Sunday, February 09, 2014


A few weeks ago, one of the special ed teachers visited me in my office and introduced himself. He had a student interested in trying choir, and he wanted to know if I'd be willing to give the boy a chance

"Absolutely!" I replied, immediately.

I am always willing to give any student a chance to sing. Music is good for everyone, and I have known many students with many different ability levels who have found joy in being in a music group at school. I had no idea what limitations my new student might have, but I was happy to take him into choir and give him a chance.

On his first day, I found that David (obviously, not his real name), could match pitch...but I also found that he does not have the same attention span as his classmates, and in the ensuing couple of weeks, I've discovered that it takes a lot of patience to make him part of choir.

Sometimes even pausing and counting to ten.

When people find out I teach, they often say, "Oh, I could never have the patience for that!" It seems they think I'm some sort of saint...I'm really not. I just have an ability to swallow the sarcastic retorts and the outraged reactions and stare levelly at a student when the occasion calls for it. Fortunately, in my current gig, there's not a lot of need for that--the worst I have to do is stop, sigh loudly, roll my eyes and say, "Okay, Great, we're all together again" and move on with my lesson. I've yelled at my students this year exactly one time--the day of our first concert, as the excited chatter started just as I opened my mouth to give feedback, I opened my mouth and hollered, "FOCUS!!" It did the trick.

Then a student like David comes in and I find myself needing a new kind of patience, for a student who is significantly different than his peers in many ways. He's a sweet kid, very eager to please, but he also needs more attention than most teenagers. It can be hard for me, trying to keep my train of thought going, when a voice pipes up to my immediate left (he's still not comfortable sitting with the guys in choir, preferring to be right next to me at the piano) asking when lunch is, or if he can go to the bathroom, or when we're going to sing this song or that song. But I'm getting there.

I know, too, that my attitude and my ability to remain patient with him will influence the rest of the class, who have been watching our newest singer with some dismay. So yesterday, I invited one of our assistant principals in to speak to my kids about David--nothing confidential, of course. He told them how we're helping David learn how to behave, how to assimilate. He told them he's proud of them for being willing to take David under their wings a little. They visibly puffed up with pride, and when David came back a few minutes later (he'd been "called up to the office" for the duration), I noticed they were gentler towards him, a little less exasperated. I know I can count on them to be really great with him as we all learn how to help him find success in a mainstream class.

Over the last few weeks, the older choir students who've been around for a while have been acting as "buddies" to new singers, giving them little gifts (candy, cute school stuff, maybe a stuffed animal or some such thing) every Friday. It's been great fun. Because David joined later, he missed the first few, and last week, I had a very loud, "Oh, shit!!" moment in my office when I realized he'd be left out that day. So I found some fun stuff in my stash--pencils in our school colors, a lot of candy--and put them in a fun gift bag. David got a buddy gift, and it made him happy. We told him there was one more week of gifts, and he'd get one more gift. "Excited" isn't the right word--it doesn't convey how ready he was to get another buddy gift. Because my students all had buddies assigned already, I told my choir president I'd buy him a buddy gift, if one of them could pretend to be his buddy during the big reveal on Friday. "Oh, I'll do it!" she replied.

I've just come off a busy, somewhat stressful week, so on Thursday, tired, rushed, and a little cranky, I wandered the aisles of Target muttering under my breath and wondering just what kind of buddy gift to give him--the gifts are not expensive, but I wanted it to be something he'd find fun. I bought some candy and perused the school supplies. I found a pack of pencils that came with three erasers--two were little golf club heads you can attach to the pencils, the third a tiny golf ball. I put them in my cart, hoping he'd enjoy them, and found a little monkey with a super hero cape and mask that screams when you slingshot it across the room, as well. Sufficiently armed, I shot off to teach some piano lessons.

David was visibly excited on Friday, and asked me--more than once--if we'd be doing buddy gifts. "Yes, at the end of the period. We have to sing first," I explained. He was okay with that, but he was also bouncing in his chair.

When the time came, gifts were passed out, and I couldn't see David's reaction to his haul. After the overall excitement wore off, I found him, sitting on the floor, tearing into the golf club pencils and excitedly trying them out. I wandered over and asked, "What did you get?"

"You can play golf with these!" he exclaimed, as he started hitting the little ball. It hit my foot, so I gently nudged it back to him. I asked what else he'd received, but he was too busy golfing all over my choir room floor to show off.

So I stood there, watching this young man, who is really just a boy compared to his peers, smiling at his excitement and noticing--with pride--as a few of his classmates asked him about his gift, smiled at him, and said, "That's really cool, David!"

I know, with a bit of time and a lot of patience, we can make him part of our choir.

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