I loved the first day of school. Especially when I was in elementary school as that meant a new outfit (Only dresses permitted in 1967) and Mary Jane shoes. I would walk to the bus stop in my little suburban Long Island, New York neighborhood with all the other kids. All of us looking so polished and clean! We weren’t a rich area and many were first generation Americans from European countries, but on the first day of school – it simply didn’t matter.
Back then you didn’t know your teacher until literally you entered the classroom doors. So, imagine my surprise when I walked in to my suburban Long Island third grade classroom and found out that my teacher was a beautiful African American woman, Miss Huntley. She also was an amazing teacher despite being under scrutiny from people in our area who felt “uncomfortable” with a woman teacher of color in their midst. Even then I felt deep empathy for Miss Huntley and admired how she seemed to be “observed” far more than any other teacher on staff!
What I loved the most about my favorite teacher was that she “got me” in ways that no other teacher could. She understood my ADHD before anyone even knew what Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder meant! She knew that when I was “antsy” it was time to give me a task that required getting up and moving about. She made me a better student that year and later helped transform me in to a what I am today – an educator in special education.
I have been privileged to use the lessons from Miss Huntley’s third grade class in my work with many students from middle school through adult education. However, Miss Huntley gave to me tools that I never learned in my formal training as an educator, specifically a School Psychologist and teacher. She taught me that a child with learning differences is not bad or wrong … just different and challenging. And, that the “job” of the teacher was to accept all the challenges that came through the classroom door.
Thus, when a student would enter my door with learning differences I knew that I had to figure out a way to reach him/her – it was my duty.
I have had many “Aha-Moments” during my career. Yet, one that sticks most in my mind is a student who I will name “Sean”. This young man was very gifted and an old soul. He came to me as a student in my American Sign Language 101 course at a local community college. I knew right away from roll call that “Sean” would be different than any other student I had ever taught. He had Asperger’s Syndrome. No, I didn’t glean that from his records, but as a School Psychologist I knew it right away based on his stereotypical Autism – like behaviors, such as compulsively aligning the chairs in the classroom, being upset when lights flickered or someone laughed too loudly, and difficulty with social cues which made him stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. While other teachers may have been upset that Sean was now part of the fabric of their classroom, I embraced it! I loved teaching Sean as he challenged me to be a better teacher and offered me a continual flow of “Aha-moments”. I had to think of creative and “out of the box” strategies in order to reach him.
Sean went on to be very successful in my class. The other students also were educated in more than ASL, as many went on to pursue a career in special education, partly from their experience of working with Sean. Miss Huntley had taught me that every person who wanted to learn deserved an education and every person who wanted to and was qualified to teach deserved a classroom! I couldn’t agree more, especially after Sean entered my life.
Thank you, Miss Huntley for being an exceptional teacher in times when it couldn’t have been easy for you. I owe you my career.