Editor’s note: Here’s an essay I wrote for my writing class last year about a teacher who made a difference in my lie. Enjoy.
As I walked the hallways of my new school building on the first day of seventh grade, I noticed that the first class listed on my schedule was supplemental. “What on earth is supplemental?’’ I wondered. When I entered the designated classroom, I noticed that it was a small classroom with a table instead of desks. There were only six other students seated around the table. At that point I realized what supplemental was. It was the special education class.
I’d had special education services my whole life, but it had been a while since I’d been in a special education classroom. Back when I was in first grade it was referred to as resource room.
My second-grade teacher had suggested that perhaps special education services in a public school were not enough for me so in the summer my parents sent me to a school for the learning disabled for a trial period. That school said I was welcome to come back in the fall, but they weren’t sure there was much they could do for me because their school was catered toward kids with language- based learning disabilities and my language skills were advanced. My parents asked me whether I wanted to return to the public school in the fall or remain in the special school. I was initially indifferent but when I heard that the third- grade teacher I had been assigned to in the public school kept a pet rabbit in the classroom I decided I wanted to return to public school.
I preferred the company of animals to the company of humans. Animals wouldn’t criticize my poor social skills, poor fine motor skills or poor visual spatial skills. They wouldn’t complain that I was disheveled, disorganized or inattentive. When I flapped my hands, they wouldn’t ask me why I did that or inform me that it’s not something normal people do. Some of them would just flap their wings in return. Friendships with humans were elusive to me but friendships with animals came naturally.
This teacher who sat in front of the table in my first class on my first day of seventh grade was middle aged with shoulder length blond hair and deep blue eyes. She introduced herself as Mrs. Walters. She said she was going to tell us a little bit about herself and then we would take turns going around the table telling everyone about ourselves. I groaned inwardly. I hated telling people about myself. I hated talking to people in general. Elective mutism was one of the many diagnoses that had been given to me over the years and then discarded. I did not fit neatly in to any one diagnostic category.
I was only half listening as Mrs. Walters told us about her husband, her kids and the town in which she lived but my ears perked up when she told us about her menagerie of pets. While my educational and psychological reports often noted that I showed little interest in other people, I was, however, interested in other people’s animals. Mrs. Walters obviously was too since as we went around the room she encouraged the students to talk about their pets. Mrs. Walters had an impressive collection of pets and so did some of the other students in the class but since I was going through my animal hoarding phase at the time, I had the largest menagerie of all. When it was my turn to speak, mouths dropped open as I shared my list of pets. I’d kind of enjoyed speaking about myself in that instance.
The next day Mrs. Walters decided to ask us if we knew why we were in her class. It was the first time I’d ever heard a special education teacher address the issue.
“Because we don’t do our homework?” a girl named Patience ventured.
“No, actually that’s not why you’re in here. You’re in here because you learn differently….”
Just then something in the corner of the room caught my eye.
“You got a fish?” I asked Mrs. Walters, pointing to the swirl of rainbow colored fins gliding through the water of an oblong tank.
“ Oh, yeah. I just got him yesterday at the pet store.”
“What’s his name?”
“I think I’m going to call him Frisky. He seems pretty frisky, don’t you think?”
“He’s a Japanese Fighter Fish, right?”
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“I have a fighter fish.”
“What’s his name?”
“That’s a cute name.”
“Did you know that sometimes when fighter fish shit, the shit comes out of their neck?”
“Please don’t use that kind of language in my classroom. Say poop instead,” Mrs. Walters finally replied, breaking the awkward silence that had settled over the room.
Fish shit-I mean poop- may not have been the most appropriate conversation topic but it was a rare instance of me choosing to spontaneously engage in conversation and share information with someone I didn’t know very well.
As the days wore on I continued to open up in Mrs. Walters’ class, which was an unstructured class that was in place of the study hall my more typically developing peers got. While conversations were discouraged in study hall, they often took place in Mrs. Walters’ class. Since we were a group of animal loving kids with an animal loving teacher, the conversations often centered around animals. Animals were a subject I was interested in and a subject in which I prided myself on my experience and knowledge, so I took part in the conversations. My contributions weren’t always socially appropriate but after I told a kid that I thought his basset hound was ugly and told Mrs. Walters that I did not like her dog’s name, Mrs. Walters helpfully informed me that I was going to get beat up if I kept insulting peoples’ pets.
