Part 1: Black Crayons and Ants on Apples

Last week was my first time in a public school since I graduated from high school in 2001. Continually unhappy with my chosen line of work (read customer service, retail, office administration and paperwork), I have decided to pursue a job in the realm of education to see if I might fair better as a teacher. Frustrated with my work at the rock climbing gym, I completed my paperwork to be a substitute paraeducator and emergency substitute teacher, as well as apply to several paraeducator jobs around Bremerton School District.

I accepted my first sub position from my aunt at an elementary school located in Bremerton School District. Monday was my first day alone with my aunt's responsibilities. To prepare me for the duties paraeducators fulfill, I worked as a volunteer for a few days with my aunt before accepting the position. Laying in bed Sunday night, I was more than a little nervous thinking about my job the next morning.

I got to school early to mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. The first part of the day was filled up with kindergarten reading groups and work as a reading tutor. I had a break in the middle of the day as I worked with two special needs students, then I returned to the larger student population with the Learning Opportunity Room, or the place the bad students go when they hit other children. To make my duties a little harder, Halloween was five days away and the students had a four day weekend due to parent teacher conferences. When I arrived at my first reading group, the kids were bouncing in their very small chairs at their very small tables in eager anticipation of their approaching sugar highs.

My reading groups on Monday were a disaster. I didn't know what pages to read, the kids never really stopped bouncing (who knew such small wooden chairs make that loud of a noise when they hit the ground?), and several times during my first 20 mins of work I had to coerce students out from under the tables with stickers. The kindergartners were working on learning their alphabet and reading simple words like "I" "me" "see." At one point, I realized that my elementary school experience failed me where phonics were concerned. I can read anything, but ask me to speak it and I clam up. This week, we were teaching the kids the letter A. A says /a/, Ant on an Apple, /a/ /a/ /a/. Right from the beginning, I pronounced /a/ wrong and was lucky enough to be corrected by a group of five year olds. Soft /a/, Katie, like apple and ant. I continued to tell myself this for my remaining three days of reading groups. Also lucky for me, I had 20 years on my students and a bag full of stickers, so they quickly forgot my error.

A note about stickers: You can get children to do anything for you with the promise of a sticker. They are like crack. The children can be bouncing off the walls, throwing chairs, or crawling under tables. Speaking your displeasure at their behavior is not enough to change anything; you have to speak within the commerce of stickers. Size also does not matter. With my adult brain, I would think bigger is better and personally choose the stickers that have the most eye catching and colorful surface area to cover the back of my hand. This is not the case with children. More often than not, I would have them clamoring over the pencil eraser sized animal stickers. Content seems to please more than size. However, There is no consistency regarding desired sticker content from day to day, or at least none that my adult brain can understand. A girl that wants hearts and flowers one day referred to as "girl stickers"), demands cars the next day (considered "boy stickers").

The saviors of my Monday, very surprising to myself and co-workers at the gym, were my special needs kids. Since my childhood, I have been nervous around the special education kids. I couldn't understand the reasons behind their actions. I felt awkward and embarrassed at their learning disabilities. Many times, I didn't want them to feel like I was staring, but couldn't take my eyes away from their predicament. The two little boys I worked with this last week changed my approach to special needs children.

For privacy and confidentiality, I will refer to my first little boy as Kevin. My job was to relieve his one-on-one worker so she could go to lunch. During my half hour with him, I was suppose to sit in his class with him and do whatever the rest of the class was doing. Kevin is in a wheel chair with something that looks like cerebral palsy. When I sat next to him, the class was engaged in story time. Kevin's wheel chair had a computer screen with different phrases and words complete with pictures. When the different phrases are chosen, the computer speaks the words. Unable to control his limbs, Kevin moves his head from side to side in order to press buttons and navigate through the menu on the computer screen. By communicating in this method, I realized Kevin was extremely high functioning stuck in a body that would not cooperate.

My half hour was close to lunch time and Kevin was hungry. For the first several minutes of my time with him, he scrolled through the lunch menu telling me all the different things he wanted to eat. Peanut butter and jelly, pancakes, ice cream, yogurt, yogurt pancakes. I didn't quiet know where he would get the feast he seemed to be wanting. His available lunching option on Monday was a chicken burger or chili in a Styrofoam cup. I started joking with him about his desired food choices, in particular the yogurt pancakes. We had the following conversation, me speaking to Kevin and Kevin speaking back to me through the mechanical voice on his chair's computer.

"I would like to purchase yogurt pancakes."
"Really, Kevin! And how do you think you will purchase the pancakes?"
"I would like to pay with a check."
"You are in luck! We accept checks here."
(I grab his hand and act like he is signing and handing me the check. Kevin starts laughing)
"Please put my receipt in my wallet."
"Here you go" as I pull out his imaginary wallet and put the imaginary receipt inside.
"Can I help you with anything else?" I ask him.
"Please put my pancakes in the back of my wheel chair."

So I act like I'm putting the pancakes in the back of his wheel chair. Kevin is now beside himself with laughter, which produces a foamy drool on one side of his cheek. His eyes continuing to look at me all the while, his mouth a huge gaping smile.

The class starts coloring Halloween finger puppets. I get Kevin's paper and ask him with which color he would like to start. He mumbles something that sounds like red, so I pick out one of his red crayons and place it on his thumb. Kevin has special crayons that are very big with holes in the middle. By placing his thumb in the crayon, he can swing his arm from side to side and cover his paper in color. My job is to hold the paper on his desk and avoid getting hit by the crayon. I ask him if he would like to write his name on the top of the page and get an answer that sounds like "yes." We start writing K-E-V-I-N, but he stops me and lets me know that he would rather have me write Tyler on the paper. So we write Tyler instead and Kevin once again starts laughing and drooling. He moves the red crayon from side to side, looks at me and says something else that I don't understand. I think he is asking for another red crayon, so I dig out a different shade of red which appears to be in perfect condition, like the first shade of red. He colors a little bit, looks at me and says the same thing as before. I dig out yet a third perfect looking red crayon and put it on his hand. It wasn't until Tuesday that I realized his favorite color is black and all along he was asking for the black crayon. I should have figured this out sooner, as all the crayons in the bucket are in perfect condition except a very used and broken black crayon.

Tuesday we color pumpkins together... or I draw pumpkins on his paper and he covers the pumpkins completely with black. We successfully covered three pages, front and back, with black strokes. To give him more color time, I started folding the pages in half so he could color one at a time. However, the smaller pages meant I had less space to hold to paper down while avoiding a hit with his crayon. By midday Tuesday, I had black crayon embedded under my nails and along the tops of my fingers.

Wednesday was my last day coloring with Kevin. I tried to shake things up a little bit and got him to switch a few color strokes to blue, my favorite color, and green, his friend's favorite color. It took, for a few strokes, until he would ask once again for the black crayon and cover the green and blue thick with black. Just before my time with him ended, tragedy stuck. In his unfettered excitement while coloring, the black crayon stroked its last and broke in half. I showed it to Kevin and looked sad at his crayon breaking. Kevin started laughing uncontrollably when I told him he needed to choose a new favorite color. Right before I stood up to leave, he looked at me and told me his new favorite color: Red.

Harmony was restored in the world.