The teacher I was replacing was careful to deliver extensive instructions about one little girl with significant problems. She and her family had spent two years in a refugee camp, she spoke no English, had never attended school and had the habit of biting those who conflicted with her.
As I asked questions about the rest of the class, I assured the teacher that we would have everything under control and I anticipated no problems. She smiled, either at my confidence or at the expectation of what was to come.
The little girl, Irma, was easily identified. Her support system, a wonderful little girl whom I’ll call Iris, was holding her hand and issuing a stream of directions. For the first hour, Irma roamed the classroom, unable to communicate and determined to do whatever she wanted to do.
After a while, Iris began working on her netbook and Irma busied herself drawing on an easel chart. Without warning or my asking, two other little girls (these are all second graders) jumped up and began working with Irma. They were patient, encouraging and enabling with everything that Irma wanted to do. At least three other classmates participated in guiding Irma toward those activities that wouldn’t be harmful.
My primary role was observer. On several occasions, I quietly suggested to my two assistants that they refrain from saying “no” to Irma when possible. With her compromised verbal skills and complete alienation, I explained that Irma heard more “no” commands than any others, that she needed to learn behavior that would issue a “yes.”
They understood immediately and remained at her side until we left the classroom for another activity. For the rest of the day, Irma was elsewhere and my two girls proceeded with their days. Because they weren’t asked to help, they sought no thanks. But I reflected that most our educational guidelines were superseded by a dose of love, attention and unselfish kindness. Shalom.