When Wil drops himself on the floor, there are times when someone who doesn’t know him well will step up and say, “Let me try.”
“Have at it,” I say. Then I sit back and observe what I already know is going to happen. I can’t always predict the exact words, but I do know the tune with which the words are played. It’s a sweet tone; syrupy sweet. The notes tilt up as they go, the sentence always ending in higher notes.
I know this tune, I’ve used it before. But it’s not getting him off the floor. Though the tune is sweet, the words are still based in someone else’s agenda, not his. And he knows that. If the Pied Piper came to town, Wil would be the sole remaining child. Unless, of course, the Pied Piper was well-versed in Luke Bryan. Then Wil would fall into step.
If it’s not his tune, he’s not budging. Though he may appreciate the sweetness of the notes, underneath it he knows it for what it is. Your tune, not his. No amount of syrup is going to slide him in your direction. Unless of course, it’s in a bottle of Sprite. Then you’ll be singing his kind of song.
At home, if I want more of a cool, calm vibe, I’ll ask Alexa to play “Van Morrison Station.” Wil will throw his head back and holler out, “Ugh, Mom! Alexa play Luke Bryan Station!” Then he’ll start breaking out his latest dance moves. “Watch this, Mom!”
It’s not that hard to get Wil off the floor, unless, of course, you aren’t playing his tune.
I am often placed in the position of being teacher. Not by trade. Not by degree. But by raising a child with special needs.
My favorite way of learning is through storytelling. Allow me to introduce you to the cast:
The Prince: Wil
The Evil Queen: Yours truly
I, the Evil Queen, trailed 10 feet behind the Prince, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy and Doc (we’d join Dopey and Bashful later). The Prince’s red cape billowed behind him as he ran with his knit-capped friends of varying personalities. Grumpy created the route; it was one she had carefully constructed over the years that yielded top candy output. The friends fanned out in the side streets, then narrowed 2×2 down the sidewalks– Sleepy ran ahead to talk with Happy; Happy later dropped back to put her arm around The Prince; Grumpy sped up to catch Doc, Sleepy shared a story making Doc laugh. They were a letter swapping word game; switching it up, creatively making sense in any order.
The Evil Queen lingered behind, careful not to put a kink in the easy moving chain. The Evil Queen’s role this Halloween night was to walk the Prince back to Grumpy’s house when he showed signs of tiring. Other than that, she was merely the observer.
As the friends made the climb up to Chi-Bro Park, the Evil Queen saw it was time for the Prince to take a rest. The Prince received a round of hugs from his friends, and he and the Evil Queen made their way to Grumpy’s. (This particular Prince is a fan of Luke Bryan, so he and the Evil Queen jammed out until the rest of the crew returned.)
When Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy and Doc returned to meet up with the Prince and Evil Queen, they all headed to Sneezy’s house for a haunted woods walk and bonfire. There they met up with Dopey (Bashful joining in via zoom). The friends banded together and each carried a flashlight, that doubled as a whistle, to survive the scares from the Evil Queen, Sneezy’s parents and any other spooky spirits that hid in the haunted woods.
Having successfully survived the haunted woods, the friends sat around the bonfire. They flashed their flashlights and blew on their whistles in between conversation. As the pitch of the whistles increased, the Prince became overwhelmed as he is sensitive to loud noises. Without warning, the Prince jumped up out of his lawn chair and disappeared into the dark.
In perfect unison, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy Doc and Dopey lifted out of their chairs and banded together. Flashlights in hand, they ran together into the dark: “We are so sorry, Wil! We just forgot.”
“That’s ok,” was the reply I heard from the dark. The Prince and his friends began a new game in the dark with their flashlights, but not the whistles.
