So today I have a really good book I’d like to tell you all about. Mary Macracken was a special education teacher in the 70s. This book, a circle of children, is copyrighted 1973. At the time all children who had any kind of mental/ emotional issue that seemed unexplainable by doctors were classified as “seriously emotionally disturbed.” It seemed back then kids were thrown together with no correct diagnosis and often parents were blamed for their child’s issues. They were put in these classes because their odd and constant behaviors, aggressive or withdrawn, interfered with the functioning of other classes. Professionals most of the time didn’t have the time or ability or at times the desire to try and help with something they didn’t understand and often would just rather blame the parents or say there’s no hope for these children and put them in institutions.
Mary came on this scene as a junior league volunteer. Honestly I never heard of the junior league must be some women’s club thing. Anyway she’d volunteered a lot of places and went to this school opened by an extremely committed passionate, but stripped of resources director. She and her friend observed the children at circle time, singing good morning to each other, skating and galloping and how the teachers lovingly and firmly interacted with them. Mary was awe struck right away and knew there was something here she felt a connection with. Her friend, as many would be was scared off by the place. But mary took the time to speak to the director and asked to volunteer as an aid in the class.
Something that would never happen today, to have a random person be an aid in an class never mind a special education one. Still she started out a couple days a week. She was placed with Helga. A physically strong woman with a very pronounced German accent. Right away Helga took one look at Mary and basically said to get lost. She didn’t need a volunteer screwing things up and getting in the way. For the longest time she called her “volunteer” or didn’t acknowledge her at all. Still Mary made herself useful in whatever small ways she could, filling watering cans, cleaning up ETC. Mostly she observed Hega intensely.
Helga’s way of working with these kids was like nothing Mary or any doctor parent or care provider at the time had ever witnessed or would believe if they weren’t there to witness it. These were children who for whatever reason had gotten to the age of about six through ten without being toilet trained, eating properly, speaking, walking, knowing hot to interact with anyone ETC. Whether this was originally caused by a trauma or serious of traumas or biochemical condition, Helga was one who could sense deep into these children. And figure out that a lot of this behavior and stunted growth had to do with it being perpetuated by parents who didn’t know what else to do, and by no one taking the consistent firm but loving approach of setting expectations showing them how to do things and waiting it out til they did it.
An example is a girl Sarah who was carried up by her mother and put on a blanket. The mother said Sarah would lay there all day and do nothing and was to be left alone. Right away Helga took away the blanket and hid it in the cupboard which caused quite an uproar form Sarah. Helga looked her in the eye and said if she wanted the blanket she’d have to get it herself and she knew she could do it. Very slowly over days and days Sarah was able to crawl to the cupboard. With more encouragement over time she could stand and then walk. This was done with different objects such as dolls to motivate her. The progression was slow and built on success always but was consistent and never ending. Eventually Sarah could walk up the stairs and walk then normally. Helga to Mary’s surprise didn’t give huge praise to the children, she acknowledged their success with a hug and smile and kind words but then moved on to the next thing. These after all were expected behaviors for a child.
With all children Helga brought out the hidden abilities inside them to allow them to master these obstacles with love and support and yet always stepping bacvk and making them do the work. The children became toilet trained could walk and talk, eat properly ETC. This when so many had said these children couldn’t do anything.
The next year Mary substituted for a class for 12 weeks. She worked with their children in the same manner she had seen and participated with Helga. She got them all except one to be out of diapers/ training pants. Them all to eat properly and interact appropriately. She made huge strides in 12 weeks and watched as incredibly the children who were getting better would coach the ones that were behind in little obviously unaware ways gently pushing them to the next step.
Mary then volunteered for the fall with a class where the teacher believed in “permissive teaching” or something like that. She said the problem was the kids weren’t allowed to do what they wanted as babies so now they were given basically freedom to go wild. And they did. She had a tub of water and the kids would dump it on the ground and go to the bathroom in or near it. And just totally go crazy. Mary was so discouraged and fed up she asked to leave the class.
Soon Mary had students of her own. And there was a teacher Dan down the hall who she connected with as she was starting her own class. Dan had his own personality and style. Very rough but also gentle, insistent playful, basically what you’d imagine in a father figure. The two classes would do things together mostly outside play once their schoolwork of the morning was done. When they joined forces and taught in the same room was when the real healing began.