I was always the last one out of Mrs. Walters’ classroom. Sometimes I would linger behind with my face pressed in front of Frisky’s aquarium and sometimes Mrs. Walters would hand me pellets to feed to him. Often, I would be struggling to cram all my crumpled papers, battered books and pens without caps in to my backpack. Mrs. Walters would help me get my materials together and since we were both headed towards language arts class, we would walk to class together. While many middle schoolers would walk to class conversing with a friend by their side, I did not. At first walking to class with a teacher felt even more weird and unnatural but I soon got used to it. We mostly talked about animals.
Unfortunately, I had a hard time in some of my other classes and I had a hard time adjusting to middle school in general. I struggled to get to class on time and to finish my assignments on time. I struggled with opening my locker and keeping my papers organized. I struggled with math and science and gym. I struggled to sit still and pay attention throughout the day.
Since I struggled so much in school, Mrs. Walters had to periodically provide me with support throughout the school day. Sometimes I would have to spend my lunch period with her working on skills such as opening my locker. At first, I resented it but soon I not only tolerated but looked forward to having lunch with her. I related to her in a way I couldn’t relate to my peers. She would talk to me about her dog Daisy who was a mutt that looked like Lassie and I would talk to her about my chickens that lived under my trampoline. She would ask me what pet I thought she should get and I’d give her my best advice. She’d lament on the pets she wanted but her husband wouldn’t let her have and I’d commiserate with the pets I wanted but my parents wouldn’t let me have.
The struggles I’d been having in middle school came to a head about a month in to the school year. My social studies teacher, Ms. Maurer, called me in to the hallway. “Why are you always late to class?” she demanded to know. I lowered my head and said nothing.
“Please answer me.” She was growing increasingly irritated.
“I don’t know,” I said softly.
“You don’t know?’’ she retorted incredulously. Her face was just inches from mine.
My heart was racing, and I had a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach.
Just then Mrs. Walters was walking by in the hallway. “Hey, Mrs. Walters, can you come here for a minute?” Ms. Maurer asked.
“Sure. What’s going on?”
“Kira is five minutes late to class every single day!’’
“Okay. I walk to class with Kira sometimes. I’m sure I can help her figure out how to get to class on time.”
“She better figure it out because this behavior is unacceptable!” She was outright yelling now.
My lip started quivering. I struggled to maintain composure, but I lost control and burst in to tears. There I was, twelve years old, and sobbing in the middle of the school hallway like a baby. I hadn’t felt this humiliated since I’d peed my pants in front of the class in first grade.
Mrs. Walters wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Everything’s going to be okay, honey. Why don’t you go in to the bathroom and freshen up while I talk to Ms. Maurer?”
Unfortunately, this was just the first of many indignities that I would face in middle school. Fortunately, it was also the first of many times that Mrs. Walters would comfort me and save the day.
One day as I was getting ready to hand in my homework in science class, I realized I’d forgotten to write my name on it. As I started to write my name on it, Mrs. Strachan, my ill-tempered science teacher, noticed and said, “Kira, I’m going to have to mark your homework as not finished.” My face flushed. Then Mrs. Strachan turned to Cara, the girl who was sitting next to me and the star student of the class.
“Kira, thinks she can get away with slacking off but we’re not going to let her, are we, Cara?”
I slunk down in my seat and wished the floor would swallow me. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mrs. Walters.
“It’s okay, Kira. Let’s go to the back table. I’ll help you with your lab.”
While many of my developmental milestones had been delayed, my speech came early. I spoke my first word when I was nine months old. That word was no. My second word was cat. Those words ended up being a good summation of my personality. I love animals and I have a stubborn argumentative streak. When I argue about animals I am particularly tenacious.
While I was happy to have a class pet, there’s only so much gratification you can get out of a fish. I longed for a fuzzy class pet I could interact with. I longed for the days of third grade in which in addition to Pumpkin and Marshmallow the class goldfish, there was Eppie the class rabbit and the caterpillars we kept on our desk and released when they turned in to butterflies. I knew Mrs. Walters loved animals so I decided to try my luck in convincing her to purchase more class pets.
“Mrs. Walters, can we get another class pet?” I asked hopefully.
She sighed. “No, Kira, we can’t.”
