I'm a high school teacher which means every year I see new students, and every year students graduate. Most years it's hard when graduation comes around, but this year is going to be particularly difficult because three of those students are taking a piece of my heart with them as they walk across the stage.
She came with her too big bag, her loose clothing, her socks and tennis shoes, her signature pony tail, ... and she' leaving with all of those same things. But those are the only things that haven't changed over the last 4 years.
She came to class as a freshman, pushed past people and sat in a desk. It was her desk. No matter where we moved it, nobody could sit in that desk and she let them know...loudly. She is on the autism spectrum and the slightest change was traumatic. Writing assignments caused meltdowns of epic proportion. There was pinching, screaming, threats of biting and when meltdowns came words were lost. There were just tears and boogers and wailing. As she calmed the words came. Words about how hard her life was, how much things didn't make sense...she knew.
Thankfully there was pi, and of course, Steven Tyler. Those 2 things, and her drawing notebooks, got her through her freshman year. She drew pi on the board in more ways than one could imagine. And the jokes, nobody knew more pi jokes than she did. Images of Steven were all over. Aerosmith was her connection. It was through discussions about them that she was able to communicate with others. To find common ground...to be safe.
She loved to draw but hated to write. This was so confusing to her teachers. It angered some of them, until they realized she really was paying attention. Just ask her your questions, we would say, let her tell you the answers. (Why this was such a hard concept for some people I will never understand.) The answers were there, she knew, she was paying attention. All you had to do was ask.
And then things started to change. Her drawing became well known. She took art, lots of art. She began to make 3D art, and her drawings became more detailed, and stories started to emerge, and she grew. She began drawing her answers to her teachers' questions. Writing assignments were replaced with illustrations with captions. Testing schedules that were modified so she could go to art class. And the meltdowns started to fade.
Fast forward to this year. I can't count the number of times she said "it's easy people, it's (fill in the answer)" and answered complex questions correctly. It amazed students in my math class that she could do so much in her head and get it right. Her explanations were often what the others needed to fill in their own blanks. Whenever a definition was needed, she knew when no one else did.
And she started saying, "I'm on the spectrum," when asked why she was she was special ed. No fear, no anxiety, just acceptance of herself and who she is...all that she it. And there was the time that she went to her government teacher and self-advocated for alternative assignments with NO prompting from anybody. She said "excuse me" most of the time when she needed to get by people and asked people to nicely to let her sit in her seat if someone accidentally sat there.
The last few days of school she would get as close to me as possible and stay there for as long as she could. One day I said, "you're going to miss me, aren't you?" She said, "yes". She hugged her friends goodbye on the last day of a club meeting and told them she would miss them, too. The words were there, all year, all the time. There were no meltdowns, not one, all year. She grew up in so many ways and I will miss her immensely.