The New York Times reported Friday on a new requirement in the Common Application, the admissions application used by 400 colleges: personal essays can't go over 500 words. Is that enough? I don't know, but if you write long and start lopping, be careful. Learn from my mistake.
I was in fourth grade, and my team of about five students had just won a round in the spelling championship. We filtered into the hallway, full of self-confidence and excitement. Except for Justin. Justin had missed a couple of his words and was upset. I explained to him that he had done an incredible job and that he had contributed more than almost everyone else. Then, unexpectedly, Justin laughed, and leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead.
This past summer I had another such experience. I took up the challenge of becoming an intern at The New England Center for Autism. The Center had an opening for me in the gym with their Applied Physical Educational program. So I walked in, carrying only a curiosity and an eager interest in breaking down some of the walls of autism.
Dan was my first student, and his behavior had been severely affected by autism. Unfortunately, I did not have any previous experience communicating with individuals who did not speak, understood only simple phrases, and saw no reason to follow anyone's orders but their own. So I tried cajoling him to follow his routine, I tried physical force, and I almost tried begging. But I just didn't have the touch.
Fortunately things gradually changed. I ended up working with a number of different students, ranging from ages six to twenty-one, and ranging in ability from non-communicative and barely mobile children like Dan to trash-talking, kicking-my-ass-at-basketball kids like Mike. That was the first thing I learned at the Center; there exist great differences between the behavior and needs of different students.
I adjusted how I interacted with the students. Kerry often needed my threats to take away her necklace for a few minutes, while Lee Anne was happy with just my boisterous praise of her accomplishments. I came across widely different situations, too. I remember the moments on the roller coaster at Whalom Park with Erin, and tossing Kevin into the water at the beach, but I also remember Matt removing his bathing suit when no one was looking, numerous temper tantrums that would rival any professional wrestler's, and one boy having a seizure in my arms. But that's how I learned. By the end, I could show other teachers how to run certain students' routines, and I lost count of the number of times people asked me from what college I had graduated.
So, what did Justin's inspiration teach me? A teacher is not someone who looks at a student's limitations and gives up, but rather someone who finds a student's potential and fertilizes it; communication requires just as much understanding and compassion as it does clarity and authority; you can learn a lot from someone with the sensitivity and bravery to reach out kiss you on the forehead; and most importantly, in a true learning relationship, there isn't much difference between the teacher and the student.
Now, here's a paragraph excised from the original (it sat right after the first paragraph):
I was a bratty little fourth grader, and I had a talent for annoying people with the best of 'em, but for some reason I stopped and reached out to Justin. And Justin, usually confined to the world inside his head due to the communication difficulties that autism brings, saw the option to reach out to me.
Yes, in my most condensed version, I forgot to mention that Justin--the boy whose kiss opens and closes the essay on autism--was autistic. He was not some random kid I stuck in there who kissed me on the head.
I don't know, maybe you picked up on that, and maybe the admissions officers did too (the essay worked), but I slapped my head when I realized the oversight.