“Because we’re only in this room for an hour a day and I have enough animals to take care of at home.”
“Why can’t we get a hamster? They’re easy to take care of.”
“Mrs. Staggard has a hamster so if you want to see a hamster you can go over to her classroom.”
“How come her class can have a hamster and ours can’t?” I countered.
“It would be nice if you were a little less argumentative.”
Then there was the issue of homework. I could be a good student when I wanted to be, but I didn’t always feel like putting in the effort and I found the workload in middle school to be rather overwhelming. In regular study hall the teacher just sat at her desk and left the students alone, but Mrs. Walters was always on her students’ backs about homework and I couldn’t help but resent the intrusion.
“Kira, did you do your science homework?”
“Did you do your math homework?”
“Well, I guess you decided to take the night off!”
“I don’t want to do homework.”
“I don’t want to clean my bathroom, but I still do it.”
One day after she told me I had to re-do a worksheet I’d just done because she knew I could do better, I snatched the pencil and paper from her and threw daggers at her with my eyes.
She smiled assuredly. “You love me. I know you do.”
I could not argue with her there.
When Mrs. Staggard brought her hamster to visit our classroom, Mrs. Walters cooed over it and said, “I missed my calling as a veterinarian.”
Even as I resented the fact that she wouldn’t let our class have a hamster, I recognized that she’d found her calling as a teacher.
One of our projects in language arts was a speech project about a family tradition that required us to bring in a prop. My speech was about my family tradition of playing an egg knocking game on Easter. In addition to not looking forward to speaking in front of the class, I was unsure about what prop to bring in.
“Why do I have to bring in a stupid prop?” I whined to Mrs. Walters.
“Hey guys, what do you think looks better, Kira standing in front of the class with nothing or Kira standing in front of the class with colorful Easter eggs?”
“I know! I’ll bring in my rabbit!’’
“I don’t know about that….”
“Come on. It would be so much fun!”
“Yes, it would be fun but I’m not sure the teachers would be okay with it.”
“Can’t you convince them?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
By the end of the day I had permission to bring my rabbit to school.
The next day, Mrs. Strachan who I had the misfortune of having as a homeroom teacher, insisted I keep Scarlett O’Hare in her carrier but Mrs. Walters was quite happy to meet her, as was the rest of the class. “Aw, she’s so cute!” they all squealed in delight. They asked me questions about Scarlett, which I eagerly answered.
Mrs. Walters decided we needed a class picture with the rabbit and left the room to get a camera. I held my rabbit as my peers gathered around me and I smiled. Mrs. Walters handed me the polaroid.
As I moved from class to class that day, students and teachers alike continued to fawn over my rabbit. They continued to ask me questions about her and I continued to engage in conversation with them. When the time came to give my speech, being able to pet Scarlett throughout it calmed me down and I performed well.
“I wish you could bring your rabbit to school every day,” Mrs. Walters said to me.
While I too would have liked to bring my rabbit to school every day, I recognized that I was still reaping the benefits of my one bring your rabbit to school day months later. I could not find a way to incorporate my rabbit in to my next speech but the confidence I had gained as a result of my successful previous speech served me well when it came to giving a speech as civil rights hero Shirley Chisolm. Despite the awkward crying incident in the hallway, Ms. Maurer had really taken to me after I’d brought Scarlett O’Hare in. She did my hair and makeup for my Shirley Chisolm speech and it was quite a change from my usual disheveled appearance. By the time I’d finished my speech, I was the one making her cry. Mrs. Walters was crying too. So were my other teachers.
I faced my biggest struggle of seventh grade when I had to take a sewing class. I was just terrible at sewing and not even the fact that I was sewing a type of animal could make up for the trauma that pig pillow inflicted on me. Mrs. Walters tried her best to help and encourage me but eventually we both conceded defeat.
“I hate this! I can’t do this anymore!’’ I exclaimed, throwing my hands up in frustration.
Mrs. Walters considered for a moment and then said, “I know you can’t and I see that you’ve tried your best so give me the needle and I’ll do the rest for you.”
“No problem. Just don’t tell your sewing teacher.”
“Damn it! I can’t find my needle.”
“Keep looking. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”
Suddenly she was laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“I found your needle.”
“In your hair!”
I touched my head and sure enough there my needle was.
“Hold on, honey. Let me help you. There’s toothpaste in your hair.”