There were kids ages six to twelve roughly in the room. Mary and Dan had to taylor the work to all levels and so no child was bored. Giving each child a part in the lesson. For example one child just learning letters would sound out a word. Another would write it another would use it in a sentence ETC. Slowly as in all activities Mary broke down the barriers of learning so in each child there was a creative way to teach. For Brian for example he would only do puzzles at first. So she made the first page of a book into a puzzleand he learned to read that way.
More important than reading and writing, (though Mary in particular insisted on these skills as she hoped to be able to have most of these kids mainstreamed as she saw their potential) were the life skills the real time social skills. They had no circle time, as Dan thought that was a babyish thing to do and not helping them with their maturity. They did the pledge to the flag, sang different songs with motions ETC. Their first group experience was climbing a mountain. It went well until one of the kids went missing. It was a huge ordeal that eventually got the polece envolved but it was the first experience of something very wrong going on and it brought the group together rather than apart.
Since then Dan and Mary took the kids out at every oppurnity. They had weekly trips to picnics, stores, museums, to ride the buses, trains, the merry go round, a pony ETC. Give them as much experience with the world as possible in the time that they had. For many these children had been so isolated by parents that didn’t know how to cope. They had never experienced anything like this. Often the children got overwhelmed and their behaviors escalated. They would give that child a chance to calm down/ intervine but not let it be the reason why something was stopped they would insist the child participate even through fear or aggression. And for the most part had good results.
This was also shown in weekly swimming. Where Dan, Mary, and a couple of other staff took the children to the Y and taught them slowly to swim. They had ups and downs with it but broke through fear and odd behaviors, and it was something they all took pride in.
Mary solved many puzzles. One was Brian. He flapped his arms in an autistic kind of way and had no intelligible speech. It wasn’t until she was trying to do speech therapy with another child, (the speech therapist insisted he had no time for this kid so she got a how to book and got on with it) that she realized Brian could speak normally. If she slowed down the speed on the tape recorder you could make out his speech completely normally. He had somehow learned to speek incredibly fast and in a high pitched voice. It only took her showing him she knew his game and getting him to manipulate one sentence, slower faster, louder softer for him to then be able to speak normally. Out of habbit he’d do it first, and then later when stressed but if she told him to slow down he would.
Another puzzle was Brian’s eating. He would eat nothing but crackers and milk all his life. His mother claimed it was abuse at a daycare that caused it. For the longest time they just insisted Matt sit at the table with everyone. They watched him progress in other areas. Again the mental health professionals seemed not too worried or interested in helping in this matter saying it was pretty hopeless. One day they told Matt that he had to eat one bite of food. This turned into a battle which Mary admits is probably one of the worst moments in her teaching. Where she and Dan kept forcing this piece of hot dog into his mouth for a couple of hours. They were sure they’d traumatized him. The next day he returned as his regular self when the food was in front of him at lunch everyone pretended to look the other way while he took a bite on his own. Slowly his eating progressed but the major wall was broken.
Dan Mary and the eight children became so close they were a virtual family. They shared an amazing Christmas party together. Dan went to florida to help another teacher starting a school for teens. Mary came back from school vacation and saw that to her sadness Dan had to remain in Florida. The man had died and Dan was left with the school/ project he’d left behind. The director had gotten a new teacher. By this point Mary had taken many college courses and had synthesized her on philosophy about teaching. She took what was good from courses, which at the time she thought wasn’t much, with everything she learned from Dan, Helga and her own intuitive nature. She called it “LASER teaching” Love Amplified by Structured Educational Reality.
Furthermore the poem at the end of the book, that hung on her door for the new teacher to see read:
I will know you.
I will touch you and hold you
And smell and taste and listen
To the noises that you make _and the words, if any.
I will know you.
Each atom of your small lonely, aking, raging, hurting being will be known to me.
Before I try to teach you.
Before I try to teach
I must first reach you.
And then when I have come to know you, when I have come to know you intimately,
I will insist, gently, gradually, but I will insist
That you know me.
And later, that you trust me
Now, knowing each other, we will begin to know the world_the seasons, the trees, animals, food, the other children,
The printed word, books, the knowledge of what has been recorded.
Then as surely as surely as I moved toward you
I will move away.
As I once insisted on being close to you,
Demanding entrance to your half wild world,
Of fear and fantasy, refusing you aloneness
So now; I move away.
As your words come and your walk quickens ,
As you laugh out loud, or read clearly with understanding
I stand behind_ no longer close,
Available but no longer vital to you.
And you _you grow
! You are! You will become!
And I, the teacher,
I turn with pride in you,
Towards my next child.”
Sorry for the super long review but I hope you enjoy it. It took me a long time to copy that oem so you better read it! LOL!