Teaching the Invisible

     A number of weeks ago I had to submit a writing sample with a job application. This is what I entered. For many years, I have talked about “invisible children,” little ones all around me who I can see, but I have struggled with why the system can’t see them, why their families can’t see them, why they can’t see themselves. Often I can see other teachers who struggle with this gift of sight and I know that it is the cause of the deepest heartache of teaching. The following is a look at some of the many children I’ve seen, children others have seen, and children I have yet to see. She may look more like one than another, facing a certain brand of nightmare, but she is the every man, the every child who faces invisibility. To some of you this may read as fiction, designed to illicit a bogus emotional response, but I trust that to those who have the sight, this will be an outline of your daily life.

    One of the best weeks in Kate’s preschool class was superhero week. It gave the children a chance to hear stories about powerful people, or about kids just like themselves who became special and powerful and could conquer anything put in front of them. They learned about how good guys were interested in upholding the rules, and they saw that they could easily be a good guy by using walking feet and helping a friend clean up a mess. They dressed up in costumes and role played created scenarios where they were the victors, the champions, the winners.

     The most revealing moment of superhero week, however, was a reader response art paper she created. Across the top it read “If I could have any superpower, I would have the power to….” The children would create a world for themselves when they could shoot ice or control dinosaurs who would defend them, a world where they could fly or turn into an animal. There would some who would answer with the same power as the friend next to them and others who would simply choose a superpower from the list of suggestions she provided. More often than not she could see what power those children really wanted, but couldn’t put into words. It was invisibility.

     Children walked through Kate’s classroom year after year seeking invisibility and at only 4 or 5 years of age, most had not learned to disguise this desire, or to remake it into the appearance of trying to fit in.

       Leona had come to her, nonverbal with behavioral concerns and social limitations. She was still learning toileting skills and needed adult assistance. It was an experience which led to natural bonding as she had to be cared for at her most vulnerable and trust the person meeting her needs. Oh, as a teacher she could use other methods of facilitated communication and work to teach her sign language. She could partner with the speech therapist so she could continue to encourage the development of her verbal skills. She was able to use any number of the methods and techniques she’d learned in trainings and classes. Leona did begin to speak, short bursts, one or two words together, requests for her favorite doll, or to declare her intention, her desire “GET UP!” when asked to sit down. However, no amount of training or education would make Leona communicate purposefully if there had been no connection with whom she spoke. The vulnerable moments created a desire to listen and to be heard.

       One afternoon, concern was raised, marks were noticed during the change from a soiled diaper. “Oh my, this looks like a bad booboo.” She swallowed hard and dug herself deep into her training. This was not a bad diaper rash, she was certain, because she’d spent hours in daily health and first aid and medical administration trainings. These were not bruises caused from natural play. But from her child abuse and neglect training she was as ready as she could be for a conversation. Don’t suggest what happened. Don’t coerce. Ask, don’t demand confidence. “How did you get that boo boo?” Kate asked, with a light and friendly tone, suppressing any indication of what she suspected. Leona giggled and chirped “Daddy!”

      Most people around town knew that Leona’s mother was a single parent who had gone through the school’s special education program and was now on her own living on disability. They clucked their tongues and sighed, but did not offer any practical assistance. She had been guided into Head Start because she herself had gone through the program nearly 2 decades before. It was through home visits by the teachers and meetings with the family service advocate that some red flags were raised. Leona was obviously hispanic. Leona’s mother was obviously not. There were pictures on the walls of the house of a family of 4, but all paperwork indicated a family of three. A conversation with another parent whose husband was going through the process of gaining citizenship alluded to the father who lived in the home but was not in the country legally, a man who was from this other father’s home country in Latin America. Mom continued to insist, however, that she was alone, no man, no family support. There was no Daddy in the picture she showed the county.

      There were concerns, but none that drew their pictures so obviously like the purple ovals there on her inner thighs. Kate thought she should try one more time to find some way to break through Leona’s verbal barrier. “Who is Daddy?” she asked. “Daddy!” Leona chirped again. Kate continued “What did Daddy say about your boo boo?” Leona giggled and began to rock. She put her finger over her lips and began to shush over and over. “Shhh. Shhhh. Shhh.”

      Kate was a mandated reporter. Kate did what she was legally and ethically obligated to do. If she is concerned that a child is being abused, she has to report. She requested that she be followed up with, or that someone follow up with Head Start. Then Leona stopped coming to class. A week went by and she was still absent. The FSA called as was the guideline, to call whenever any student was absent for more than 4 days.

     No response.

     When Leona returned the following week, the bus driver walked her into the classroom and announced “She’s having a rough one today.” She ran about the classroom all morning, knocking things down, pulling other student’s hair, spitting on the floor and laughing. Kate leaned down to speak to her, to remind her to have a calm, quiet body. Leona paused, smiled and made good eye contact with Kate. Then she slapped her across the face. Kate arranged coverage for her room and asked to take a few minutes out of the room to compose herself and speak with the FSA.

  When she entered the advocate’s office, she was setting down the phone. Dianne, Leona’s FSA, turned and let Kate know that CPS had investigated. They found no evidence of abuse and had also commented that while there had been expressed concern about a man living in the home, CPS had shared that there was no evidence that a man lived in the house. Kate was dumbfounded. She knew there had been other reports regarding Leona, reports in the past about concerns about abuse and neglect. She knew those pictures were on the wall. She’d seen the family at Walmart one afternoon and saw Leona in the cart with her baby sister and heard the man with them, speaking to the girls, refer to himself as Papi. She knew something was wrong, but she knew, professionally, she must teach each child without bias, serve each family unhindered by prejudice.

   She thanked Dianne and returned to the classroom. Leona was flinging toys and screaming unintelligibly, while other children kept their distance on the other side of the room. The teacher who had stood in for Kate explained that she didn’t know what was wrong with Leona, that after Kate had left she just lost it.

      Kate’s cheek had barely lost its sting from Leona’s well aimed attack, but Kate approached anyway. She came from behind her and sat down on a child sized couch. She put her arms loosely about Leona’s waist and encouraged her to sit with her. Leona sat down at first onto Kate’s lap like a chair, but arching her back she began to throw herself against Kate.

       She feels invisible, Kate thought. She is invisible.

      “Leona! Leona!” Kate called her name, slightly louder than the quaking girl’s cries, but with a soft kind tone. “Leona!” she called again and though her body still thrashed Leona quieted. “Leona, I see you. Leona, I hear you. I see that you’re upset. I hear your crying. Leona, Miss Kate sees you.”

      Leona shrank, her movements becoming less erratic, her knees pulling into her chest, her face turning towards Kate. “I see you. I hear you.” Kate repeated this, like a mantra, “I see you. I hear you.”

     What could Kate do? Kate saw this invisible child, a child in a situation that the people who could make a difference did not see. What could she do to help her? Give her language, Kate heard in her heart. Teach her to speak, so she may speak for herself. Teach her how to make herself be seen. Continue to look at Leona and see her for who she was trying to show herself to be. Fight the urge to feel like only a set of eyes who can view, a body without hands or feet to put action to the observations.

        Fight to make this child, and the next child, visible.

*Image Credit: Laura Williams; Scientific American;  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/these-5-illusions-turn-ordinary-humans-into-superheroes/

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