In the Wake of Parkland: a Love Letter to my Students

February 15, 2018

Dear Students,

I set out yesterday to write you a Valentine’s Day letter, to accompany the chocolate I have shoved at you all week. However, in the wake of yet another school shooting, I lacked adequate words, and a simple letter about your greatness was the wrong tone.

Don’t read me wrong: you are great. As many of you have said (correctly) over the past 10 years, you are the children I didn’t birth. You live here; sometimes it feels like I do, too.  I’ve taught grades 1 through 12. I have kissed your owies. I have counseled your broken hearts. I’ve covered puberty and sexuality education; you’ve given me pink eye and strep throat. We’ve seen each other through migraines, bronchitis, linguistic milestones, graduations, hailstorms, and power outages. Your writing and artwork have been astounding and heartbreaking.

You are amazing.

Over the past 10 years, our school has changed a lot. We lock more doors, we have better alert systems. The teachers wear badges. Sometimes we practice fire evacuations.

Or the dreaded lockdown.

My worst nightmare as a teacher is a lockdown.

Last night, I cried when NPR’s Ari Shapiro interviewed students from Parkland. One of them talked about a staff member shoving students into a closet to protect them from the shooter.

A month ago, I woke up sobbing, and my boyfriend held me while I shook. I’d dreamed about a former student coming back with a gun. Through my tears, I said, “I couldn’t save them. I couldn’t get the door open. I couldn’t get to my kids.” He comforted me and said, “It’s just a dream. You’re okay.”

It isn’t just a dream. Parkland isn’t a dream. Sandy Hook wasn’t a dream. Columbine wasn’t a dream.

Every teacher has students that need extra: extra love, attention, concern, support. We all have someone whose needs are above our training. Maybe not this year. But if we have been teaching long enough, we have taught a student who needed more than we thought we had to give.

My students, I love you. I love you when you are sick, when you are demanding, when you are puzzling. I love you when you are triumphant.

I love you when you are in danger. I will throw you in a closet, behind a bookshelf, under my self if it is necessary.

I love you if you are dangerous, and I am sorry I cannot do enough for you. I am painfully aware of this fact. We strive to provide the resources for you; I hope it is enough, on time, something.

My dear, dear students… I love you.

Your Elle



I am obsessed with audiograms.

When I first met my friend James, the second thing I noticed was his set of hearing aids. It’s an occupational hazard–I notice hearing aids. After I got to know him, I asked about his degree of hearing loss, how long he’d been hard-of-hearing, what he thought of his aids, what kind of impact it made on his job on the radio.

When I found out my uncle had seen an audiologist for his tinnitus, I asked what his audiogram looked like. He said, Not good. He’s a farmer. He is 68. Of course it does not look good. Still, I wanted to see it.

I like watching my students from a distance. I like watching them code switch when the communicate with individuals with different communication modalities. I like watching my student who uses mobility devices use motor-planning strategies when encountering a multi-step physical task. I like watching them negotiate, self-talk, and problem solve.

Really, my fascination is adaptation.

I conducted a home visit for one of my students two weeks ago. Watching her in her “hearing” home environment, compared to our Deaf school environment, was eye-opening. I’d seen her interact with her family several times, but never in their own home. Her adaptations to that space were fascinating: the way she stared at her parents’ faces, the way she checked on her sleeping brother, the way she simplified and enlarged her sign choices, and the way she positioned herself at the table so she could see as much of the house as possible.

In my ideal world, classrooms and homes and schools and grocery stores and colleges and skating rinks would follow principals of Universal Design. In my real world, Gallaudet University is a leading source on the concept of Deaf Space, and some days I smack my head wondering why my school doesn’t look like that, and why it took us so long to codify some principles for good design.

I have a sensory or auditory processing issue. It is definitely tied to my migraines, but it is also correlated to anxiety and stress and fatigue (and the direction of causality is pretty squiffy on those). Last night, during our final rehearsal for V-Day: The Vagina Monologues, I heard everything. Where’s the problem, Danielle? you might ask. The problem is that I. hear. everything. And I can’t filter it. I can’t sort it, or focus on the important strand of information, or even know for sure if it is English that I am hearing. The same thing happened during skate camp on Sunday. There was music, I was skating, everyone else was skating, my eyes were on the track, and I couldn’t hear the skaters leading the drill yell to stop. I got really embarrassed when I was the only one still skating and someone looked at me, exasperated, and said, Um, time??

Without a visual cue, I’m lost. I’ve adapted, and I usually do okay, but when I’m skating and can’t see the leader’s face, or when we’re rehearsing lighting cues and I can’t see anyone’s face, my adaptations mean exactly nil.

I don’t have a diagnosis for my processing problem. At this point in my life, I don’t think it would help me. During rehearsal last night, I missed my cue because everyone was talking and no one was listening, and I felt scolded. I said, I know my cue, I just can’t hear when everyone is talking at the same time. I know I sounded pissed and not pleasant. I was frustrated and anxious.

James and I have a “shorthand;” it’s a way he darts his eyes in my direction when he misses something. I’m not one to jump in (because privilege and disempowerment are things I’m trying to check in my interactions), but even though it’s subtle, it’s intentional. If we’re on the air taking a caller, I’ll repeat back what the person on the phone said, or answer the question in a way that restates enough of the information that everyone stays up to speed. Chances are, if James missed it, the radio audience missed it, too. It’s a good strategy for everybody.

