By Debbie Aurelius-Muir
This particular day began as every day had. It was Thursday. Not that that made a difference. Every day started the same. The bell rang at 8:22 a.m. and by 8:25 a.m. my special education class arrived. There were 14 students and one aide. I often struggled with it. I never intended to be a special education teacher. These middle school children had varied emotional, physical, and intellectual challenges. Every time I thought I understood their limitations, they would surprise me. Conversely, there were many times when I was sure I had the perfect amount of challenge to the lesson plan, only to discover that I had missed the mark completely.
I started class signing and singing “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. The students were always very excited to show that they had mastered the Curwen hand signs for the major scale. (I should mention that because of age requirements, I had most of these special education students every day for five years. They entered sixth grade at 11 years of age, but were not promoted to high school until they were16 years of age).
One of my most enigmatic students had a disability called “Dandy Walker Syndrome.” Dandy Walker Syndrome manifested itself in this student with limited speech, limited intellectual development, limited physical strength, and limited mobility. We will call him “Robert.” I watched Robert grow from a skinny little eleven year old barely four feet tall to a strong-willed adolescent approaching six feet in stature. He didn’t have great control of his limbs. He walked to music class by using a walker that let its owner pull down a shelf that allowed a quick sitting break in the middle of the trip. He had difficulties keeping his eyes focused in one direction. His eyes often darted left and right as if he was frantically trying to record everything for the future. His speech was very hard to understand. It appeared as if his tongue muscles didn’t cooperate any better than his leg muscles. He had lots of volume but he couldn’t articulate words. He had a very small vocabulary, as well. I don’t recall ever hearing him singing with the class. He sat and looked around.
Robert never made eye contact with me. I greeted him every day, as I greeted all of the students, but I usually never got a response. As Robert matured, he became angry. Maybe he felt some resentment at his limitations. I don’t know. He really couldn’t communicate very well, so there was no way of knowing. Now that he was getting older, he would shout out expletives and disrupt the class. He would throw himself on the floor. He would spit at other students. He would hit other students. If he was handed an instrument, he might throw it down. I used to question if he should even be in there. I didn’t think he was benefiting from the class and he was making it difficult for the other students to learn. Was he even listening? Was I even an effective teacher for special needs students? I wasn’t the special education teacher in the family, my sister was. I didn’t want to teach in the special education field, I really didn’t have any training. And to top it all off, I have to confess that on certain days, in that class, I did not display my finest teaching.
But as we all know, in teaching and in life, every day is a new day. You get up and you tell yourself that you have a chance to make this a great day. I would pray for strength, courage, and love for my students.
As I said, this day began like any other day. Robert, his aide, and the other students filed in. We sang and signed “Do Re Mi” and our other songs and enjoyed our activities. At the end of class, the students began to leave. Robert and his aide started to leave. But Robert wouldn’t leave. He slid his walker right up to me. He stopped his six-foot skinny frame right in front of me. He reached out to touch my dangly earrings. I felt like the girl in the gorilla cage being told, ”Don’t make any sudden moves; it frightens them!” My mind began to race with fear: What was he going to do? Is he going to yank out my earring? Is he going to hit me? Is he going to pull my hair? Is he going to spit on me? He got about two inches from my face and looked right into my eyes. While keeping one hand on the walker, and gently touching my dangly earring, he sang perfectly in tune and perfectly pronounced the solfege syllables “sol-mi-do.”
The aide and I looked at each other as our jaws dropped and our eyes welled up with tears. We were speechless! I didn’t know he could sing. I certainly didn’t think he had been paying attention. Of all the phrases he could sing to me, he sings a perfectly phonated, perfectly articulated, and perfectly in tune descending major triad? I didn’t know what to say. As I was wiping the tears from my cheeks, I realized that he had been listening!
I taught Robert for another two years. I never saw that kind of engagement again. But I knew he was listening.
So it is with all of our students. Whether they’re “special needs” students or “typical” students, you never know what they hear. You never know what they will remember, you never know what they will learn from you. You are charged with being their representative for music and for good. It is the greatest job on earth and an important responsibility. Rise to the challenge. Don’t squander a moment. And don’t worry, they are listening!
Debbie Aurelius-Muir is a retired general music, choral music, and music methods teacher in who taught in both Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. She spent thirty years teaching music to students from kindergarten through college and currently supervises music student teachers through Illinois State University.