Dear John: Letters from Angela—10
What became of Angela over the years?
When I first met Angela, I was an 18-year-old who knew about 2 on a scale of 100 about kids with disabilities. I’d volunteered to work as a helper in swimming instruction for kids with visual disabilities when I was about 14 years old; that was it! I was naive. But I learned a lot quickly thanks to new friends. Here’s a quick recap.
During our first year of college, Pat and I stumbled onto a situation that changed my life. We volunteered in classrooms for kids with disabilities. We had the good fortune to work with, and often become friends with, many fine special educators (see Lloyd & Lloyd, 20xx). I want to tip my hat to them, but this is a story about Angela, so let’s stay focused on that story.
I also learned a lot, probably the most in retrospect, from the kids. I was, in fact, already reading the literature at that time. From it, I learned about the reciprocal relationship between child and adult behavior. Sure, praising child attention to task increased attention to task...but that increase in attention to task reinforced my praising.
Some kids may have had disabilities, but they responded according to what I and my colleagues were doing. I learned, in fact, that the kids “gave a damn” about what we were doing. They learned that if we did X after they did Y, they would do more (or less) Y-ing.
WTF? I learned that what I did had immediate (and lasting) effects on what the kids did?
For example, we used to have what we called “days” in one of Angela’s classrooms. One of those days was “Whisper Day.” I’d greet kids at the door and ask them, with a finger across my lips, in a very personal welcome, “Do you know what day it is? It’s Whisper Day.” I’d exaggerate the phrase “Whisper Day” by crouching a little as I explained it, bringing my 6’2” frame down to their eye level. There would be a written note on the chalk board: “Whisper Day!”
Angela would imitate my posture. Dang, what I did affected her. When the kids spoke in whispers, they would earn a point in our reinforcement system. What I was doing was influencing my students.
In one summer camp situation, I was riding on a camp bus with lots of children. I was sitting just a row in front of Angela and Patsy, who were great pals during their early elementary years. They were giggling, nearly acting up (which was unusual for both of them) by being too goofy. So I turned around and asked them what was happening. Angela said, “We were just laughing about our name for you.” She paused and looked at Patsy, and said, “Smiley.”
What I learned was that my students were not just learning from me, they were influencing me. We were in a reciprocal relationship. That insight was terrifically powerful for me. I influenced Angela and Angela influenced me.
I needed to design environments to promote better outcomes for Angela. I was the adult in the relationship, and my duty was to help Angela succeed. I needed to harness that reciprocal relationship.
She, and many other kids, taught me a lot. Not the least was that she appreciated that she was learning.
So, the letters from Angela, many years after we had been together in classrooms, were another part of her educating me. I learned a lot by her forthright correspondence, which readers may revisit at the links at the end of this note.
As I hope readers have learned, Angela was a wonderful kid who later became a good friend. I have correspondence with many former students, correspondence that I am very glad to have, but I especially value the letters from Angela. While I was in her classrooms, she learned to read and write! She learned to care about others!
I think of the letters from Angela as reflecting a success story. Sure, she had problems (e.g., buying into bogus therapies), but the little girl I knew had grown up and was doggedly pursuing employment. She was achieving a foundational outcome for our society: A happy marriage. Wins all around. Yay!
Hearing about Angela
After I hadn’t had a dear-john letter from Angela for many months, I was surprised that I got an explanation in about 1993. Angela’s mother, whom I’d known since the 1960s, called me. She said she was going through Angela’s things and she’d found our correspondence, including my phone numbers.
She told me that Angela had died.
Angela and her love, Brian, had wed. Soon thereafter, Angela had developed a rare blood disorder. She died two weeks after her wedding.
Angela’s mother said it was terribly hard for her to tell me that Angela had gotten so close to what her mother consider Angela’s chance at human joy, only to have it snatched away from her. I tried to suppress my own grief about the news of Angela’s death in the context of her mother, whom I’d seen at a classroom door so often, feeling compelled to tell me her own, terrible, personal sorrow.
That phone call from Angela’s mother marked the end of the correspondence, but it has regularly added a hue of sadness to my happy recollections of Angela. Still, I celebrate my opportunity to learn from Angela.
Lloyd, J. W., & Lloyd, P. A. (2014). Reinforcing success: What special education could learn from its earlier accomplishments. Remedial and Special Education, 36(2), 77-82. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0741932514560025