A CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS...IS MUCH-MORE THAN A LABEL.
It was late November of 2010 when Nichole arrived in my classroom. She was six years old but looked much younger. She flinched and cowered when I approached her. She cried when my teaching assistants tried to remove her sweater or take her hand. Clearly, the little girl was unable to walk without assistance. For weeks Nicole reacted as if she expected to be slapped or kicked…a defensive reaction that appeared deeply-rooted.
Overtime, realizing there were no slaps or kicks-- that she had nothing to fear—Nichole began to take an extended hand. The only time she cried, or screamed… were the times when classroom staff tried to put her on her back. Staff had no choice but change Nichole’s diapers, standing up.
One day, looking for reasons why Nichole was unable to walk, the physical therapist removed Nichole’s shoes. Immediately, the little girl began walking, then running, around the classroom. The child’s “second-hand” shoes were almost three times the length of her foot. Her mother had no response when asked to provide shoes in Nichole’s correct size. After several days of waiting for the mother to produce decent shoes for her daughter, the school’s director sketched the outline of Nichole’s feet on a drawing pad, then shopped, found, and paid for Nichole a new pair of shoes.
Day after day, Nichole came to class dressed in dirty, smelly, old clothes-- many sizes too big. Her mother simply cut off the excessively-long sleeves and pants to expose Nicole’s hands and feet. The large waistbands were held-up with either a man’s belt-- wrapped several times-- then tied... or long pieces of rope. There were several days in December when Nicole wore summer outfits without a sweater or a jacket and without socks on her small feet.
In an effort to provide basic needs for Nichole, everyone in the classroom contributed money for undershirts,socks, gloves, matching outfits, jackets, and appropriate-size diapers. (Her mother used adult diapers on her six year old daughter.)
Each morning Nicole’s clothes were removed and sent to the school laundry. Staff carefully washed Nichole, brushed her teeth, then dressed her in her new “classroom clothes”. Before leaving at the end of the school day, Nichole was re-dressed in her old clothes.
Althought Nichole’s hair was matted, dirty, and full of tangles…we had been warned to never brush or comb her hair---a demand made over and over by her mother. She insisted that her “religion” did not allow a woman’s hair to be washed or cut or touched by humans, because of their “unclean hands”.
Nichole babbled but had difficulty forming words. Sometimes she smiled, as she watched other students play but she refused to join them. Instead, she was preoccupied with her hands. She repeatedly used her fingers to “flick” spit or food particles from her mouth.
This very-serious action was disturbing for many reasons, including the nasty mess it made; the unsanitary conditions it created; and the ongoing challenge to keep Nicole and her clothes clean. Staff attempted to re-direct her by placing toys in her hands which only distracted Nichole for a minute or two. Nicole preferred to throw the objects away and return to her troublesome habit of “flicking”.
Nicole seldom swallowed. At my request, the school asked Nicole’s mother to have her child tested for physical abnormalities like weak swallowing muscles or a narrow esophagus. The mother refused. She believed God made her daughter--his way--and it was a sin to question his creation.
It should be noted that the first time I met Nicole’s mother, she viewed me rather-suspiciously before saying: “What makes you think you can teach my daughter"? When I began listing my education and experience, she interrupted me to say “What I mean is…You are White and Nicole is Black.”
It’s not the color of a person’s skin that causes problems. All-too-often, it’s a person's attitude.