I stood at the window and watched the students run towards my special education classroom, behind the elementary school. Which kid was in the lead today? Must be R. Small with short black hair. He was usually first. Another student was close behind him. Was that A? I watched as ten fourth graders raced towards an hour of tortuous work that would help diminish their reading and writing disabilities.
It was hard to decide what was more baffling; the fact that they ran as fast as they could towards an hour of difficult work, or that we were sixth months into the school year and I still couldn’t pin my students’ names to their faces. Being able to call your students by name is expected of a teacher on the first day of class. And here I was, over a hundred days into the year, and I still couldn’t do it.
Years of epileptic seizures have erased my visual memory, so it is impossible for me to recognize my students by their appearance. I have zero memory for faces. Luckily, I have learned to discern them by their voices, mannerisms, and where they sit in class. The irony of a special education teacher working to erase students’ reading and writing disabilities who is plagued with her own invisible disability has never eluded me.
“First,” a boy yelled as he burst through the door. “I’m always first.”
Yes. This was R. I recognized his breathless, voice. “You do run fast, don’t you, R?”
“Fastest in the school,” He puffed, as he walked over to get his notebook off the shelf.
Tall-girl with dark hair entered, lips pressed together. This must be B, the quiet one.
“Ms. Winter.” She whispered to me. “Last night my father and mother let me use the computer to do extra homework.” She handed me a packet of papers with hours of stories stamped out on them.
“Extra mile!” I shouted. “Do you have any idea how many extra points you’ll get for this? I can’t wait to read them…”
She nodded and walked to get her notebook.
Another Tall-girl with long, dark hair entered with her arms folded across her chest. I watched her get her notebook and move to her seat. Ok. This was M.
“Mornin’ M.” I smiled. Her family was going through a terrible divorce that was slowly pulling her inside out. “Glad you’re here.”
She frowned. “My brother’s birthday is coming in two weeks. We have to spend it with my dad.”
I didn’t flinch. “Will he have a cake with candles?”
She smiled big. “Yeah. He said he’d get some of those candles that won’t blow out. Won’t that be funny?”
“Is that what you’re going to write about?”
Slowly I matched names to clothing as each of my students sat down and began writing.
I moved over to the computer where C was typing so I could edit his work. He would only write a few lines in the ten minute slot, but I wanted him to see how good his writing could look when it was cleaned up.
I fixed the misspellings and took away the extra spaces before I hit the print button. “There you go,” I smiled, handing him his printed page. “Looks good, doesn’t it?”
The fourth grader laughed into his work. “I can’t believe I wrote this much! It’s my new record, isn’t it?”
“Sure is.” I closed the computer file with his writing in it. I closed the file with the program we were using. As I was moving to the front of the classroom to start my lesson, he called to me.
“Hey, Ms. Winter. You put C’s name on this.”
Every muscle in my body tensed as I quickly scanned the classroom. There were three students in this class who looked identical: C, G and J. They were all the same height and same weight with spiked hair. Um. Wasn’t he C?
“The wrong name?” I asked, slowly.
“Yeah! Look.” He pointed to the name at the top of the paper.
Come on. I thought HE was C. Had he figured out I couldn’t recognize my students? Oh. Man. This was a test, wasn’t it? Was he going to ‘out’ me to the other students and their parents and my boss? What would happen when they found out I could only be sure who my students when they were sitting in their assigned seats? Would I be fired for having a disability like I was from my flight attendant job?
I searched the classroom for the other two boys who looked like the boy standing in front of me. Maybe I would know who he was if I saw the other students, too. But the students weren’t at their seats. They all looked like the same without a seating chart.
“Hmmm.” I said, dramatically, turning towards him. “Well? If you aren’t C, who ARE you?”
He put his hands on his hips. “I’m G. And you know it. You made a mistake with my name, again.”
I sat at the computer and flipped through computer files, until I found his saved piece of writing. I changed the name and hit the print button. “Ok.” I said, playfully. “If you’re sure.” I handed him his printed page.
He sighed. “Ms. Winter. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know, but the one thing I know for sure is my name.”
He dropped his writing on his desk and giggled his way to the front of the classroom, which gave me a moment to contemplate a nine-year-old boy who is completely comfortable with the stuff he knows, and the stuff he doesn’t know.
Um. Seeing how I spend enormous amounts of energy hiding my invisible disability, I wonder if he might give me lessons on being comfortable with my stuff?