Teachin' For America

Thoughts and otherwise on one particular Teach for America experience.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


“Delilah” is my sixth-grade student with Down syndrome. She is quite low-functioning, but is also generally cheerful, helpful, and sweet. Her language skills are very limited. Most of her speech is nearly unintelligible and she, like Dontrell, relies heavily on context to get her point across. Her academic skills are similarly impaired. She is working on counting out loud to ten and being able to write those numbers in order. She can name most letters but does not seem to grasp any sound-spelling correspondences. She is a behavioral piece-of-cake but a real academic challenge. And sometimes she presents other challenges.
One of my administrators, sometime during our week of in-service, gave me a run down of kids in my class. “Delilah,” she said, “has Down syndrome. She has accidents.” I dutifully nodded my head and pretended that the sentence didn’t phase me. And it really didn’t. Sure, nobody wants to clean up euphemistic “accidents,” but as far as I was concerned, that would be part of the job and I was going to do whatever the job required. So I resigned myself to the prospect of helping a soiled little girl down to the nurse’s office or wherever it was that I was supposed to take her when she was soiled. I also wondered why that was the only bit of information my administrator chose to give me about Delilah, but I do my best to not analyze the decisions of administrators. You can go crazy doing something like that. What this says about administrators I’ll leave to my readers as I get back to concentrating on the story at hand.
The restroom, independent of any tendencies of my students not to make it there, is a frequent issue in my classroom. It seems that there is almost always at least one student who has to “use it.” I have truly tired of having kids raise their hands and inform me “Mr. Mobley, I gotta USE it!” “Use what?” I typically reply, a question that seems to travel directly to their bladder: after I ask it they always seem to put their hands in that region with a great deal of consternation and whinily intone, “The baaaafroooom!” This technique gets them nowhere.
Students at my school are not allowed to go to the bathroom without the accompaniment of an adult. The reasoning behind this rule is evident in the behavior of the children whose teachers break it. They run through the halls with reckless abandon, their hall passes apparently serving as tickets to use the halls in whatever way they see fit, for however long they see fit. They have races, yelling matches, and what resemble prize fights. That I am not allowed to close my classroom door to keep out these distractions is another issue that will have to be saved for another story in another entry. Suffice it to say kids just don’t need to be running around in the halls unsupervised.
So even when my students really, really “gotta use it,” they are not allowed to until the next of the two bathroom breaks we take daily arrives. This decision on my part is typically greeted with much wailing and gnashing of teeth on their part, but that all goes away once their tiny attention span moves on the nearest shiny object. Sometimes, however, I start to believe in the urgency of their claims when, many minutes later, they are still insisting that bladder detonation is imminent. This is when I tend to reconsider my hard and fast rule. Just such an occasion arose- and escalated beyond your typical “Gotta pee” fiasco- with Delilah the other day. See the above reference to “accidents” to get a preview of things to come.
Delilah asks me to go to the bathroom fairly often. It is one of the things she can communicate rather easily, so I think as soon as she feels the least bit inclined, she goes ahead and asks. It serves as a good way for her to feel good about getting her point across pretty much just as she means it. She also has a tendency to catch “me too” disease and have to go really badly immediately after someone else asks to “use it.” So I typically, despite the aforementioned warning about her accidents, don’t let her go. It had been nearly four weeks of class yesterday, and she hadn’t lost it on me yet. So when she asked, I knocked on wood and asked her to please sit down.
I barely noticed her doing the “I’ve really gotta go” dance at her desk. The bathroom boogie is a common occurrence in room 302 and I’ve learned to mostly take no notice of it. So when “Amani,” who is something of a-for lack of a better word- mush mouth, especially when she’s excited and speaking to quickly, urgently raised her hand and nearly yelled something to the effect of “Misbah Mobae, Debibah fibba haba dassiden,” it was not immediately clear to me what she meant. Her insistent gestures guided my attention to Delilah, who was now boogieing so frantically that it looked like she might actually be able to take her entire desk to the bathroom that way, remaining seated all the time. I addressed my investigative questions to Amani. “What?” I asked.
“Debibah fibba haba dassiden!” she repeated frantically. This time I gathered that she was warning me that Delilah was about to “have an accident.” So I did the only appropriate thing for a new teacher to do in that situation. I froze. I stared at Delilah and watched her do the toilet two-step for a moment. I tried to make eye contact with her to get confirmation of emergency status. She wouldn’t look back at me. “I tin she didi,” said Amani matter-of-factly. I hoped she was wrong and reluctantly gave up my momentum with the rest of the class to focus on Delilah’s personal needs.
“Delilah,” I asked, “do you need to go to the bathroom?” She still wouldn’t look at me. At this point I began suspecting why she wouldn’t look at me. “Oh no,” I thought, teacher instincts going wild inside me, “She won’t look at me because she’s ashamed that she’s just peed her pants. It’s allmy fault for not letting her go. They said she had accidents. I don’t wanna clean up an accident. Is that my job? Where’s the nurse?” Delilah having still not looked up, “Charlene,” who long ago appointed herself Delilah’s official translator/ spokeswoman took over.
