I could sense she was slightly offended that my students were more interested in my suggestion than the lecture. So, I left the room to give her some space and get some gummy bears in the teacher’s lounge. Ten minutes later, I received a frantic call from this teacher in the lounge stating Nique had gone a bit nuts in the computer lab. What happened?
One, this teacher was very loud. Two, she spoke extremely quickly as though she was announcing the Kentucky Derby while taking them through the proper steps for this PowerPoint procedure. Three, she wasn’t particularly forgiving to students not keeping up or asking questions during the process. It was clear the majority of the classroom couldn’t follow her instruction. At some point, after a legitimate question from Nique resulted in a terse response from the teacher, he blew a gasket. Raising his keyboard over his head, he crushed it on the table making the keys resemble scrabble pieces all over the lab.
I arrived in seconds to witness him crying, actually bawling, and the teacher said he would never be allowed, under any circumstance in the lab again. Escorting him back to my classroom, I calmed him down, let him breathe, and waited a few minutes to speak with Hannah regarding the incident.
Hannah described the incident, and I believed every word she spoke. Sounded like every example of computer instruction I’ve ever received. . . too fast, confusing and questions are greeted with a judging look that seems to say, “Why don’t you get this?” Before I had to calm her down, (she wanted to beat the hell out the teacher), I told her not to worry about Nique or the ridiculous notion he would be restricted from the lab. I then asked her, “In retrospect, knowing Nique is going to be just fine, was it pretty funny?” She said, “Come to think of it, it was. He told her off and basically said, and did, what the rest of us felt like doing.”
Nique, still shaken, received a hug from Hannah, and I reassured him he would be allowed back into the lab. That day, Nique did something I’ve always wanted to do and Hannah was probably more mature about the situation than I would have been. I was proud of them both, and I learned more about how much truth there can be in the behavior of those with autism.
During that same year, my wife had the privilege of meeting both Nique and Hannah. When my wife arrived to our classroom, I introduced her to each student, one of which was a Spanish speaking student named, Porqua. She also spoke perfect English, yet I insisted on introducing her to my wife and showing off my two years of high school Spanish education. “Feliz Navidad, señorita.” (It wasn’t Christmas time. This was in the month of June.) I intentionally proceeded in making a fool of myself which students generally tend to love. “Ehh, Todos los nones. Mi estsomago es muy largo!” (My stomach is very long). “La vaca es en el bano?” (The cow is in the bathroom). Porqua began laughing and Nique became tired of my silly banter, rolled his eyes, and once again said what everyone else was thinking. “She speaks English, Mr. Gannon.”
He shut my gringo ass up and rightly so.