February 20, 2009
Monster Slayers by the Bay
And then you find other bubbles, other pockets where people are building their own similar worlds, and suddenly it feels like everything might just be okay, and that the world might just be getting incrementally better, despite all appearances to the contrary. The broken are being helped to their feet and into the world all over, it turns out, and while the lost still vastly outweigh the found, it's a start. It won't do forever, or even for long, but it'll do for now.
Last week, my friend Monique van den Berg and I were fortunate enough, thanks to the efforts of the Prentke Romich Company and particularly due to the work of PRC's Kara Bidstrup, to visit two programs in the San Francisco Bay Area that are not only doing the same kind of work as Schuyler's AAC program here in Plano, Texas, but have served as models for this program and many others. We met other teachers, ones who have been doing this work with kids, REAL kids in REAL schools, and pretty much for as long as the technology has been in development to do so.
Most of all, I met the kids.
The Bridge School in Hillsborough, California was founded in 1986. The idea was to create a learning environment where kids with complex communication needs could develop and thrive all the way to adulthood, largely through the application of augmentative and alternative communication. The school uses a multi-modal approach, similar to how Schuyler communicates through a combinations of her device, her sign language and her limited verbal skills.
Since the very beginning , the school has been funded at least in part thanks to the annual Bridge School Benefit Concert, thrown every fall by Neil Young and his friends. The lineup over the years has been pretty impressive, including (and I'm not even kidding here) Bruce Springsteen, Billy Idol, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Tracy Chapman, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Elton John, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Beck, Emmylou Harris, The Pretenders, David Bowie, The Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M., Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Eels, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Lucinda Williams, Robin Williams, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Thom Yorke, LeAnn Rimes, Jack Johnson, Wilco, Counting Crows, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, John Mellencamp, Los Lobos, Norah Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bright Eyes, Good Charlotte, Trent Reznor, Death Cab for Cutie, Gillian Welch, Devendra Banhart, Tom Waits with Kronos Quartet, John Mayer, Regina Spektor, Cat Power...
So yeah. The concert is a big deal. The bigger deal is what you find inside the school.
We met with the Bridge School's executive director, Dr. Vicki Casella, who was kind enough to take some time to explain the program, and then we were given a tour by Kristen Gray, the school's Outreach Program Manager. The Bridge School keeps a small student population, only fourteen kids at a time, but the program is a transitional one, with the goal of getting these kids back out into their community schools. The school supports about fifty kids outside of its small campus, and the logistics and resources and above all training required to do so must be daunting.
When I met the kids, I was suddenly aware of just how challenging a task this is for the Bridge School. Of the fourteen kids in the program, none were ambulatory and most presented physical challenges that could best be described as extreme. These are the cases that the Bridge School serves exclusively now. And yet every single one of them is learning to communicate, through a variety of creative techniques and strategies, all with the goal of graduating these kids from Bridge and transitioning them to their home school districts or other educational placements.
More similar to Schuyler's AAC classroom was our next destination. The TACLE program at Oakland's Redwood Heights Elementary is a program that was originally established in 1990 by the Bridge School, along with Oakland's Programs for Exceptional Children, California Children Services and Associates of Augmentative Communication and Technology Services. If the Bridge School is an island of specialized learning, then the TACLE program is an outpost, a fortress deep within neurotypical territory. Like Schuyler's class, these kids are integrated into the elementary school where they are housed. The teachers in the class, Stephanie Taymuree and Michele Caputo, were simply extraordinary. I'm not sure how to describe it except that the just GOT these kids. They understood exactly what the kids needed, they knew when to be calm and when to be excited, when to be "appropriate" and when to recognize the importance of a communication moment above all else. I found myself asking them questions about my own parenting approaches, questions I'd been carrying around for me for years without even realizing it.
Their skill and their commitment showed. It was clear in the enthusiasm of their students, many of whom lined up with their PRC Vantage speech devices to tell us the things that were fluttering in their heads like bats searching for a portal, looking to set those thoughts free. They used their devices to speak, sometimes in sentences and sometimes simply in excited, frantic strings of associated words, and despite the fact that many of them never even take their AAC devices home (due to occasionally difficult family lives at home), these kids were incredibly fired up about communicating electronically, to a degree that I'm embarrassed to say that I've not seen in Schuyler, perhaps ever.
By the end of the day, it had become clear to me that the teachers and therapists at Bridge and at the TACLE program are achieving their goals with persistence and patience and an overwhelming positivity. As I was introduced to these students, what I noticed most of all was the thing I always look for when I meet kids with disabilities. Regardless of their often extreme impairment or their difficult home situations, these kids are bright-eyed and forward leaning, excited about their surroundings and eager to break through or go around the walls that they've so often in the past found looming in their way.
If you've had any experience with good special education programs, you probably understand what I mean, just as any past exposure to a BAD program will have familiarized you with the dull-eyed, lethargic kids that populate those programs where teachers and therapists have, on some fundamental level, given up on their students and lost their faith. It's a kind of difference in a child's eyes and in their expressions; you see it in kids who are powerfully motivated and inspired rather than placated and underestimated and ultimately abandoned by their schools.
It's hard to describe, but I saw it in the eyes of the very first girl I met at Bridge. I guess the best way I can put it is that when I looked into her face and into those flashing eyes, behind the impairment and the physical manifestations of her own particular monster, I could see, with a sad and yet wonderful clarity, the little girl she was meant to be. You look into their eyes and you see them as they should have been, and as who they can be still in their own way. It's sad and it's wonderful, and I think perhaps most of all it's the thing that keeps these remarkable teachers and therapists coming back to work every day.
I understand how lucky we are. I know how fortunate Schuyler is, to be ambulatory and relatively unmarked by her monster in any significant physical way. She's nine years old now, and she's been in an excellent program for three and a half years. Schuyler finds a way to communicate now, and she may be delayed developmentally but it no longer feels like she's doomed to remain that way forever. Schuyler grows more "normal", for lack of a better word, every day, and one day she just might reach the point where she can walk, and more importantly TALK, in the neurotypical world like just about any other young woman you might meet. In some ways, she already does.
But after spending time with these kids and watching how hard they work with AAC technology to reach the world around them and communicate the things going on inside their beautiful and remarkable brains, I am reminded once again of a simple truth, one that I sometimes forget, to my shame.
Without the support of so many people and without the hard work of everyone who loves her and refuses to give up or accept things that no parent should ever accept, and most of all without her Big Box of Words and her little mental toolbox of sign language and her broken but earnest verbal expression, Schuyler Noelle would still be that ethereal, otherworldly little girl, the one I described in my book. So strange and beautiful, but not entirely ours or entirely in our world.