All of my teacher colleagues reunited at the library. We are discussing the changes to be implemented in the following years to the school curriculum, as well as the addition of several school policies.
There’s a running joke in the Mexican school system. Whenever there’s a new president (we change presidents every 6 years), the whole school system changes. Study programs are modified, some programs disappear, others are brought back from the dead.
Sometimes, even schools are repainted to match the colors of the governing party.
We have a new president; therefore, things have to change.
We know they’ll change again in 6 years.
This time, there’s a theme that keeps popping up here and there: disabilities. For some teachers, this is nothing but a trending topic. For me, it is deeply personal: my son and my husband are autistic. I’m autistic, too, as well as hard of hearing.
The new policies seem to place a great emphasis on making sure teachers will implement strategies to include all of their students in the learning process. Here and there, some of my colleagues were dropping hints they were not very happy about this.
“We have 40 to 50 students in each classroom! This is just not possible,” said one of them.
By the way, it is true. We have too many students, all cramped up in our classrooms. But this has always been the case.
“We are not psychiatrists. How are we supposed to deal with these students?” Nothing new either; we have always had students with specific needs. The only difference is that now we have a name and a place for these conditions.
These comments are not new to me. They tend to make an appearance from time to time in the teacher’s lounge. When that happens, a few of the people who know I have an autistic son give me a little glance, sometimes even mouth the words, “I’m sorry.” The even fewer who know I’m autistic too, just look at me and give me the saddest of smiles.
It is known teachers relax when in the teachers’ lounge. Which is more than fair. After all, we spend all day going up and down, dealing with all kinds of situations. However, some teachers mistake this atmosphere of relaxation with the chance to say whatever damn thing crosses their mind.
Therefore, some of my colleagues let out all of their inner dialogue. I have learned just to ignore it. Judging will get me nowhere, and engaging in pointless debate with people I have to see every day is not really my favorite way to spend my afternoons. Still, some days it is impossible to resist the urge to tell one of my fellow teachers, in the most polite of ways, to shut the fuck up.
For example, when there are comments about some students’ sexual preferences. Also, the word retarded has been uttered a couple of times by professionals of education that claim they have no time for political correctness. I have had to master the art of not exploding while trying to explain to my colleague that this is most definitely not the term we must use. Other teachers try to deal with this too. Many times, we have no choice but to look at each other while shaking our heads: some people won’t ever change, but luckily they will one day retire.
The point is, in some people’s minds, basic human decency is nothing but political correctness, so they continuously test the waters to see how much shit they can get away with.
Why does this happen?
That’s the big one, isn’t it?
Sometimes I believe it is because they are scared. Or they are repeating the patterns they saw during their childhoods. Perhaps they are being ignorant.
Maybe they are just jerks.
I don’t know.
Most of the time, I prefer not to allow my mind to go there. But there’s one thought I cannot escape: if I see them, or hear them, mistreating a student because of her neurological conditions, and I say nothing…isn’t that the same as being an accomplice?
If I decide to keep quiet just because it is too much trouble to get involved, doesn’t that make me a coward?
No matter how I spin it, there’s just one answer: it does.
Back to the library. Back to that day.
The words attention deficit disorder, autism, and depression kept being thrown around by a few teachers.
Wait…that’s not accurate.
They are not being thrown around. They are being picked up with tweezers, and then, with great care, dropped in sentences.
It looks something like this:
“Last semester, I had an >>autistic<< student…and I had other 40 students in the classroom…it was hard. Am I supposed to stop paying attention to the rest of the students to tend to this one person?”
“So-and-so student has >>atention deficit disorder<< and keeps jumping out and down. What am I supposed to do with her?”
And it goes on and one, dropping those words in the middle of the sentences as if they were a disgusting thing they need to stay away from.
But they are not lying: they genuinely have no idea what to do. Not a clue.
I’m aching to judge them, but I know what they mean: we have never really gotten the appropriate training, and we are dealing with too many students.
Still, something was bothering me. There was a feeling running through my entire body, it accumulated in my chest and clouded my mind. But I was unable to put a name on it.
