My office was a tiny little hole of a room near the entrance to the school. It was five feet deep and about eight feet wide. It was part of an older building with huge, thick six-inch molding at the base and decorative molding at the ceiling. The ceiling was ten feet high which gave the room an odd feel; sort of like a mini cathedral. My desk was an old, beat up roll-top desk and I had an equally old wooden swivel chair with bulky casters that sounded like a train passing by each time I moved that chair over the oak wooden floor. There were two huge doors to the office. You would walk in and immediately face the only solid wall five feet in front of you. On the left, was the second doorway and on the right was a neat old window that stretched two feet from the floor almost to the ceiling ten feet above. The massive moldings around the doors, window and floor were painted white and walls were a dark cocoa brown. It was a stark contrast, but pleasant all the same, as you walked in.
I had two smaller upholstered chairs; also on casters which completed the entire décor of the room. In order to enter my office, the two smaller chairs needed to be moved toward the opposing wall, the door closed or opened, then the two chairs moved back in place. Whenever there were people in my office, we would sit facing each other, our knees nearly close enough to touch as we met and spoke.
This was the ritual that took place each time I met with the parents and families who were referred to our school because their children were too problematic to remain in the public school system. Such was the work we did. We worked with broken kids from broken school experiences and often times from broken homes and families. This was the work I had decided to take on. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
We began this familiar little ritual when June and her mother came in to visit. It was late in the afternoon. June’s mother had gotten lost and was over an hour and a half late for her appointment. This was to be my first parent interview as the new Director of the school. I was just about to leave for the day when they showed up at my door. June’s mother was a petite, quiet woman with mismatched clothing. She had emigrated here from Thailand three years earlier and had just recently reunited with her daughter. She had a whisper of a voice and I had to strain to hear her. And, even when I could hear her, her accent was strong and it was difficult to understand her. June did not speak at first. She was thin with a far-off look in her eyes as if she were seeing the world for the first time. She too wore mismatched clothing. I was very familiar with this business of mismatched clothing. When I was young, my father would bring home a box of clothing from time to time. The clothes were a “gift” from someone at work. In the box were the discards of old, unwanted and, most likely, replaced clothing of some unknown benefactor. We would rummage through the box as if it were a chest of treasures. What we would end up with was mismatched clothing.
After several attempts at trying to understand each other, I was able to piece together the story June’s mother was trying to convey. June’s mother had immigrated to America three years earlier to make a better life for herself. She left June in Thailand with family members until she could send for her. June was five years old when her mother sent for her. When June arrived, she was wearing diapers and did not speak coherently. The family from Thailand had written to June’s mother to tell her that June was “strange” and that she was a “shame” to the family. Her family would tie her to a tree, or post, anything that would hold her because they could not control her. They did not know what to do with her, so they kept her tied on a rope next to the dog. June and the dog would play together. So, it seemed logical to the family that they would also eat together and do other things together. June’s mother was outraged. She began to weep quietly and spoke of her own shame for leaving her daughter in the first place.
We then began to talk about June’s problems at school. From the mom’s point of view, it was very simple. The school simply did not know what to do with her daughter. June wasn’t learning. She behaved badly. She wouldn’t listen and would run around the school, making the teacher angry. No one at the school wanted her daughter around any more. Through all this story, June sat quietly with that far-off look in her eyes. She would smile intermittently as if someone had said something funny. But no one was speaking. I asked June “How are you?” and she answered back in perfect cadence and inflection “How are you?” Then I asked her “What is your name?” Again, she responded in perfect cadence and inflection “What is your name?” Every question, statement or comment I made to her was parroted back to me in perfect pitch and intonation. She’s Echolalic, I thought to myself. Possibly, she was Aphasic, or Brain Injured, or Autistic, or some other developmental disability. I had automatically gone into my “Special Education” mode of thinking: Looking, analyzing, and questioning and trying to make a determination of her handicapping condition. I hadn’t yet learned how to listen closely to the parent and the child directly. That wouldn’t come until years later. After five or ten more minutes of trying to engage June in some kind of simple verbal dialogue, it was obvious to me that June was more severely involved than the usual learning disabled, or behavior disordered, or emotionally disturbed student we would normally work with.
I looked at June’s mom and then I looked at June, then, I looked at June’s mom again and said, “I don’t think we can help you”. June’s mother looked at me and said in her quiet voice, “You mus’ help me! You ahr my only hope!” In her broken, quiet English she insisted that I must help her. She had met a Speech Therapist who told her about our school and promised her that we would be able to help her daughter. “Nobody want my dau’ter!” she said. ”She need help!” she insisted. I looked at June again as if I may have missed something earlier, but saw nothing there. I turned to her mom again and said again, “I don’t think we can help her.” June’s mother began to sob. Her head hung down as if a heavy weight were pushing it toward the floor. She began sobbing quietly, almost inaudibly at first, and then it became louder and louder. She became more insistent, passively demanding. She suddenly dropped to the floor in front of me. I tried to move, back, but there was no room. There was nowhere for me to go. Damn this tiny space! I was trapped. I tried to pick her up. I said “Please Mrs. P., don’t do this. I’m sure you will find a good school for June.” She cried back “This is good school for my dau’ter!” She was now at my feet with her arms wrapped around my ankles “P’ease” she cried, “you mus’ assep her! You mus’ save my dau’ter!’’ Each time I would try to pick her up, she would squeeze my ankles harder, crying and sobbing uncontrollably. We played this tug of war for several minutes more until I finally said I would think about it. She then got up with a huge smile on her face, tears still streaming down her frail, thin face. “I know you will save my dau’ter!” she cried as if I just pulled her daughter from the jaws of a terrible beast. “The therapist said you wou’d help!” I thought to myself “Who is this therapist? Why is this person making problems for me? Why would they make such a promise? How I would love to get my hands on this person and really show them exactly how I feel at the moment!” That is what I was really thinking about. I finally decided to tell June’s mom that I would give her a trial basis. June’s mother was ecstatic. She cried, this time for joy and hugged and held me close and continued to mutter softly “P’ease, p’ease, p’ease save my dau’ter”.
The trial basis lasted ten years. June learned to talk, read and write and was quietly social. She had the same beautiful smile as her mother. She also had the same quiet face and voice as her mom. She grew more social and interactive with people. She graduated and entered our adult program. I last saw June’s mom at an awards ceremony for our adults’ services program. The mom had been gravely ill for some time. Her kidneys were failing, and she was on dialysis. She came up to me at the end of the program and hugged me and called me her angel. I did not recognize her at first. Her illness had taken its toll on her beautiful, quiet face. When I finally knew who she was, I hugged her back. We stood there for several minutes holding on to each other. We both shared a quiet knowledge of her daughter’s transformation. “You are my angel” she kept repeating “You saved my daughter.” We hugged a little while longer. That was the last time I saw her. I never found out if her illness overcame her or whatever happened to June after she left us. In my heart, I still see them together, standing side by side. June was a good head taller than her mom. Both standing there with those quiet, beautiful faces and smiles.
This story represents the beginning of my own personal transformation into the Taking Charge philosophy. It was quite some time before I learned how to listen, really listen, to parents and students and “see” past their words and look for the underlying significance of what were their actual “levels of concerns” about their lives. June’s mother saw past her behaviors to the “real” June underneath, past the echolalic mannerisms and realized (hoped for) the daughter she had left behind in Thailand. She was able to “see” past June’s public identity and make a connection with June as a learner, an “observer”.