“I will never forget this moment,” she said as she reached in to my hair.
I knew I would never forget it either.
It was in seventh grade that the beast called depression first started clawing at me. As I didn’t have many friends, I didn’t have many people to talk to. However, I did have one friend, whose name was Jessie. We’d initially bonded over a discussion about her pet rabbit. I was described as just barely tolerating Jessie, but I did sit with her at lunch and sometimes I even talked to her.
“Jessie, do you ever get depressed?” I asked in the lunchroom.
“No. what would I be depressed about?’’
It figured that Jessie would have nothing to be depressed about. She was the kind of kid who easily got straight A’s and whose school materials were always perfectly organized.
That evening at home my mother came in to my bedroom to talk to me.
“Hey, Kira. Mrs. Walters just called me. She’s worried about you.”
“She thinks you’re depressed.”
“Why does she think that?”
“ She says you’re always arguing with her and giving her a hard time but suddenly you’ve stopped doing that.”
“So, did your mom tell you I called her last night?” Mrs. Walters asked me the next day.
“I’m worried about you, kid.”
I stared at the floor.
“Your mom tells me you feel badly about yourself. Is that true?”
“Why do you feel bad about yourself?’’
“I’m just bad at everything.”
“That’s not true. You’re good at arguing with me, you’re good at making me laugh, you’re good at writing.”
“My handwriting is terrible.”
“I’m not talking about handwriting. I’m talking about the things you write.”
Her eyes were full of concern.
“You do well in all your subjects.”
“No, I don’t. I get C’s in math and science.”
“So? If you try your best you should be proud of a C. You don’t have to get A’s in everything.’’
“Other people do.”
“You don’t need to compare yourself to other people.”
“You have to help me with everything! No one else needs this much help!”
I was afraid I was going to cry in school again. Mrs. Walters looked like she might cry herself.
“Oh, honey, I know some things are hard for you, but I enjoy helping you and you’ve taught me something. You’ve taught me that there are things people can do and there are things they can’t do. You’re a very bright girl. No, you’re never going to be a seamstress but that’s okay. You have other talents.”
I made my way over toward Frisky’s tank.
“Will you think about what I said?”
“So, what are you asking for for Christmas?”
“Oh, Kira. Can you take care of all these animals?”
“I don’t think you have much room to talk. You have quite the menagerie yourself.”
Over Christmas break Mrs. Walters allowed me to take Frisky home with me.
“Hi, Kira!” she greeted me when I returned
I fiddled with the strap on my overalls
“Can I get a response?’’
“Hi,” I said softly
“Did you get a lot of presents for Christmas?”
“What was your favorite present?”
“I don’t know.”
“I heard you got an aquarium. I bet that was your favorite present.”
It was true. The twenty- gallon aquarium had been my favorite present, but the encyclopedia of mammals had been a close second. My mom had persuaded me to invite Jessie over for a sleepover during Christmas break. When she asked us if we wanted to watch TV, I’d replied that no, we’d watch the aquarium instead. For a while Jessie enjoyed and then tolerated all my talk of aquarium fish, which carried on in to the school cafeteria but eventually she tired of it. No matter, Mrs. Walters was happy to continue discussing aquarium fish with me.
One day Mrs. Walters was sitting in one of the main classrooms helping me with a reading project and talking to me about chickens when my math teacher walked by. The project was a self-representation collage that involved cutting and pasting materials from magazines so of course it was taxing on my fine motor skills and of course most of the pictures in my collage were of animals. I was talking about how the neighbors had been complaining about my rooster crowing in the morning so my father had decided that my rooster would have to sleep in a hamper in the closet at night rather than in the garbage can under the trampoline with the other chickens and now my rooster had been trained to jump in to the hamper in the closet at night all on his own. This was typical conversation between the two of us, but the math teacher was understandably a bit perplexed by it.
“So, you have chickens and a rabbit?” he said to me.
“Oh, Kira has a lot of pets. Tell him about your animals.”
I clammed up and shook my head.
“You seem to know Kira pretty well,” he said to Mrs. Walters.
“I know Kira like the back of my hand.”
