“How was school today?” I asked my youngest daughter as she walked in the door.
The sad look on her face and in her eyes gave me the answer before she spoke these words: “Why doesn’t anyone want to be my friend?”
After two years in our small town we had begun to know a few people. Yet even though Amee had already spent those years with the same group of students no one from her class chose to get to know her and become her friend. Amee walked to and from school alone. She played alone at recess and ate alone at lunch since no one in her class wanted her around. No one picked her to be on their team in gym class or for class projects. There were no after-school homework groups or fun times, no birthday party invitations, no sleepovers with the girls, no one to whisper secrets and dreams to. Her classmates simply excluded her.
She just wanted to be accepted, to belong to a group, to have some friends. In her loneliness she begged me to talk to the teacher. “Mom, help them understand why I need help. Tell them I just want to be friends. I try my best.”
Thinking Amee had a great idea I talked to the teacher but her reply made us sad.
“No, we don’t need to tell the students anything about her disabilities. You know how mean children can be. This will only single her out.”
Then, some of the girls began yelling at her to quit staring at them. They didn’t realize the staring indicated that Amee was having an absence spell seizure and not simply staring to be rude. Some of her classmates tried to push her aside so they could spend time with her teacher assistant. Occasionally some of the girls said mean things that hurt her feelings and once they even pushed her. Each day my daughter came home sad. She became so frustrated she did not want to go to school anymore. She begged me to talk to the teacher again. I did but the teacher refused to change her mind. No matter how sad and hurt Amee felt, she continued to treat her classmates kindly, even the ones who tormented her, hoping they would become her friends.
Finally, school finished for the summer. The holiday meant visits to her older sisters, which she looked forward to. Summer holidays meant time with grandma and grandpa whom she loved very much. This summer meant being a junior attendant at her oldest sister’s wedding. This summer meant time away from those who chose to exclude her, tease her and hurt her.
As summer drew to a close and the start of school drew closer Amee began to beg, “Mom, please talk to the new teacher. Maybe she’ll let you talk to the kids. They’ll all be the same. I don’t know why they don’t like me. Tell them why I sometimes stare. Tell them why I need help. If you help them understand, maybe they’ll be my friends this year.”
It hurt to see her so fearful about the new school year. This year’s teacher agreed to let me talk to both grade six classrooms during health class. I planned my presentation. I checked with Amee to see what she thought. She smiled, hoping this year would bring friendships and fun. She remained convinced that a talk to the class would change everything.
On the day of the presentation, Amee’s lopsided ponytail bounced as she rushed to school with a smile on her face. Later that morning I gave my talk to the students. “Put the hand you use all the time on your desk.” Once every student had one hand on the desk I continued. “Now put that hand in your lap or behind your back. You can’t use it for the rest of the class no matter what you have to do.”
They had fun trying to print and then write their names. I assigned the second task and stood back to watch the students problem-solve their way through tying shoelaces. Some students began working in pairs to have two hands available for the job. Some attempted it on their own and frustration soon showed on their faces and in their actions. Finally one boy put up his hand and said, “I can’t do this with one hand. I need help.”
The rest of his classmates nodded in agreement.
I began to simply explain brain injury, cerebral palsy and epilepsy to the class. I personalized all the information by sharing Amee’s story. Cerebral palsy affected her right side especially her hand and arm. The hand and arm would not work the way their hands worked but her leg functioned well enough to allow her to run races with Special Olympics. I explained the small absence spell seizures that mimicked staring and how medication did not always work as well as it should. Brain damage due to the stroke she suffered at birth caused both these conditions, as well as learning disabilities, which meant she needed more time and lots of repetition and help to learn simple lessons.
I ended with an object lesson especially for the girls in the class. I asked them to put their hair in a ponytail with only one hand and then change their earrings. The girls looked at me and then at the very crooked ponytail Amee had accomplished on her own. One girl shouted, “So that’s why her ponytail is always messy.”
Another girl said, “That’s not fair. She’s had lots of practice. We’ve never tried that.”
I smiled as I watched awareness show in the faces of her classmates. Maybe this new understanding would make a difference in attitudes and actions. Maybe Amee’s idea would work.
Changes began to take place. Some of her classmates asked her to be in their group for class projects. Some included her at recess and noon hours. They quit yelling about her staring and began to acknowledge her need for a teacher assistant. They excitedly cheered for her when she ran her races with Special Olympics and helped celebrate her abilities.
Total change takes time. Amee still walked home alone after school. No birthday invitations or sleepover invitations arrived. But knowledge provided more understanding. Meanness and exclusion decreased during the school day. Amee started to feel like she belonged and enjoyed going to school. She remained convinced that friendships would follow.
C. E. H.