Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Adam's Story

“Be thankful for what you have. Your life, no matter how bad you think it is, is someone else's fairy tale.”  

Wale Ayeni

I want to tell you a story. It is about a student in one of my Special Education classes. One of the sweetest, most sensitive, and most humble students I've ever taught: Adam*

My story with this boy started back in November during parent teacher interviews. His dad, who had not made an appointment, showed up at my door, insisting that I give him just five minutes of my packed schedule. I conceded and ushered him in. Before he even sat down, he began telling me why it was so important we spoke. He told me that Adam's 18-month-old baby sister was undergoing treatment for a rare form of cancer. Knowing what I know, I asked him if it was Neuroblastoma. He nodded sadly. He then went on to tell me that the good news was that she seems to be in remission. The not-so-good news was that the cancer and subsequent chemotherapy had affected her spinal column and at this point, they weren't sure if she'd ever be able to walk. And to complicate matters even more, because their family is fairly new to Canada, the Dad needs to work full time and the Mom has to go to the doctor appointments without him. And to make matters even worse, the mom doesn't speak English so Adam must go with his mom to the doctor to translate. He told me he was telling me all of this not so that I would feel sorry for them or to give Adam special treatment, but so that I could understand why Adam sometimes has to miss school. Or why there's no one at home to help Adam with his homework. Or why Adam may be upset some times. We agreed that if Adam ever needed help, he could stay after school with me or come in early.

After that conversation, nothing much changed. Once in a while, Adam did come for extra help, but for the most part, he was doing ok.

Until one day a couple months ago, out of nowhere, Adam began to really act up. He wasn't co-operating with his group during a project, was being mean to his best friends, and talking back to me. I threatened him with detention and he responded by telling me that he'd gladly stay for detention; that it was better than going home.

After the final bell rang, I kept Adam back, questioning him about why he didn't want to go home. At first, he was reluctant to tell me. As a teacher, when a child doesn't want to go home and won't tell me why, this causes my spider-sense to tingle and I feel that I can't, in good conscience, send that child home until I know he's safe. When I finally convinced Adam to tell me what he was so upset about, I was relieved to find out that he was safe and loved and well taken-care of. But at the same time, I cried along with him as he told me that the reason he didn't want to go home wass because his little sister kept trying to walk but her body just can't and she doesn't understand that she won't be able to walk and that just made him so sad that he couldn't bear to be around her. He told me that it just isn't fair that someone as young and sweet as her could have to go through all that she's going through. He didn't understand why so many bad things had to happen to her, while other people just walk around all day without understanding how lucky they are.

After he had a good cry, he left my classroom, feeling better enough to go home.

From that day on, I looked at Adam in a new light. I looked at him as an old soul, wise and kind way beyond his years.

But apparently all that I knew about Adam, his life, and his soul was just the tip of the iceberg.

Fast-forward to today: public speaking presentations. We've been working on their speeches for weeks, but for some reason, Adam just couldn't get his done. He kept deleting and starting over and just generally futzing around instead of writing his speech. The topic was supposed to be, "If I could tell 1 million people to do one small thing to make the world a better place, it would be to..." but since Adam just couldn't decide on a topic, I told him he could speak about anything he wanted, he could even just tell a story about his life. But still...nothing. He told me that he didn't care; that when it came time for him to speak, he'd just get up there and say something.

And that's just what he did. He was really scared so I let him go last. He started to speak,

"I want to tell you about the first day I came to Canada..."

And then he stopped. He was scared to go on. He asked if the class could put their heads down so they weren't looking at him. So he wouldn't have to look at them as he told us his story. Because they are the sweetest, kindest class ever, not one person spoke. They just all put their heads down, ready to listen.

Adam started again, "I want to tell you about the first day I came to Canada."

He went on to tell us about how he came to Canada when he was eight years old. He had never been to school before and didn't speak a single word of English. He was terrified and confused and lonely. But his Dad worked with him every night and soon, he learned how to speak and read and make friends and be happy again.  He discovered that he loved drawing and was pretty good at it and decided he wanted a job that would let him draw. He told us that his dream was to become an architect. And this was his dream for a long time. But then something happened and he had to give up his dream because other people wanted him to do something else. Because he had to help people. He said that he had to give up his dream because he had to become a doctor so he could help his sister.

And then he pulled the collar of his shirt over his mouth, started to cry, and sat down.

And so did I. 

The class was silent for a little while. And then someone said something that made us laugh-I don't remember what-and then we moved onto something else.

During speeches, the students are asked to take notes on each other's speeches; write one positive comment and one piece of "constructive criticism". Here's what they said about Adam's speech:

Good speech. Made me think a lot.
Positive Attitude. Nice Story.
I just loved it. I don't have no bad compliments.

After class, I went to the office to look at Adam's file. I had always known that he was a new Canadian, but beyond the Special Education paperwork, I really hadn't ever taken the time to really read about this kid. Today I did. I found out that the reason he hadn't been to school prior to the age of eight was because he spent most of his life being shuffled between two war-torn countries, most likely in refugee camps.

Adam may have thought that he wasn't able to write a speech about what he wants us to do to make the world a better place, but he did. Adam taught me, and everyone else in the classroom today, to appreciate our lives. Our messy and chaotic, yet remarkably fortunate lives.

*Obviously, this isn't his real name.

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