Dear John: Letters from Angela—3
What was the situation and what was Angela like when I met her?
[This is the third in a series of posts recollecting a student, Angela, whom I knew when I was first working in special education. Most of the posts are literal copies of letters Angela sent me, but this one is my recolletions that I hope provide context. The posts are numbered sequentially, so readers can recognize them by their titles. —JohnL]
As I related in the second installment in this series, I met Angela when she was enrolled in a primary-age classroom for children who were identified as have learning and behavior problems. It was the mid-1960s; I was 18 years old and a rather raw volunteer. The “school” was a demonstration project called the “Learning and Behavior Problems Project” (later the word “problems” was dropped from the name), and it provided opportunities for the faculty of the Project to demonstrate exemplary special education practices while educators, school administrators, psychologists, parents, and others looked on through one-way mirrors from adjoining rooms.
The “Project” was located on the ground floor of North Hall (to be renamed King Hall in a couple of years) at L.A. State College (soon to become California State University at Los Angeles). Should we—teehee—play a round of “What’s in a name” or “The name game?”
When Pat and I first volunteered at the Project, there were three classrooms: primary, elementary, and secondary with (as I recall) 10, 12, and 14 students in them respectively. Each had a head teacher and an assistant, plus volunteers. The teachers and assistants were employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Although she was not officially designated as the principal of the Project, Alice C. Thompson. Ph.D., was the leader of it. “Alice” or (more commonly, “Dr. T”) was a professor of psychology at LA State, but she focused a lot of her time on the Project. She advocated for California to provide legal recognition of students with disabilities, promoted behavioral perspectives on learning, and had a knack for explaining things clearly.
I may have to come back to a discussion of Professor Thompson, because she had a profound influence on my career. But, this series is about Angela, so let’s return to that story.
Angela in her primary years
As Angela reported in her first letter to me, she had been a student in Phil’s primary classroom and then two others, so Angela and I knew each other over multiple years in three different classroom. As her letters reveals, she remembered all these connections many years later.
Phil was the lead teacher and he was ably accompanied by Joan. They each deserve their own entries in my account of how I learned about special education; like Dr. T. and others (Allen L.; Ed P.; Jack L.), they had great influence on me, and provided wonderful help.
When we began volunteering in the fall of 1966, Phil walked me through the the four little rooms of his classroom (two of the four were equipped with one-way mirrors and they only sometimes served as usable space); he pointed to a utilitarian table against a wall in one of the observation rooms and told me that when Angela first arrived in his room, she spent several days under a similar table cowering and crying with her arms folded over her head. He said something like, “We weren’t sure what to do with her, but we started having little groups play with Joanie or me on the floor near that table and gradually she came out from under it and joined the group. We welcomed her.”
By the time I met Angela, she had become a smiling member of the class. She seemed fragile and mal-coordinated to me, but she was not one of the “most-involved” students in the group.
From a look at Angela, it was clear that she was a little different. One didn’t see many young children wearing fairly thick-lensed glasses in the 1960s, but she did. Her head seemed a tad asymmetrical; it was nothing terrific, but if one looked for longer than a glance, it seemed like maybe the left side was a bit more forward than the right. But she would converse with her peers and respond socially, and appropriately, in interactions with adults. In a lot of ways, to me, Angela seemed like a garden variety little kid for whom one should provide some slack because of her disabilities.
But, she was nothing like others in the group. Another girl, five-year-old Lori, was tiny and spent a goodly portion of time wailing. She came to Phil’s and Joanie’s classroom after the UCLA autism project had refused to enroll her because she didn’t even have language skills at the echolalia-level.
Another child, a seven-year-old boy whom you’ll meet again in one of Angela’s young-adult letters, had pretty good verbal skills and academically was probably about the highest functioning student in the group. But, there was something about Paul that prompted adults to describe his behavior as “devious” and “cruel.” When we discovered a pet hamster and guinea pig dead in the classroom terrarium apparently from being crushed—they’d seemed fine less than an hour earlier—we worried that perhaps Paul had dispatched them. Maybe. Maybe not.
There was Angela, amid all this context, turning into a seemingly happy child. Was she the brilliant human trapped in a mysterious condition, unable to express her substantial sentience? I do not think so; I think she was a kid with some pretty substantial problems who actually advanced pretty far, even during her primary years, because she had some caring teachers who employed what we would now consider pretty crude behavioral techniques, but who did so with plenty of care and compassion. So, her native sentience got to shine through the disabilities.
Phil and Joanie did a lot for Angela. Not only did they draw her into the community of her classroom, but they played catch with her. They patiently showed her letters and numerals. They supported her efforts when she tried hard things. They talked with her in grown-up ways.
From a baseline of cowering and crying under a table to, just a year or two later, Angela was fitting in with many of her classmates. To me, this reflects pretty remarkable growth. And, not only did Angela have those good social outcomes, but she was also learning to read and write!
Some more good news? She continued to make great progress in Allen’s and Teddee’s classrooms over the next few years. And I got to go on this wonderful ride with her.
But, for the next installment in this series, let’s get back to Angela’s letters to me.
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