Katie’s Wisdom: Look Not at the Problems, but at the Potential

The potential possibilities of any child are the most intriguing and stimulating in all creation.”  

Ray L. Wilbur, third president of Stanford University

Although I graduated from university and then teachers’ college, I became a good educator only after I had spent two years working with mentally handicapped children. They are not called that today. It’s politically incorrect. Even so, my diploma says that I am certified to teach “Preschool Education for the Mentally Retarded.” It is a wonder that the certificates were not recalled when the language changed. Then recalled again.

Katie supervised the nursery program at Sun Parlour School. Her enthusiasm and knowledge inspired everyone who knew her. When Katie’s oldest boy was a few months old, Katie worried about his lassitude. Healthcare professionals told her not to fret–all children matured at their own rate. A second son soon followed. Katie noticed that he too seemed “slow.” She suspected that her sons’ lethargy related to the chloroformed cotton held to her face during their births. In both cases, the nurses said that the baby was coming too fast. They had to slow down the process. During the birth of her third son, Katie deflected the hand holding the “slowing-down” cloth. The vagina spat out the child. Much later, Katie learned that, because they had spent too long in the birth canal, the older boys had suffered a lack of oxygen to their brains that resulted in mental retardation. The third, non-chloroformed son graduated in veterinarian medicine.

Rather than lament her situation, Katie resolved to see the highest potential in every child. She carried that positive approach to work every day.

Four Foster Children

James

Autistic James had a sixth toe on each foot. In his chubby five years he had never walked. We asked his foster mother how James spent his days. With a small, almost embarrassed, smile, she informed us that he lay on the floor and gnawed on the tires of a tricycle, contented as a cud-chewing cow.

Katie knew not only that James could walk, but that he wanted to walk. We placed two chairs facing each other about six feet apart. Katie sat on one, I on the other. Katie held James upright between her knees and pointed him in my direction. Then, still holding his hips, she gave a little shove. I reached forward, grabbed his hands, guided him to me, took him onto my lap, then jiggled him up and down and up and down and up and down and told him what a terrific job he had done. Although James never laughed, his eyes grew bright and nearly met mine. Over and over we played the “go get teacher” game. In time, James walked, unassisted, the entire two meters.

A few days later, James’ foster mother raged into the schoolroom. Fury shook her voice. “Why did you teach him to walk?” How much simpler it had been when James lay on the floor biting tricycle tires. His caretaker valued easily earned government money more than a child’s independence and self-worth.

Colin

Colin’s too-small sneakers had holes in their bottoms. In winter Colin went bootless. Katie asked his custodian to provide him with size-appropriate, intact footwear suited to the Canadian climate. His foster parent claimed there was not enough money. Katie’s influence stretched far into the school’s community. Soon, Colin had both shoes and boots—the proper size and without holes. We kept them at the school. Had he gone home with them, a different child would have profited.

Billy

Although it may be wrong for teachers to have pets, Billy was everyone’s favourite. Happy, healthy, huggable Billy, a down’s syndrome child. Each day his foster mom sent him to school with a supply of freshly-laundered bibs to catch the perpetual drool that escaped his mouth. Down’s kids have trouble with tongue-pointing. To strengthen the muscles, and thus improve his speech, Katie devised a game for Billy. Billy and I sat close to each other on tiny facing chairs. I held a bright lollipop in front of me. Billy reached out his tongue and tried to lick it. Many times when his tongue refused to stretch far enough, I moved the candy closer to reward his heroic efforts.

Government officials decided that Billy had been too long with one family. He was becoming attached. When the authorities told his foster parents that Billy was being moved, they filed for his adoption.

Cathy

Cathy may have been six, but looked four. Because her body absorbed nutrients poorly, she was forever hungry. One day in the playground, I watched as Cathy reached through the chain-link fence, clutched some green tomatoes, dragged them out, then smashed several into her mouth. Seeds and juice smeared her face. Her euphoric smile refused to fade at my reprimand.

One afternoon, Katie made one of her unannounced visits to Cathy’s home. The deplorable condition of both the premises and the other foster children prompted Katie to call children’s services. Representatives from that authority duly paid their own visit. Reported that everything was “fine.” Nothing of concern. “Did you notify them of your coming?” Katie inquired.

“Of course we did.”

The situation reminded me of a lazy high school teacher who sat at his desk reading stock market reports while the class did assigned work. One day, the principal sat in at the back of the room for a prearranged inspection. As he left the room, a student commented, “Sir, that was amazing! Why don’t you teach like that all the time?”

Two weeks into the summer vacation, Katie called me with news of Cathy. One morning, another youngster in the household came down the stairs and told her foster mom that Cathy was dead. The mother rebuked her. The child insisted. The mother relented and went to investigate. On the floor beside the bed, lay Cathy’s corpse. No charges were laid. The family continued to foster children.

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I chose not to return to Sun Parlour School that fall. My first child was two months old. I wanted to stay home and enjoy him longer. But, it was more than that. Just like my time working in the sanitarium came to an end, I knew that the emotional toll of “special” education was too great for my sensitive nature. A few years later, I went back to teaching teenagers. This time I took with me the invaluable tools that Katie had given me:

  • See potential not problems
  • Set each task just a little higher that a child’s present learning—create a challenge, not frustration
  • Praise the smallest accomplishment—with honesty and enthusiasm
  • Remember, always, that every child wants to be successful

Over the next twenty-nine years of my teaching career, I continued to hone those abilities. Further, even though I acquired other useful insights and skills, I still view Katie as my greatest inspiration.

Postscript

Peter

I was teaching a ninth grade remedial English class. Reading levels ranged from grades two to six. The lesson: “How to Write a Five Sentence Paragraph.” First, list three things that you like about yourself and give support for each. Some of the students had a tough time with that. I furnished examples: I have a good sense of humor—I can make my family laugh. I like the way I dress—I have a unique fashion sense. I am a good friend—I am always there for my pals. It is easy after that—an opening sentence to introduce the topic, three supporting sentences with examples and a concluding sentence.

I toured the room. Seventeen pupils scribbled. One sat sullen. Stared at a blank page. I took the chair beside Peter’s. “What do you like about yourself?” I whispered.

“Nothing.”

“I’ll tell you what I like about you. Are you okay with that?”

A small nod.

“I like your mischievous grin. It suggests that there is a fun-loving part of you. Also, I notice that you always stand up for your friends. I saw that in the hall today when you stepped in to protect little Martin. Third, you are handsome.”

Peter wrote down the first two suggestions but balked at the last. Embarrassed. “I can’t say that!”

“Well, I think you’re good-looking. But, you could say instead, I like that I am strong, or fit, or healthy.” Peter wrote his five-sentence paragraph. I wondered if it was the first time an adult had praised him.

Thank you Katie for teaching me to believe in every child.