C. is after her purse in the back corner cabinet of the classroom. She’s got just a minute to reach for something and turns her head to answer a question, her back to the cupboard.
Out comes a cascade of bloodshot eyeball ping pong balls, tumbling to the floor…..oh, it’s just another day in Room 3, where we know how to put the ‘special’ in special education.
Boy, I miss those days.
When I decided to retire in 2016 from full-time teaching to simply an occasional Guest Teacher gig, it was the happiest/saddest decision of my life.
Happy because there were new doors to walk through in the days ahead, but oh so very sad because I was leaving a team of people who had become like family over the previous five years.
Just like family, they welcomed me and put up with my idiosyncrasies, indulged my bad jokes and stuck with me through some very tough times—personally and professionally.
I was learning the ropes of working with children with special needs—primarily those with autism. It was a steep, steep learning curve. There were days of on-the-edge-of-my-seat antics from all manner of challenging children—some violent because of their fear of a world they couldn’t process. Many days were hard and heavy mentally, emotionally and physically.
I interfaced with two classes of K-6th grade children and a staff of 8 other women. That many women working together can be volatile or it can be invigorating. I found over the 5 years I worked with them that these shiny, happy people knew how to diffuse some of the most difficult days with just the right amount of fun. Being able to play was absolutely necessary to our sanity.
There was a running prank about a large plastic spider that appeared either hanging by an invisible thread above a desk, or strategically placed on a chair to frighten the resident of that space. We expected the fake arachnids to multiply during the Halloween week, but there was no small amount of chortling when said spider magically appeared, say in February, on poor old Mary’s desk who was TERRIFIED of spiders.
I mean, panicked.
We had many good laughs about that (even from the room next door).
And those ping pong balls? They kept showing up, year after year, move after move. We’d be unpacking in September and find some in the Legos, a kids’ backpack, and who-knows-where. I think they multiplied overnight.
The gals on my team knew how to party and make the most of any occasion to dress up. Each Halloween we had to decide the practicality of costumes—children with learning disabilities and special needs can be very distracted by sequins, fringes, polka dots, and so on.
One year we decided to just wear Groucho Marx glasses. We turned many, many heads at recess; the typical learner kids loved it—our classes of kids were simply puzzled.
Weekly team meetings over a particular book discussion or surrounding a serious student matter were often punctuated by the proverbial Whoopie Cushion ending up on a teacher’s chair. The recipient was always good-natured and seemed to welcome the playful diversion.
Laughing at each other and ourselves diffused much of the tension and seriousness inherent in the job. It also provided a bridge to unite us—partners in crime in our own kooky corner of the school world—which is one of the reasons I miss those friends so much.
Play at work and having fun are not only the best medicine, they provide the strongest kind of bond there is—laughter through tears in the hardest of times.