Being a school leader is a wonderful thing—a gift, an honor, a way to find joy in every day.
It's also really heartbreaking. Sometimes, the weight of it wakes me, late, when I should be sleeping.
Not long ago, I was clicking along happily, full of self-satisfaction because of the awesomeness of working with young children, when I heard a commotion. I turned on my heels and headed toward the noise. Around the corner, right there in the hallway, all hell was breaking loose.
One of our students—a dear boy, a loving boy, a tough and smart and sweet boy, a boy struggling with Bipolar disorder, Oppositional Defiant disorder, and Autism—had lost himself. He was gone. And in his place was screaming, ranting, running whirlwind of a child, a boy who was in agony, a boy who couldn't stop hitting his own head in a furious, hateful way. Something had set fire in his soul, and he was letting it all out.
I ran to him, as did several teachers who heard it all unfold. Walkie-talkies activated to gather our crisis team. Classroom doors closed as teachers gently, quietly, compassionately continued their instruction without compromising this child's dignity. We had a plan in place, and it unfolded beautifully: soon, we were alone in the hallway, this boy and a cadre of loving staff members who'd been trained to help him cope. As he raged, he flailed at us—anyone would do—kicking and punching and biting, hellbent on hurting someone. His wild eyes searched for something to throw at our faces, our heads, our bodies. He screamed at us in a guttural, accusatory rant. He wanted to hurt us. Any one of us. He wanted to hurt us like he was hurting.
Over the next half-hour or so, we did all the things we'd planned for, things we hoped would work. We talked softly. We gripped him tightly, knowing the sensory satisfaction would calm him. We shhhhhh-ed and cooed. At one point, there were nine of us surrounding him. At times, our eyes would meet, all silently saying the same thing to one another: ohmygod. this poor boy. this poor, poor boy.
In time—a long time—his body grew soft and still. His primary teacher began softly rubbing his back. After a bit longer, she whispered, "Is your mind and body quiet now?"
He gazed at her, still somewhat confused and dazed. Then he nodded. "Yes."
She helped him up, and the two of them walked slowly to the quiet room we had designated for him to recover from his hard times. She prepared to talk him through the episode and plan a way to better prepare if—when—he loses himself again.
Children with significant mental or physical disabilities break my heart in pieces. Just like everyone else, they're doing the best they can. They're trying really hard to figure out the world; to learn what they're supposed to learn; to have relationships with others that will fill them up and make them whole. Yet, they've got so much working against them—so much they can't control. The tendrils in their brains and the mysteries of their bodies leave them at a crippling disadvantage. And there isn't anything they can do about the cards they've been dealt.
But we believe they will conquer their demons in the end—otherwise, we couldn't even show up. There's a lot of faith that teachers and leaders bring to our work. It's a faith that tells us that all kids will be okay in the end. All of them.