One afternoon at school, Wil became overwhelmed during the lunch hour. He got out of his chair and bolted. He was chased by a few students and teachers. When he reached the hallway, he plopped himself down on the floor. The well-meaning students and teachers that followed him tried their best to coax him back up. He wouldn’t budge. Seeger (aka Sneezy) stepped up and asked that Wil be given some space. She explained that he needed to feel back in control of his environment. How did she know this? Because she read “Stories of Wil: Puberty Part 1.” She wanted to read this book to better understand her friend. How cool is that for a 13-year-old? Sure enough, Seeger’s suggestions got Wil off the floor and back in the lunch room.
There are buddy programs in schools that pair typically-developing students with students who have special needs. While many of these programs are viewed as teaching typical kids how to have a better understanding of those with special needs, they are really about creating an understanding that we all have differing needs. And that can change on a daily basis, especially when you are in middle school! We all are a multi-letter swapping word game that requires creativity in putting the pieces together. Wil and his friends do not play by their differences, they play by their understanding.
Though I am often placed in the position of being a teacher, in this story I am the observer. Grumpy put me there. She asked that I be the Evil Queen. Grumpy knew that if the Evil Queen was available in the background, the Prince could join his friends for a night of trick-or-treating. Grumpy not only mapped the trick-or-treating route, she also creatively put the pieces together.
I hope you have learned as much from the story of Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Doc, Dopey, Bashful and The Prince as I have. May you find yourself in one of them (or maybe a few of them depending on the day). Play by understanding. Shuffle the pieces. Get creative. You never know who may be learning from your story.
“Mom, I worked hard today!” Wil shouted as he threw the car door open and took a seat right behind me. The school day had just ended. Elizabeth slid into the passenger seat and Katherine jumped in next to Wil.
“No way, Wil, not three days in a row.” I said.
“Nope, not possible.”
“Put it here, buddy. I’m proud of you.” I raised my hand over the front seat and Wil met it with a strong high-five. “Katherine, did you work hard today?”
“Hmm, sort of.” She gave Wil a sideways smile.
“What!” I rolled my eyes in mock disdain.
“Giiirl,” Wil pointed to her, “you work hard!”
“Elizabeth, did you work hard today?” I asked.
“I did, but I could have worked harder.”
“Darn straight!” Wil yelled out.
“Wil learned that from Ms. Kastel in a game they were playing.” Elizabeth said. “I think she changed one of the words.” We shared a smile.
Ms. Kastel was Wil’s 7th and now 8th grade social studies teacher. 7th grade was a particularly trying time for Wil, with a change in schools and an uptick in puberty. Ms. Kastel was cognizant of this and continually worked to find ways to connect with Wil. When she discovered Wil’s love for country music, she introduced him to one of her favorites, Johnny Cash. She bought the two matching t-shirts which Wil wears proudly. Wil also loves Pringles, so he and Ms. Kastel share a Pringles cheer for a job well done in class. Not surprisingly, social studies is now one of his favorite subjects.
On our drive home, Elizabeth filled me in on her day. Katherine added commentary on their shared classes. Wil listened to both of his sisters, then hollered out, “Mac ‘n’ cheese, Mom!”
“Mac ‘n’ cheese? You had it for lunch?”
“No, made mac ‘n’ cheese.” Wil mimicked stirring a pot. “With Victoria and Anna. My Connect friends.” (Connect friends are typically-developing juniors and seniors who are paired with students who have special needs.)
Oftentimes, Wil doesn’t offer much after school. He’s generally open at bedtime, when the house is quiet and there is time and space to share his thoughts. It can be challenging to create space between his sisters’ words on the drive home. We will often ask Wil questions to create the space for him. Though we typically get a “hmph” and shrug of the shoulders in reply.
When Wil stepped into the car that day, he threw the door wide open to his school experiences. I never know when or how a breakthrough in communication will arrive, but I know it when I hear it. On this day what busted down the gates was a build-up of three straight days of working hard, making mac ‘n’ cheese with Connect friends, a darn straight awesome social studies teacher, and hard-working (even if they tease they don’t), loving sisters who naturally show Wil how to create his own space. And that’s exactly what he did.