Letters to Mr. Goss

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This is the story of how scores of students rallied in support of their former High School teacher, who was also very ill, because we wanted him to know much we appreciated the positive influence he had on our lives. Turns out we did so just in time.

I had the privilege of being in Mr. Goss’s class during my Senior year of High School. He was one of those amazing teachers that got students excited about learning and about life, despite his occasionally crusty exterior. We appreciated his energy and passion and his unique view of the world. We loved the fact that he could teach with equal levels of earnestness the symbolism of not only Dante’s Inferno but also Dr. Seuss. In his class we examined the literary devices used in the book of Job, and had a spirited debate on how to define “Quality” after reading the book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” He encouraged us to think deeply and differently, and despite his tendency to crack some truly corny jokes he was a gifted storyteller.

Mr. Goss left a lasting positive impression on me, despite the fact that my constant disorganization frustrated him. Almost twenty years later, when I first started trying to write again, he was on my mind a lot. I wanted to reach out to him to say thank you and tell him that he had a huge influence on my writing style and self-confidence. Around that time a number of former classmates began to reconnect on social media and the name Mr. Goss came up often. He was described as, “My favorite teacher,” “The best thing to happen to English,” “My inspiration for becoming a writer/teacher,” and “The only person I felt I could talk to.” Many students stated that he made a huge difference in their lives, and that they still remembered the things he taught them. One student wrote, “He was just one of the coolest teachers I think I’ve ever known. Even when it wasn’t about English or Literature, he was teaching about so many things.” Another said, “We LOVED Mr. Goss!! Who else could discuss how important it is to have your glass of milk so cold it almost hurts? Or read Dr. Seuss’ ‘Are You My Mother?’ to you and put it on your senior English exam?”

All those kind words were said on social media, however. I wondered if Mr. Goss himself knew how important he was to all of us.

I had heard whispers that our former teacher may be ill. Continue reading

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In a Nation (and world) Divided, Kindness Matters

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The country in which I live is reeling from an unprecedented and divisive Presidential election. Are we going to drown in the wake of hatred that threatens to overcome our land? I beg you to be kind to one another. Now, maybe more than ever, we desperately need it.

There are people in the United States and beyond who are hurting and afraid. This includes religious and ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, or even anyone who has felt different or mocked or had their rights oppressed. Many of them are feeling vulnerable, and those feelings should not be dismissed. Even if your vote was different from theirs I would encourage you to treat them with compassion and respect and make an attempt to understand their concerns.

When the pinnacle of a country’s power is attained by a person who openly acts unkind (I can make a list of examples, I just choose not to) it makes you wonder if the people in that country value kindness. For any of us who have ever been discriminated against or felt “other”-ed by those with power, it makes us sad and uncomfortable.

We are not just afraid because of who won the election, we are also afraid of how we will be treated by those we encounter in day-to-day life. Judging by accounts I have read it is apparent those fears are valid.

Story after story has emerged of individuals being subjected to hateful treatment by their fellow human beings, and it began even before the final votes were tallied.

Earlier in the week a young man in a wheelchair attended a Trump rally to protest, saying “I wanted to go because Donald J. Trump made fun of disabled people.” The Washington Post reports that as he and his Mother were escorted out, “Trump supporters near them started pushing her son’s wheelchair, and calling her a ‘child abuser’ and telling others to ‘grab her p—y’.”

As a mother and a member of the disability community this horrifies me. Did his choice to exercise his right to make a peaceful protest warrant such treatment?

Stories are pouring in. They run the gamut of intensity from snide, insulting comments, all the way to physical violence and destruction of property. Many of the stories are directly connected to people I know or their friends.

A friend of my sister shared that the day of the election one of her children’s black classmates was asked by another student, “Are you packed yet?”

Jennifer Boyle, an extended family member who teaches in a Denver public school, shared this disturbing encounter endured by one of her students:

“A, a 16 year-old black female, told me she was spit on this morning by a white male Trump supporter on her walk to school. After he spit on her he ripped the Hillary sticker off her backpack. No bystander, of which there were many, intervened”.

Jennifer also wrote of the myriad of emotions experienced by her students the morning after the election: Continue reading

See Different, Be Different: Thoughts on Neurodiversity and More

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I was recently asked to speak at at Autism Awareness Month event that was held by the exceptional education department of our local school system, and the audience was parents of autistic children. This is the transcript from that event, and is basically most of what I want to say about autism and neurodiversity all crammed into one post. But first some disclaimers: I am not perfect, I screw up all the time, and am still fumbling my way through this parenting thing.

