“You need to stop being grumpy!!”
I nearly lost it when I heard someone say that to one of my students. It may seem like an innocuous sentence by a well-meaning staff member trying to cheer a student in a bad mood, but I hope a broader picture of the kind of work I do in my classroom will provide perspective on how damaging that sentence could have been.
Children who are considered “typical” in terms of cognitive functioning and educational placement go through a predictable emotional maturation process. Students with special needs may have their emotional maturation inhibited by any number of internal or external factors. In my years in the classroom, I have taught very few students who had developmentally appropriate emotional maturity levels. This development may be further complicated by communication barriers at home and a lack of incidental learning–children with hearing loss do not pick up incidental knowledge in the same way as hearing children. They do not hear adults or older children negotiate, have healthy disagreements, or even say, “Boy, am I grumpy today!”
Which brings me back to what happened today.
I have worked long and hard with my students to identify and label their feelings (I have had students unable to label anything beyond happy and sad). Every morning we have the same exchange:
Me: Good morning. Student: Good morning. Me: How are you today? Student: Happy. Me: Why are you happy? Student: Today is Library day. I want the new Amulet book.
Every morning. Every student. No feeling is wrong. Well… “fine” is discouraged, especially when the response to “why” is “I couldn’t sleep last night.” But instead of saying they are wrong, I suggest “Oh, you couldn’t sleep? It sounds like you may be tired.” The students who come without any labels learn labels. The students who come with no concept of causality develop causality. All the students develop empathy. They generalize to other settings, asking a teacher who has been absent how they are feeling today. They validate their friends. They offer hugs, tissues, stickers. During math, one student has learned to tell me (before reaching his meltdown point) “I am frustrated and I need a break.”
Today at recess, one of my students was grumpy. A playground supervisor asked if she was okay. She replied: “I am grumpy and I prefer to be alone, please.” Perfect. Everyone honored her wish.
The students came inside. She in her spot, waiting for transition time. Her typically chipper face was turned downward, her hair in front of her eyes. This, to me, was a clear indication she did not want any interaction during this busy-bee time. A very definite avoidance of eye contact, which in a Deaf/HH hallway is a loud message.
A staff member came up to her, knelt down, invaded her bubble (which we spent the first twelve weeks of school establishing with the entire group of students) and signed and spoke directly in her face: “You need to stop being grumpy. You need to stop being grumpy and smile!”
I felt myself begin to unhinge as two years of work on self-expression and self-advocacy started to unravel. I have a friend who was a quiet and not-so-smiley child; he remembers adults telling him to smile all the time. He thought it was BS then, and thinks it’s BS now. I concur. But I’m going to take it a little further.
a) This is the student I talked about in Cute, part 1. She is always described as cute, and the tone used offers it as a “disability consolation prize.” By scolding her for expressing a healthy human emotion, she hears “You are only accepted when you are cute. You must fake being happy to be cute, and to be included.”
ii) Her personal bubble was violated. She was standing in her walker, with her head down. The other students know that any adaptive equipment (wheelchair, walker, hearing aids) are an extension of the bubble. An adult used a position of power to enter my student’s space without permission to tell her to smile. This was not a matter of safety. This was because the adult wanted to see this child smile. She hears, “People in power can violate my space to make themselves happy.”
3) Does this remind anyone else of street harassment? Can anyone else imagine the justification for this action and for street harassment sounding the same? You know what she hears when it’s justified? “I exist solely for visual benefit of others in my space.”
So, today, someone planted the seed in my student that her feelings are less important than her pretty smile. That expressing her healthy human emotions and advocating for her needs are only okay if they don’t make other people sad or uncomfortable.
And that’s not okay.
I can speak for myself. I am teaching my students to do the same. I would like to close with some words from an Autistic blogger who has a few things to say about the forced smile; her words made me weep.
Even something so seemingly simple as the constant pressure to smile. Everybody wanted me to smile. And I was told that I was such a pretty girl and ought to smile. And I was told that I was so pretty when I smiled. And it was so important to everyone that, after a while, I sat in front of the bathroom mirror practicing faces, trying to find the muscle-feeling that would make a smile. I practiced and perfected until I could make a smile on demand. I worked hard until I had a smile that made everyone happy and got them to quit bothering me. And now, when I am afraid that I am being a bad girl, when I am resisting what someone else wants, when I am feeling the pressure to be a rag doll again, to be whatever and whomever I am being asked to be, I put on that smile as a shield to protect the tiny scraps that are left inside me as I give in and give up who and what I am because the pressure to comply is so huge and so uncomfortable. And because I was never allowed to say no, never allowed to own myself, never allowed to not-want and still be a good-girl.
EDIT: I later spoke to this staffer, and we had a conversation about The Bubble. I think we’re on the same page now, and The Bubble shall henceforth remain intact.