In April I missed a day of school for a neurologist appointment. Mrs. Walters was asked to submit a report for the neurologist and since I was a nosy child I took the report out of my mother’s desk and read it. She’d written that I was a great young lady and a proficient writer, but that unfortunately fine motor skills deficits interfered with my achievement. When asked if I had trouble getting along with other students, she said it wasn’t that I didn’t get along with other students, but I chose not to interact with them much and that I tended to only converse with people I knew well. She remarked that I was inattentive and fidgety throughout the school day and that since I struggled with opening my locker, I chose to carry around a backpack that weighed about seventeen pounds. She noted that I often came to class with my hair unbrushed, my shoes untied and toothpaste on my face but that none of those things bothered me.
Based on the unusually large discrepancy between my superior verbal IQ and borderline performance IQ, the neurologist diagnosed me with nonverbal learning disorder. It was a complicated and poorly understood disorder that seemed to account for all my symptoms except the flapping.
My mom accumulated all the books and articles she could find on the disorder. Several of them noted that middle school is the time when things start to become really challenging for the child with NVLD. They gave examples of kids who were repeatedly misunderstood and judged by their peers and teachers to the point that they felt hopeless and helpless. They came to the conclusion that they lived in a world not built to accommodate them.
I could certainly relate to those feelings, but I knew that I was extremely lucky to have a teacher like Mrs. Walters. She had shown me a part of the world that did accommodate me. She accepted and appreciated me as thoroughly and completely as animals did. I liked her as much and felt as comfortable with her as I did with animals.
The trouble kids with NVLD had making friends was well documented. It was said that they tended to prefer the company of adults to the company of their peers. Mrs. Walters wasn’t just my teacher. She had also become my friend.
Soon preparation was being made of for the end of the school year. At my IEP meeting we talked about how I’d done in seventh grade. My mother said, “I think she hasn’t done as well this year because it was hard for her to deal with things like switching between classes and using lockers.”
Mrs. Walters got along very well with my mother but on this point, she felt the need to correct her. “Actually, she has done well this year. I’m very proud of her.”
As I was feeding Frisky his pellets during the last week of school, Mrs. Walters told me that she didn’t think she could keep him over the summer or in her classroom next year. She asked if I would like to have him. I said I would.
The day before the last day of school my mother took me to get goodbye presents for my teachers. I selected chicken stationery and a matching chicken bookmark for Mrs. Walters. As I was putting the cards in the envelopes, my mother told me she’d written a note of her own to Mrs. Walters that she wanted me to give to her.
“Why’d you do that?”
“Because Mrs. Walters takes such good care of you and I wanted to thank her.”
“Smile, Mrs. Walters!” I said as I sat in her classroom for the last time and pointed a disposable camera at her.
She smiled obligingly.
This time the other students posed next to her.
I flashed the camera a third time.
“Okay, Kira. I think that’s enough pictures.”
“I have something for you.”
I handed her the gifts and the card.
“Thank you. That’s very nice of you.”
She opened the card and read the note I’d written to her saying that I’d tried to sew her a sweater as a goodbye gift, but it hadn’t worked out too well.
She laughed. “You have such a great sense of humor.”
“Are you sure you have everything you need, kid?” she asked me as the day drew to a close and the busses began to arrive.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Promise me you’ll take good care of Frisky?”
I vowed to take as good care of him as she had taken of me.
“We’ve had a lot of fun this year. I’m really going to miss you.”
I crammed the last of my wrinkled papers in to my seventeen- pound backpack and zipped it up.
“And I think you’re going to miss me too.”
I smiled slightly and then started to frown.
“But we’ll see each other around the building next year,” she added.
The last bell rang.
She drew me in for a hug. I wrapped my arms around her waist.
“Write to me over the summer,” she called after me as I made my way towards the bus.
A few weeks later a letter arrived for me in the mail. It was written on chicken stationery.
I love my new stationery and the great bookmark. I will be using it all summer because this is the time of year I enjoy reading for pleasure and writing letters. I am waiting to receive some kind of correspondence from you…a postcard ..a letter…anything so I know how your summer is going so far. I have enclosed several cards with my address. I figure you should put them around everywhere so anytime you see one of them you will think about writing to me and if you lose one you’re bound to find another somewhere. You are a wonderful young lady and I’m so happy that you were in my class! I have to tell you that you are my favorite student! I look forward to hearing from you.
I put this letter from the best teacher I had ever had in the drawer at my bedside where I kept things that were important to me.