James was hard to find. Sometimes in the closet, periodically in the hall, randomly in the washroom… and often under my desk. James knew all the quiet spots. Spots away from those annoying peers who liked to talk, spots away from the prying eyes of supervisors, and spots away from pencils.
The first few days in my grade 5 classroom I would scan the room to take attendance. After the first two days I knew to look around to ensure James was on the premises. His previous well-meaning teachers advised me that he was just a weak kid with social anxieties and to just do my best to get him through. That was not on my ‘to do’ list. I wanted to inspire learners! Ignite fires and feed them books to keep their paths lit on their journeys through life.
Hmm, by week three I was feeling that the fire I aspired to set was being washed away by rivers of fear secreting the firewood away into dark thickets. It is a difficult thing to undo a core belief that one simply ‘does not fit’. The trail is lined with obstacles and webs are strung between strong poplars. I trekked on, through, over, until one day I sat beneath my desk.
James was also under the desk, just sitting. He had stopped hiding outside the classroom after day three when he announced that I was “not scary!” From that day until the desk (rather under desk) meeting James would conceal himself on shelves, in the cupboard, behind my desk, and sometimes lying under the chalkboard ledge. We had to find a way to make this more successful.
On the morning of our desk meeting, James greeted me cheerfully with his crooked grin as he watched me climb over the footrest and join him under my rather large double pedestal. I sat with him calmly and then began to tell him about my favourite books. I am a reader; books were and remain my saving place. I could not at that moment think of anything profound to say and so I spoke about what I loved. James listened intently. He became animated asking me about different topics and he seemed thrilled that I was a history fan. Now at this point in the class James had not been observed reading, looking for books, or even skimming the multiple titles suggested to him. But in the quiet and shadowed underbelly of my desk I discovered a reader. James read! He read a lot and he read mature novels. James reveled in the written word. I thank God for an amazing group of students that day. Students who just seemed to understand that someone needed my attention and who were willing to provide the time it required.
The following day when I looked for James he was not in his desk. I peered under my desk and found his grin peeking back at me. I left him there. He began to participate in activities, follow instruction, and demonstrate growth after skill building! I designed a personal program to address deficits but to also springboard off James’ vast knowledge and interest areas. James regularly worked under my desk. It was a haven safe and secure in a world of unknowns.
I referred James for assessment before the end of October. I met with his parents along with the school based team to discuss his strengths and weaknesses. Everyone had something to say about James’ weaknesses but I was more interested in his strengths. I believed James was above average; gifted. His parents laughed at the suggestion and signed the paperwork for assessment. They weren’t laughing when we all met with the psychologist following multiple meetings to complete the process. Parents can also be victims of social expectations, peer pressure, and bullying. A child that hides must have problems, right?
James was identified as highly gifted with a significant writing and spelling disability. I was elated for James. His parents were really lovely caring people who wanted their son to be successful. They didn’t mean to feel embarrassed by his strange behaviour but endless snickers and stinging comments from friends and family had left them wondering and sensitive.
James shone in his year with me, grew in skill, and developed coping strategies to bolster both social and academic abilities. His amazing gifts were embraced by his classmates and celebrated during discussions. They had been unaware of his interests and his humour. Peers clamoured for his attention away from the hiding spots which beckoned James less and less. He was full of ideas for stories and would design extravagant playground games based on living in space.
The following year I was the director of the Gifted Education program. James was first on my list. Included in the group was a six-year-old math genius, a 13-year-old language buff, and James. They were all space fans. Together they designed a space centre and presented their creation to a College professor. The professor was astounded at the depth of knowledge, research, and understanding of galactic travel the students had demonstrated. He felt they had developed a feasible plan. Wow! The positive response and acknowledgement of hard work and innovative thinking was surprising to James most of all!
In the regular classroom James was struggling. His teacher in grade six did not believe in differentiating or in allowing tech devices (I recommended the provision of a laptop so James could get his ideas down without the restrictions of his writing disability and a calculator for basic facts). He was failing math despite exhibiting advanced problem solving and critical evaluation of complex data. His teacher informed me that because James did not know his times tables by heart he would not pass. Ahhhhhh. I was so frustrated. The principal worked with me that year to re-educate the teacher. It was at James’ expense. The following year I kept James in my program almost exclusively to allow him time to learn and grow with individualized curriculum and alternative learning opportunities.
James ignited the fire in me to fight for individualized student programming. My peers often call out “I know! Differentiate” as I approach them. I am passionate about student success. I am vocal about the need for implementing varied instructional strategies and employing alternative work spaces. I have seen James many times since he left the school. His mom and I are friends on Facebook and James and I have shared stories with laughter. He is a creative and successful adult. He is still what many describe as ‘alternative’. I just remember an incredible person with surprising insights who taught me that sometimes learning under desks (or in closets or behind chart stands) is an amazing place to begin explorations, treks, and travels!
Names changed to protect privacy.
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