And then came the kicker: one of the teachers stands up and talks about the time he had an autistic student who used to sit at the front of the classroom. He added, “and he was the bad kind of autistic, not the good one.”
That’s when I saw it. That’s when I knew what the thing bothering me was.
When I was a kid, I was the good kind of autistic. Well, good for the teachers: I loved to read, I remembered most of what was taught in class. I was a bit “weird,” but since I had good grades, teachers didn’t really care.
You see, they didn’t have to struggle with me. They didn’t have to do anything for me. Quite the opposite: sometimes, they would put me in charge of other students so I could help them. By the way, that didn’t bother me at all because I loved to talk about all the stuff I knew.
I remember a teacher saying, “Ah, Gaby is such a good girl.” Other teachers would nod and give me a look of gratefulness.
They would look at me as if I mattered.
That was the thing bothering me: some of my fellow teachers were asking, “Why should we go through all of this trouble for this kind of people? Why should we invest time and energy in these students?”
They wanted to save it for the other students. The ones that do stand a chance.
The ones that matter.
That’s what was bothering me: some teachers, when they talk about disabled students, don’t think they are talking about a fellow human being. They think they are talking about something that gets in the way of the learning of all of the other students.
So I did something I thought I was never going to do…
I raised my hand. The vice-principal, who was conducting the meeting, nodded for me to go ahead. She already knew my son is autistic, so I think she wasn’t surprised when I decided to participate in the discussion.
As I began to speak, I had to get a grip on myself. My voice started to tremble as emotion overcame me. I knew what I was about to do and, although I was excited, I was also terrified.
I told them my son was autistic. The few who already knew nodded in sympathy. Those who didn’t, looked at the floor. I explained to them that, sometimes, when I hear them talking about these topics, it feels as if they stabbed me in the heart.
“Thanks to our son’s diagnosis, my husband and I found out we are autistic too.
“I’m autistic. But I have the kind of autism that makes you be good at school, so teachers let me be, just commenting from time to time I was kind of weird.
“And I’m glad I was never diagnosed. Now I see that, back then, I would have probably never been allowed to finish elementary school.
“What I want to say to you is that I’m terrified that my son will end up in the hands of people like some of you. Because you forget that you are talking about a person. About a human being. A fellow human being. And you forget that most of the time, all we need is to show a bit of compassion, not pity, but compassion. And empathy. And patience.
“And I know that this might change the way some of you look at me. But I am the same person you have known all of these years. If you think less of me because of what I just told you, honestly, that says more about you than it says about me.
“And that’s what I wanted to say to you.”
I shut up and looked at my notebook. It took all of my strength not to burst out crying, not to run the heck away from there.
Some other teachers started talking about the importance of being more empathetic…I honestly couldn’t hear much…I was too overwhelmed.
Part of me was panicking, “what the fuck did I just do?” But another side of me felt lighter than it had been in years.
The meeting was then over, and teachers split into groups to do some post-meeting chatter. A couple of teachers I sometimes hang up with came close to me. I was kind of dreading what they would say to me. Turns out, they just wanted to continue a little chat we were having earlier.
Other teachers would later thank me for sharing this side of me “You got me thinking,” they said.
And, of course, some of my colleagues have, so far, cut off all contact with me. I think they don’t know how to talk to me now…or maybe they don’t want to do it anymore.
I don’t know. But I have decided not to invest mental energy in that. They must have their reasons. Whatever they are, they are not my responsibility.
All in all, things are pretty much the same. I can tell some people are still uncertain about how to speak to me, but they seem to be in the midst of understanding that they just have to do the same thing they were doing before.
Things have not changed…except they have.
I realize some teachers will now watch their mouth only because they are afraid I’ll overhear, not because they genuinely care.
But I trust that, on that particular day at the library, at least one of my colleagues looked at me and saw a person. I hope she or he understood that, no matter what label may be affixed to me now, I’m still a human being, just as many of our students are.
That’s what I wish for, as well for an extra dose of courage for me, so I will never again keep quiet when a voice needs to be raised.