From where we came,
And go round and round and round
In the circle game” Joni Mitchell
With “Sixteen springs and sixteen summers (nearly) gone now” I find myself living my own bit of circle game…
When I was a kid in elementary and middle school (and through most of high school) sitting in a classroom was akin to torture. Big clocks ticked with surreal slowness and books packed with useless information beckoned with about as much allure as badly cooked bitter greens to a child’s ice-cream-attuned palate.
I later learned to love learning, and after a long (and expensive) journey through educations in both film and psychology, I found myself back in the boring classroom—the one in which no one, neither student nor teacher, truly wants to be. As a psychologist assigned to a caseload of severely disturbed children, I was mandated to provide an hour of weekly therapy (plus a host of other case coordination tasks), however, many of the kids initially refused therapy (“you’re my fifth therapist in three years, why should I talk to you?”). This was particularly tricky with the kids who lived in their dysfunctional households; the ones who lived in the group home I could corner in their rooms and, lacking anyone to talk to, would more quickly soften; often you couldn’t get them out of your office… once the bond was made.
With the “community” based children in the special needs school, the “solution” was to offer therapy to the child, and upon refusal simply sit at the back of the classroom and observe, ostensibly being available until the hour was used up, unwanted, wasted, invited into the pervasive despair of hopelessness. Sometimes a child would be finally ready to take a walk and escape the torpor of the classroom after a week; some it took a month; others it took several months with intermittent regressions into therapy refusal.
These were days filled with long hours of drudgery—underpaid, over-worked, steeped in futility and systemic absurdity—punctuated by adrenaline-rush junctures of kids in crisis (on the roof, cutting, fighting, drinking, psychotic break-downs, etc.). It all lead to a continual questioning: Is this helping? And also: When will I get out of here?
Most therapists lasted about a year, I lasted for five—making my way to supervisor and learning my way around a variety of different special needs. I worked with Downs kids, autistic kids, violent kids, soft kids, learning differences kids and I learned something different from each and every one—kids who always proved to be infinitely more than any diagnosis.
One day I was playing checkers with a kid prone to fighting, who lived in a shelter with his mom (but at this point was still hiding the fact from me and his teachers); he acted up in class because he couldn’t read, even though he was eleven; this was before I fully understood his need for a tutor and the reason he was acting out in class—before that turning point of increased self-esteem and some actual progress. He had gotten past refusing to talk to me, but our hours together felt like an international flight in a broken seat. He spoke very little, and checkers can get old faster than we ourselves do. Sitting in the slanting afternoon light, watching dust motes swirl through our shared boredom, I was struck by the strange and overwhelmingly serene realization that this was it—that whether I liked it or not, whether I could help this kid or not, whether life was fair, tragic, beautiful or whatever it was and ever is, this boy and I were spending eternal moments together. It was like some spontaneous and unstructured Zen—a moment stretching out so long as to become eternal and then opening to show itself like a rare blossom bursting open in a most unexpected and mundane place.
I did eventually get out and cannot say that I long to return to those days, and yet they are always with me as if these days and those days are one eternal same.
Much was my surprise when Nate, my sixteen-year-old son, ended up volunteering at the very same clinic where I had toiled when he had toddlered. In those days I drove forty minutes to work; in this summer I drove less than five minutes to drop him off—life weaving, circling, expanding at the same time as it shrinks, as I realize how we are all in this life together, how we are ultimately and truly each other, in all our glory and all our angst.
Nate could not remember playing on the climbing equipment as a little kid on occasion when Andy and the boys would drop by at the end of the day and then we’d go have dinner at her parents’ house nearby, a house and parents now gone; nor could Nate recall the special needs girl that ran to him and hugged him as he stood there neither hugging nor recoiling in a fading mid-winter sun.
Nate could now engage me in questions about autistic children, about shadows and outbursts and learning differences; he could share my sense of ironic sorrow that the people who need the most help tend to get it from the least experienced helpers (who generally move to greener and more lucrative pastures as soon as they can). We talked about how unfortunate it is that teaching (this was his third year donating part of summer to working in classrooms) paid so poorly, and what this says about our culture, its values and its future.
After dropping him at work at my old place of work one recent morning I was flooded with memory, with a sense of bond with my child on the cusp of becoming a man who was spending real time in the world I had spent so much time in. It was vaguely validating to see how wiped-out he was after a short summer-school day (wondering how I did full days, weeks, years there); the exhaustion and melancholy comes not just the tasks one does, it’s the psychic energy that one must learn to neither block nor absorb, to somehow contain and help transform. It’s the bearing witness to what goes generally unseen by the group.
Special needs or not, no one wants to be in summer school and these kids often felt doubly frustrated at how hard school is for them. But the kids took to Nate, wanted him on their team for charades and to be near him on the yard. At the end of the day Nate would tell me about how adorable this one was and how that one struggles so hard. It was lovely to hear Nate speak admiringly of the teachers he observed and how adroitly they attuned to each child’s specific learning style and emotional state.
My mind drifted to an afternoon long ago when I was paged because one of my kids had “gone off” and trashed a classroom. The teacher nervously escorted the other children out, and I found this boy alone amongst overturned crates and strewn books. We sat in the midst of the mess and he was still breathing fast and hard. It was not the time to talk and so I slowly started to put books back on shelves. After a moment he joined me and we silently worked to repair the chaos (as if we could); working together we affirmed that we could take responsibility for our little corner of things… but only if we are in connection, in relationship with each other.
On the last day of summer school there was a little party in the class where Nate had been volunteering. Andy went inside for the first time in order to pick Nate up and she met a couple of the children, particularly the boy Nate had shadowed during the summer session. Andy heard the boy say, softly to the wall, “I’ll miss you Mr. Nate.”
Of course I’m proud of my kid, and feel closer to him through talking shop and having a shared experience; but I’m also more deeply affirmed in my intuition that we’re all vastly interconnected. You may not spend much time consciously in special needs classrooms, or you may; but we are all special needs kids, and we are all teachers; whether as parents, friends, workers, lovers or artists of one stripe or another, the core question remains: How can we learn and grow? How is this world perfect? How can we deepen our love for our world, each other and all our collective children?