Which brings me around to my Big Main Point™:

The strategies James, Alicia, and I use on the radio are good strategies for everybody, even though James is the only one with hearing loss. Open sight lines and a lack of visual clutter are good design principles, period. Good lighting and careful acoustic design benefit more than just the Deaf. Not talking at the same time as ten other people is common courtesy. And using a whistle to mark the end of a skating drill just seems like a good idea all around.

Diagnoses are important for a lot of reasons, but we all have needs that extend beyond our diagnosis. And the people around us are adapting all the time: people on the autism spectrum, people with chronic pain, sensory impairments, sensory integration disorders, psychiatric disabilities. Taking principles that helps a specific population–in my examples, that’s Deaf Space–and applying them in ways that are broadly beneficial will go a long way to help all of us make those daily adaptations. Just think of a whole population of people benefiting from open sight lines and lack of visual clutter!

Public spaces are becoming more accessible and inclusive, but many programs are targeted toward individual groups. I recently got a new mantra: focus on the need, not the diagnosis. Since I first read that, my thinking has changed. My students need sign language; it doesn’t matter than their audiograms might indicate they have “enough” residual hearing for an auditory program. Our students need accessible play spaces; whether they are blind, autistic, or have CP is not the most important factor.

Paradigm shifts can be hard; this one might be fun…

Denying the Verbal Reality

I moonlight as a radio personality. We paint verbal pictures all the time on the air. The listeners visualize us anyway, so we give them something to see. Back in September, we did a Back-to-School tour, which kicked off from my school.* The staff were just as excited as the students to meet James and Alicia; our P.E. teacher told me later he was blown away that James didn’t look like he’d always envisioned.

I also have about three years of improv training. There’s a lot of overlap in skills to radio, especially related to “verbal reality.” In improv, you build a scene by saying things. As soon as you say it, it becomes true. Bob, we really need to do something about the squirrels in the bathroom. Boom. True. Scene started. If the scene partner denies the existence of the squirrels, says they are not in the bathroom but rather in the kitchen, or changes the topic of the scene completely, he or she is a bad bad improviser and no one will want to play with them ever ever again.

It is very important to confirm the verbal reality. It is the foundation of good improv, good radio, and, as you’ll see, good allyship.

My students inhabit the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization: disability, gender, ethnicity, more disability, age, class, language. In this area, we can add religion to the list, as only one of my four students is of the dominant faith (Latter-Day Saints). As their teacher, I reside in a usually comfortable nook of intersecting privilege: I am white, middle class, college educated. I am bilingual, but my first language is English. For the most part, I do not have a disability, although my migraines are straddling that fuzzy line between “chronic” and “disabling.”

This week, I almost spilled that privilege all over one of my kids.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Monday was library day. The librarian was reading a book and I was interpreting it, as is our Monday routine. During the story (which was a biography of MLK, of course), the TLK said in his sotto voice I’m black, too. I turned to him, interjected the story with Actually, you’re brown, and kept right on with the story. A page later my brain screamed SLOW THE HECK DOWN, TEACHER LADY! I stopped the librarian. I had just spilled my white teacher privilege all over my student, and I had some mopping up to do.

A slight tangent: my migraines cause aphasia, where sometimes I can’t say what I actually mean to say. My grandmother died with dementia; her words were failing her long before she stopped using them altogether. I work with students whose language is often behind that of their hearing peers and their own cognitive capacity. So I have an unofficial rule: Listen to what I mean, not to what I say.

I assumed my student had a concept gap like he might have in math or science, and that it was my job to correct him. Silly teacher. TLK knew exactly what he meant. I just forgot how to listen. There is a time to correct errors in vocabulary or concept, but this was not that time. And I had just denied his verbal reality.

One of my frustrations as a feminist getting her bearings was when people around me denied the importance of my lived experiences. When #NotAllMen was more important than #YesAllWomen. When their opinions (This conversation about your experience with being bullied and interrupted and talked over by men makes me uncomfortable. I’ve seen a woman do the same thing once, so your statistics about the prevalence of such behavior are invalid.) took up precious real estate in what had been a safe space for me. When I had to police my own tone because my frustration or my anger or my tears made someone with privilege uncomfortable. Now, I still get frustrated, but I know that I can say, Stop talking for just a minute and listen to what I’m trying to say. Stop telling me that your opinion supersedes my lived reality. Stop denying the existence of my squirrels, Bob!!!

At a festival this summer, I was trying to have a conversation with a man who kept interrupting me, steamrolling what I was trying to say. He was trying to tell me things about the band that was playing. The thing is, I sell merch for that band, and at the time of that conversation, had been selling merch for over a year. I know all the songs; I can play some of the songs on my ukulele. I’m not an expert, but I know the band. Even though he was just repeating the same thing over and over, and I was standing there selling the stuff, he wouldn’t let me say anything. I looked him in the eye and said, Ok. Now it’s my turn. 

My students don’t know they can say that yet.

So I slowed down. I stopped. I did what I should always do when my students speak up and need an ally: I asked TLK what he meant. He meant is family isn’t white. They’re Mexican. His skin is dark. And most of the people in their apartment building aren’t white either. And outside of school, his friends aren’t white. And mom and dad’s friends aren’t white.

That’s what he meant with his almost-whispered I’m black, too.

And I almost missed it.

*Yeah, that was totally my idea. I produced that show. Putting Deaf kids on the radio was a lot more successful than you would probably think. It was awesome. We did subsequent shows from the alternative high school, the alternative middle school, and another alternative junior/senior high about 30 miles away. Flipping the power, handing the mic to the kids. It was a month for the underdogs, who came right out and said, “I wanted to talk to you guys so people know we’re good kids who just don’t fit anywhere.” So sometimes I do know how to listen… I’m a work in progress.