EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT BUT...NOT EVERYONE IS "SPECIAL".
As a special education teacher at Annandale High School, Annandale, Virginia, I taught several self-contained classes. At the beginning of the new school year, I was ill- prepared for the uniquely-special student listed as Catherine Elliott on my third period attendance sheet.
That first day, when I called the roll, there were the usual responses of “here”, “yah”, “okay”, and suddenly--- when I called-out the classic, traditional name--Catherine---I heard a firm, authoritative reply: “Just as I expected, you have it wrong. My name is not Catherine--its Cat, spelled C-A-T!
From that day forward, I knew that Cat was never to be called Catherine. I also knew that third period- every day- I should expect the unexpected.
Later, I examined Cat’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to understand her background and identify her specific disability. I read that, at the age of three years, Cat was diagnosed as a child with autism and mild retardation. She had two older brothers, one with an emotional disability (ED) and the other with a learning disability (LD).
Cat’s mother (Beth) had been married four times and, at our first meeting, Beth announced she had recently divorced husband #4 and was now living with a new boyfriend. Elaborating in greater detail than I needed to hear, Beth declared that her new boyfriend would probably be husband #5.
She lost no time saying she did not have the time or patience to help Cat with homework. So, if Cat had missing homework, assignments, or special projects, I should contact Cat’s stepmother, a former teacher, who could manage Cat’s educational assignments.
Although Beth, Cat’s Mother, seemed charming, was stylishly attractive, and held an administrative position at a well-known DC university, she refused to accept her daughter’s issues. Beth made it abundantly clear she expected Cat to outgrow both her special education “label” and her Autism. She was convinced that Cat would “blossom” once she received professional instruction in a general education setting. Cat’s mother believed that, as a parent, she devoted more-than-enough time to Cat and she expected the same from Cat’s teachers.
Cat excelled in her studies and carefully followed the class rules. She also monitored other students to make certain they followed the class rules too. Without fail, if Cat saw someone breaking a rule, she not only announced it to the entire class, she confronted the offender. Naturally, this tattle-tale style didn’t endear Cat to her classmates but, following the rules was more important to Cat than winning a popularity contest.
After noting that several students in the class had obvious physical disabilities, I introduced a social skills lesson on “being different”. The video accompanying the lesson discussed unusual behaviors-- including Autism Spectrum and Tourette’s syndrome. Following the video, I encouraged the class to discuss family members, friends, neighbors….anyone who demonstrated some or all of the characteristics discussed in the video.
The class enjoyed the video and most shared in the ongoing discussion. Everyone in class, including Cat, gained valuable information that day. Cat talked about her older brother’s experience in a juvenile detention center and how angry he became when anyone asked what crime he'd committed to put him in a detention center.
It was apparent that most of the class became Cat’s instant admirers after she shared news that her brother had spent “time” in a detention center. I was shocked when one student asked for her autograph, believing Cat’s brother might someday be a famous criminal.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the classroom accepted Cat but, shortly after the “being different” lesson, Cat began playing a more-prominent role with her classmates. Cat had definitely found a way to “fit in” with others.
One of the biggest attractions at Annandale High School... before each school year officially ended… was the annual talent show. One week before the Big Show, Cat announced to the class that she was performing in the talent show and invited everyone to come hear her sing. I knew Cat was counting on me to be in the audience and I wouldn’t have missed it for-the-world.
Looking back, it’s surprising how much I under-estimated Cat’s talent. Sure, I knew Cat loved The Beatles; I knew Cat had an amazingly-strong determination. But no one, including me, had any idea that Cat could “sell a song” like a professional.
When Cat Elliot finished performing her fabulous rendition of John Lennon’s IMAGINE…. The audience, consisting of students, teachers, parents, and guests…all jumped out of their seats to applaud Cat with overwhelming approval; their applause lasted for almost four minutes.
Cat behaved like a seasoned entertainer as she bowed, blew kisses, smiled, waved, left the stage—and returned three times--- to acknowledge the thundering applause. At last, the houselights came on, the curtain dropped, and the show was over.
For several years after leaving Annandale High School, I stayed “in touch” with many of my students, including Cat Elliot. No, Cat never outgrew Autism but she continued to perform, to attract audiences, and…to inspire applause.