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I am also not an “expert,” nor am I Autistic, although I am neurodivergent. I am a mom and an advocate and a writer,  and I learn through experience, by asking a lot of questions, and by doing a lot of research.

My perspective may also be different than yours, but one thing I have learned along this journey is to not devalue someone else’s opinion just because their situation isn’t the same as my own. We should be open to considering one another’s viewpoints. We also should avoid the danger of turning this into a competition of whose struggles are worse, and unfortunately we have all seen that happen.

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(Image is inspired by the post “20 Things That Parenting a Child With Special Needs has Taught Me About Life in General.”)

We ourselves may have fallen prey to the dangers of comparison, by saying things like, “Well, at least your child can…”, or “You don’t know what it’s like to…” Friends, let me warn you that kind of thinking is a trap. Parenting is hard, I know that. Some days are exhausting and even sad. Life in general can be hard, and living with any sort of disability can be hard. But we are all in this together, and no matter where we are, or where our children are in the journey, we can learn from one another. Then when we get weary we have each other for support.

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One way I try to help encourage other parents and support the Neurodiverse community is by writing and sharing my voice. I hope to help make the world a safer place for those who are different. I want to help de-stigmatize DIFFERENT. Because without our differences, the world would be VERY boring. Different is the new normal!

So I came up with the slogan: See Different, Be Different (image at top of post). Different is not bad, it’s not broken, or as Temple Grandin says, different is not less.

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Continue reading

Our Talk with Christopher Ulmer of Special Books by Special Kids: A Seriously Not Boring Interview

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My youngest son and I recently had the opportunity to talk via Skype with Christopher Ulmer, aka “Mr. Chris,” of Special Books by Special Kids. Usually Chris interviews other people, so we thought it would be fun to turn the tables and be the ones asking the questions to learn more about him and his students. For those of you who may not know who he is,  Chris is an exceptional education teacher in Florida. His unique and affirming teaching style as well as his extraordinary class of students has captured the hearts of many and become a viral sensation. The first video to gain widespread attention showcased his “compliment time” with the students at the start of each school day, and it was featured first at “The Mighty” and then in an article on ABC News. From there the message spread all over the mainstream media, reaching far beyond the typical “Awareness” circles, and Chris even made an appearance on Rachel Ray’s television show. The messages from Mr. Chris and his students continue to spread all over the internet, and the page has even been mentioned on unexpected sites like MTV, prompting Ashton Kutcher to say, “Mr. Chris, you’re a great teacher.”

Two videos from our conversation are embedded at the bottom of this post. In the first video he talks with my youngest son (his older brother decided not to participate because this isn’t his kind of thing 😉 ). Noodle Dog makes an appearance, there is some Minecraft talk in the middle, and an eyeball crossing contest at the end. Chris described his teaching philosophy and what influenced his decision to become an exceptional education teacher. I was also finally able to ask something I have long wondered about; it seems, when watching the SBSK videos, that teaching in a private school setting allows a level of flexibility in the classroom that wouldn’t be able to occur in a public school setting (for many reasons). He addresses that, as well as whether or not they have any sort of standardized testing. He also recalls an excellent and entertaining musical concert performed by his students, and all the work that went into it. You will have to watch the video to hear the fun story.

Update: here is the short “highlights” version of just the silly parts. 🙂

 

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Autism and Self-Advocacy: Trusting that my son can speak for himself

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My son has been on this earth for over 9 years, and Autism is an integral part of the person that he is. It has helped shape him into a unique individual who perceives the world in fascinating ways. He sees things I would never see. Autism has also presented him with some challenges. I still recall so vividly the first time he asked me, “What is Autism?” I tried to be empowering with my answer but also honest about how it may cause him to have to work harder at some things. The conversation helped him understand himself better and why he feels frustrated at times. He also became excited about his “special brain” (as he calls it), and he has embraced his Autistic identity.

At the beginning of our journey I was the one who spoke and advocated for him. As he grew older we began to tell his story together. One of the ways we did that was by starting a yearly ritual of explaining Autism to his classmates. He and I decided together what we wanted to share. I was so proud of him and his 1st grade classmates when I first watched them have a honest conversation about being different. You are never too young to learn to be kind and accepting of one another!  Continue reading