I suspect I knew that Tuesday was going to be my last day at school.
We had been having some trouble with a student whom I’ll call Ellie. Ellie was pressured to leave her Catholic school and, over time, we pieced together why. She had been placed in a rather catty class, but most of the biggest bullies had powerful parents. This was the class that was trying to date people in third grade, which is unusually early in Catholic school circles, so it was no surprise that by fifth grade, when this other school always had catty girls, this class was wretched. Unlike those girls, though, everyone seemed to act like Ellie was the problem, because likely of her developmental delay.
Ellie was making great strides in our school and it didn’t hurt that we were trying to overtly teach social skills, but not in a pre-prescribed kit kind of nonsense. More like real life, breaking ideas down and testing them out in ways that made sense to our kids.
So the day I left was the day after she’d been trying to tell all the girls about some very PG-13 things that happened to her. The trouble is, these things didn’t happen to her; she’d read about them online and really thought she could make friends and bond over telling these much younger and less mature girls about them. At the same time, she could cement the idea she was older than they (though developmentally, they were nearly identical in age). We had to get it to stop since it was starting to freak out one of the girls and her mother was growing concerned. These parents were patient, but at a certain point, it was getting too hard. The trouble is, this was the “rule” Ellie had learned about fitting in from that class of girls where stories like this would be normal and so would bullying and dividing girls into “best friends” and not friends.
So when Ellie arrived in the morning earlier than usual and she and I were the only two at school, we had a talk. A long talk.
I told her I was Autistic. I told her what Autism means. I told her that I didn’t know if she was Autistic or not, but I did know some of the thing she was doing suggested to me that she might be. We talked about the troubles I had in school when I was her age and we talked about things like body proximity and secrets. We modeled out how close is typical to stand or sit to a person, and we talked about how secrets, deep secrets, like the ones she had been telling (I skirted over the lies part since, well, someday something dreadful might really happen to her and I want her to be believed and feel like she can tell it) were the kind of things you tell people you’ve known for decades or more. In her case, that means her mom, her aunt, and her grandparents.
“Not my grandma,” she said.
“Okay, not her. I agreed. “But you could. She would be on the list of people you could tell something like that to.” I told her that if it’s something that big and she couldn’t tell her mom, then teachers and police officers would be on that list, too, but for the most part, right now, she should tell her mom since her mom really does like to help her. She seemed to like that and I was grateful she had a mom she believed that she could talk to about anything.
We went over the social rules about secrets again, then practiced standing the right distance away from someone. She was much more interested in this than ever before since she realized if I had had trouble with this when I was her age, it wasn’t childish. She felt, I think, more normal.
Then I told her we’d do this lesson with everyone so everyone could know. We had a kindergartener who was too huggy and clingy and since I knew he’d be going to public school the next year, he’d have to learn about how close he could stand to a person, too, and they’d all have to work together to help each other learn this skill so they could fit in where they went. She accepted that, and was glad she knew the “right answers” the first time.
So, the last day we were together, we practiced standing the right distance apart and talking about secrets and how they should be told and to whom. Hopefully I ran off the tendency she was getting to gather girls around her in the closet to tell secrets to, secrets that never happened and made the other girls feel uncomfortable. Secrets she made up in a desperate attempt to create a storybook “best friends” relationship which my students honestly didn’t have in real life. I hoped I broke down some of the rules she’d built for herself based on a previous unhealthy school relationship coupled with online research about scary things that happened to other kids, but (thank God) not to her.
The last day I was with my students, I came out to one as Autistic and helped her to believe that she was okay, if she was like me, too.
But I had to leave that night, after school, like a sneak-thief. I revealed myself to one student who needed me. And then I was gone.
I hope she can find mentorship in other Neurodivergent females and that her next school will be patient as she continues to grow.
I hope she can pick up from here and keep developing, so she can survive in her next school. More than that, I hope she can thrive.