When I think back to my internship I always think about one student. Caitlyn, with a ‘C’, not a ‘K’. She was this little 7 year old girl who was moderately mentally handicapped. She came from a low income family. Her hand-me-down clothes were permanently stained by red Kool-Aid. Her hair was once long, but her parents in frustration, cut it off all short and uneven. Obviously an at home trim. Her lips were always chapped because she had the uncontrollable urge to lick her lips all the time. Her hands were permanently stained by markers, because she loved to draw. Wherever she went, she ran. Her speech was broken and hard to understand. In other words, she was a complete mess, but she was sweet and innocent, and never without a smile.
One of the objectives on her individual education plan was to independently write her name. My intern teacher I worked under decided that a good mission for me to accomplish while I was in her class was to teach Caitlyn to write her name.
“Easy” I thought to myself. After the four years of training I had, this was going to be a breeze. I went home that night and prepared materials for Caitlyn to use to learn to write her name. In my cockiness I only planned for one day of materials because I was sure that I could teach Caitlyn to write her name in one day. You know that saying, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch…” They should make one for teachers that says “Don’t count your materials before you actually teach the lesson.”
I began Caitlyn’s lesson with a worksheet that had her name on it. Caitlyn was supposed to trace the letters of her name as practice and then copy them on the line below. Easy right? WRONG! From the moment I put the #2 pencil in her marker stained hand it was complete and utter chaos. It was as if another child emerged from within her and began uncontrollably writing on everything in sight. I desperately grabbed for the sharpened pencil she was wielding like a dagger.
Finally my hand clasped hers and I yanked the pencil away. I remember feeling exhausted and sitting their realizing I was way over my head. My cockiness fled the room like the children do when there is a fire drill. All four years of my education had been sucked from my mind and I know longer had confidence. In that brief moment I doubted everything I thought I knew.
In bewilderment I stared at Caitlyn and she just smiled back. I remember thinking, this isn’t that hard, just try again. All you have to do is to get her to copy letters. I decided to try again, only this time I would use more caution. I would hold the pencil too. “Yeah, that will work.” I thought to myself and tried it again. I placed the pencil into Caitlyn’s hand and quickly wrapped my hand around hers. I tried to steer her hand over the letters on the page, but my attempts were in vain.
She fought every move trying desperately to move the pencil to her desk, to her lap, to her ear, to my ear, to the floor, to her shoe, to the back of her chair. Well, you get it. There was no way that that child was going to sit still and independently write her name in one day. I felt defeated.
I worked with Caitkyn everyday for nine weeks. Every day I would sit and battle that girl to hold her pencil and write. Eventually the battle was less physical, but still un uphill one. On the last day of my internship, my teacher threw a small good bye party and before Caitlyn left for the bus she walked up to me with a folded piece of red construction paper. It was folded all weird and at different angles. I thought it was a piece of trash and was about to throw it away for her. She protested and in her broken way of talking conveyed that I was to open the paper. So I looked down and opened the paper.
At first I thought it was a bunch of squiggly lines, but I soon realized that she had written the letter ‘C’ over and over again. They were all different sizes and some looked more like an ‘O’ but this card represented nine weeks of one-on-one work. I could have cried, but knew she wouldn’t understand tears of joy. I laughed and in that one single moment understood how much harder special needs kids have to work to get something as simple as independently writing the letter C.
* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism experience.