Whenever someone talks about Martin Luther King Jr, I can't help but think about the little boy I worked with at my last job as an aide (well, second to last... the one I was working at last school year.) I wrote a little bit about Taz on my last day of that job. I was assigned to work with Taz as a one-to-one aide, meaning that his behavior was so out of control that he needed an adult all to himself. The problem was, Taz's behavior wasn't bad. It really wasn't. He was just very, very active and spirited. And in that school, this was considered awful.
Taz was a first grader when I met him. He had lived in a foster home since the beginning of the school year. Before that, he had lived with his mother, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol and was in several abusive relationships. Taz had witnessed a lot of violence. I never found out what led up to him finally being removed from his mother's home. In addition to this, he had fetal alcohol syndrome, which caused him some serious issues with learning, attention, and hyperactivity. When I first met him, Taz was in a regular first grade classroom, but he wasn't doing much of anything. The teacher would have him look at books or play with toys when the other children were doing their work. (He did work once a day with the resource teacher, and once I started, I was supposed to practice his reading and math skills in the hallway with him while the teacher was working with the other kids.)
The thing about Taz was, he was such a happy kid. He was always dancing around, hooting and hollering, wanting to slap five or give hugs to everyone he saw. He literally thought everyone was his friend. And in this particular school, the staff's main goal seemed to be to squash his spirit. "We need to make Taz look and behave like all of the other first graders," they explained to me, as a reason for why I should be disciplining Taz more firmly when he danced, instead of walked, into th classroom. "He must be calm. He must be quiet. He must be still."
But a calm, quiet, still Taz would not have been Taz at all. I did try to teach him to be quiet during certain times, like when the teacher was speaking to the entire class. But it was hard for me to punish him for things like asking questions or wanting hugs.
I had just gotten my teaching degree that spring. In my university, we had been taught to look at kids like Taz, find their strengths, and work with them. We were taught to identify weaknesses, and figure out how to help students cope with them. For a very active student like Taz, my university would have recommended giving him more opportunities to move around, talk, and use whole-body learning. We were taught how punishing a child for things that he was neurologically programmed to do could only end in disaster. But at this school, the teachers took pride in being "traditional." Which meant, desks in rows, teacher at the front of the room, and quiet children sitting straight. Kids at this school even got reprimanded for asking questions. If the teacher wasn't teaching it, they didn't need to know it, and asking additional questions wasted time.
Halfway through the year, Taz was switched into a special education classroom. I went with him. Things were a little better there. The teacher found out what Taz's academic level really was, and began working with him there. It was amazing how quickly he learned! He loved learning and took pride in his work. But he still got yelled at all the time, basically for being too happy. The teacher would send "sad notes" home whenever Taz was talking out of turn in class. Taz would come back and report that he had gotten spanked by his foster father... sometimes with a shoe, and sometimes with a belt.
Taz was African American. He was one of about ten African American students in the school, and the only one in the first grade. I don't think he really noticed this... at least, he never mentioned it... until we started learning about Martin Luther King Jr. When the teacher read the class a story about him, Taz lit up. He shouted, "He looks like me! He has hair like me and skin like me!" We explained that this was because Martin Luther King Jr. was African American, just like Taz. Of course then we had to explain what Africa was, and what it meant to be African American (Taz got a little confused because he thought it meant he was born in Africa) and what slavery was.
|Taz especially liked to hear stories about when MLK JR was a|
little boy like him.
Sometimes this bright, sensitive 7-year-old would even cry about Martin Luther King Jr. being shot. "Why did someone shoot him! He was such a good man! He was my friend! And now I can never even meet him!" he would sob.
I tried to explain to Taz that Martin Luther King Jr was in Heaven (Taz's foster family was very religious, so I felt this would be okay and would be comforting for him to hear) watching him, and that he was very proud of Taz. I told him that Martin Luther King Jr. had died trying to make the world a better place, and that the best thing we could do was keep on helping him make the world a little better ourselves.
When we pointed out that our President was also African American, Taz had another hero! He decided that he was going to be President when he grew up. He would tell us to call him "Barack O-Taz!" I could often get him to walk quietly in the halls by saying, "Barack Obama always has to walk quietly in the halls in the White House. Do you think it would be a good idea for the President to run around screaming?" And Taz would straighten up and walk, with his arms at his sides, like an important world leader.
I helped Taz write a letter to Barack Obama once. When I had first met Taz, he could barely write his name. Now he could write an entire letter, only needing help spelling a few words. The people from the White House sent him back a form letter geared towards children, along with photos of Obama, his family members, and their dog, and some facts about the White House. Taz got to "show and tell" his package to the other first grade classes. The photo of Obama got a place of honor on the wall of our classroom, where Taz would point it out and sometimes talk to it every day.
At the end of the school year, I was told, basically, that my services were no longer needed at the school. The principal let me know that he knew I cared about the students and was very nurturing... but not strict enough. I should have whipped Taz into shape, turned him into a model little student, but I failed.
I had no regrets about leaving that school. I didn't want to be an aide forever, anyway. But I still wish I didn't have to leave Taz behind. He was one of the most amazing kids I ever knew... but if the school had it's way, his spirit would be beaten into submission within the next school year.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have a dream of my own. My dream is that someday every child will be seen for their strengths, and their uniqueness, and their talents. I have a dream that children like Taz will be encouraged to love learning, to ask questions, to be passionate. I have a dream that teachers, parents, and foster parents will realize that kids like Taz have as much to teach as they have to learn.
And my dream is that maybe one day Taz really will be President... but if not, I hope he will grow up to be happy, and to keep being himself, and to know how awesome he really is.