“Delilah, you need them clothes outta your backpack?” asked Charlene, revealing a detail about the contents of Delilah’s bag of which I had to that point been unaware. “Do you need to go change?” Delilah, however, would not even respond to her most trusted advisor (and occasional co-conspirator). She stared directly down at her desk, hands in tight fists rubbing up and down the area of her pants directly above her bladder. While Charlene continued to try coaxing a reply out of Delilah, I took greater notice of the situation. It did not appear that Delilah had in fact wet herself. What parts of her lower body I could see showed no evidence. There was certainly no smell. And her incessant wiggling and rocking made it look an awful lot like the still had to go to the bathroom. Charlene, the spokeswoman, in a very authoritative “no questions please” move, completely ignored me and began to get out of her desk, repeating her question about the clothes in the backpack. Delilah still wouldn’t look at either of us. I told Charlene to sit down and began to walk toward Delilah, knowing I would have to commandeer her attention if I was ever to get to the bottom of this.
By this time my other students had become quite excited by the prospect of Delilah having wet herself. Amanda was still yelling incomprehensibly. “Jermaine” was acting- emphasis on acting- as grossed out as he could, muttering things about “retarded” people. “Montel,” ever the helpful young man, was telling me calmly and with mild bemusement, “I think she peed herself, Mr. M. She usta do this last yer.” Most of the other students were just making their trademark, all-purpose “I’m upset by something” noise. The noise is of course impossible to reproduce with a keyboard, but if you can imagine someone feeling really grossed out, offended, in pain, and oppressed at the same time, you might have a rough approximation of how they sound. That is if you imagine it being in the comically high-pitched voice of an 11-year old: “Uuuuuuhhhhh.”
But there was little I could do about the other students at the time. I had to deal with the possibility of Delilah having wet herself. I’m not sure how, but Charlene and I managed to get her to pick her head up and admit that she needed to go to the bathroom. Eventually she stood up and I could get a good look at her lower body. I certainly didn’t see any evidence of an accident, but the insistence of the other students (particularly Charlene, who was making sure Delilah took her backpack to the bathroom with her) that she had in fact had one had me pretty convinced. So I asked her, “Delilah, did you have an accident?” She responded with a confused stare and went about opening her backpack. At this point I think she had become overwhelmed with all of the attention on her and was just concentrating on performing the simple tasks she felt were being asked of her. The open backpack was probably a response to Charlene’s yelling right in her ear about it. Delilah certainly didn’t seem to fully understand why she had it out and/or open. She also seemed very confused as to why she was standing up, bringing her backpack, and heading to the restroom.
But along she came, me the whole time asking her over and over again if she had had an accident, her giving no response beyond a confused stare and the odd unintelligible sound. We walked across the hall to the girl’s restroom- quite a pair I’m sure. Her backpack was unzipped and dragging along behind her on its long-since broken wheels. Her mouth hung open as it tends to do no matter what, mine hung open in disbelief at the utter confusion of the situation. I kept asking if she had an accident, if she needed to go change clothes. She kept failing to respond usefully. Finally we made it to the bathroom. “Okay,” I said, go ahead and go in. “Do you need to change clothes?” She looked at me and continued to walk into the bathroom with her backpack. “Go to the bathroom if you need to,” I said as she went into a stall and closed the door.
By this time chaos had broken out back at the room which had, or course, been a vacuum of supervision for a number of minutes. So I ran back and did my best to calm down the riled up class. But it was not to be. The mention of urine outside the body or the toilet had them all atwitter. I futilely reminded them to be quiet, gave up and rushed back to check on Delilah. “Are you okay, Delilah?” I yelled into the bathroom.
“ə,” she replied, one of her unintelligible schwa syllables. She didn’t sound distressed so I decided not to worry too much. Eventually that calculation was proven right as she emerged looking none the worse for the wear. Most importantly, however, she was wearing the same pants she had entered the stall with. She came out of the stall and gave me the same, confused stare she had been sporting before she walked into restroom. It was somehow less distressing to me as a teacher this time, however, as it was no longer accompanied by the “I gotta use it” dance. But it was also somehow funnier. I began to have trouble holding in my giggles. “What exactly were we all worked up about again?” she seemed to be asking. “Shouldn’t I be learning or something?” And to see her standing there in the bathroom, a girl with Down syndrome, cute as hell, her backpack (still full of clean clothes) beside her, mouth agape, putting things in perspective, made me feel quite silly. I couldn’t help but reflect on what exactly the hell I was doing there, what she was doing there, or who had convinced both of us that she needed to take her backpack to the restroom immediately. We stood like that for moment longer, me soaking up the silliness of the moment, her just waiting for me to give her a cue.
At some point I snapped out of it, felt comfortable that she had not, in fact, had an accident, and walked her back to the classroom. The disaster having been averted, class resumed. We went on with our day. But that moment of silliness had somehow put a few things in perspective.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This had me in tears too - laughing.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous JP said...

PM, I thought you were supposed to be writing about your TFA experiences, not Saturday nights in AA after I'd had a few too many. Really, you should consult me before you post stuff about when I'm less than at my best.

7:54 PM  
Anonymous pwall said...

Damnit, you dont expect too much from UM football but its hard to stomach a 2-2 start. Inujuries have sidelined our key players but for the love of crimeny can't someone pick up the slack? Now what? are we going to lose to MSU? Something must be done. We are certainly the better team!

11:55 PM  

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