By Anne Tenaglia
*All names have been changed along with any personal information
Amari Grady* may have been the most frustratingly wonderful student I have taught. He passed through my friend Elizabeth’s class and was placed in Sharon’s class when he left mine. We were the teachers in the intermediate grades who were known to be flexible or unflappable, and that’s where the “unusual” students were usually assigned. Unusual may mean sickly, developmentally slow, behaviorally challenged, mentally ill, or just really different. Amari fit mostly into the really different category. When Elizabeth passed his records and writing folder on to me at the end of his fourth grade year, she had once good piece of advice. “Talk to the counselor about him before school gets back in session,” she said with raised eyebrows, “He doesn’t speak.”
I marched down to the counselor’s office at lunchtime and took notes as she explained that Amari was a selective mute. He is able to speak, but does not say a word to anyone outside his house. He already had an IEP as it was thought Amari had a learning disability. He did, indeed, but it was very difficult to judge his reading level without hearing him read. He had come to our school because of bullying at his former school. I had dealt with a student in similar circumstances during my years as an Elementary Math Resource Teacher It was while I taught math that I met Javier. Javier Broad Wing was an extremely shy young man who was the only Native American student in the school at the time. He quietly observed those around him and did not speak in class, even when called upon. No amount of cajoling or threatening made him respond verbally in class. He would, however, by grade 3, read in a whisper privately at his teacher’s desk, where no one else could hear him. I taught him math in a small group three times a week. It was an adventure, but we eventually came to an understanding and he would speak to me privately. By the time he left our school in grade 6, he was speaking aloud in class but not very often. Today he is an amazing young man who is still fairly quiet, but is making his own way in the world. All things in their time.
Before school started up again in September, I read articles about selective mutism and learned that it was common in children under 6 years old, but sometimes persisted into adulthood. People who are selective mutes are inhibited and anxious in social situations, and are not being rebellious, but are physically unable to speak in those instances. It’s like they have an anxiety disorder regarding speaking outside the home. There were several suggestions on how to treat selective mutism, but they all involved proceeding very slowly and, even then, were not always successful. Many students are terribly quiet in the beginning of the year. Mainly they are just unsure of themselves in a new situation and sit back in the classroom watching for the first one or two months at school. When they are comfortable and know what the teacher and their peers expect of them, they loosen up and begin to participate. Two of my own children were like this and in the first six weeks of school their silence bothered their teachers. But by Halloween, those same teachers were probably wishing they’d shut up! I was determined to make the classroom a safe haven for Amari, so it would be easier to establish a comfortable atmosphere for him. I needn’t have worried.
When my class got together in their new fifth grade room in September, they were very protective of Amari. Fully 75% of the students had come from Elizabeth’s class. If anyone from another class made a comment about his not speaking, Amari’s classmates stuck up for him, explaining in their way, that he was a good person, he just didn’t speak. They never pressured him to respond verbally, but they expressed the hope that some day they’d hear his voice. And I never noticed any bullying of him in the classroom, thanks to Elizabeth’s vigilance in grade 4.
In the first week of school, I hand out Little Kids Rock guitar lesson information so we can get started ASAP. What a surprise I got when Amari raised his hand to ask for an LKR permission slip! I gave it to him with trepidation, as I had never taught anyone who was mute. I needn’t have worried, as Amari’s mother made sure the lines of communication stayed open. She was not afraid to come up to school and ask questions he could not. If I had had doubts that he ever spoke to anyone, there was none after the first conversation with Ms. Grady. She certainly knew what went on in the classroom and told me I had no secrets about anything that went on in school. Amari told her EVERYTHING.
In class, Amari was mostly agreeable with any activity we did. He spent an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon in the Resource Room, where he received the attention he needed to improve in his reading and writing. I sat him next to Joshua who also had an IEP, because the two of them seemed to have a special bond. Indeed, I think Amari spoke to Joshua, as Joshua would often appear at my desk with a message “from Amari.” Although I never actually saw Joshua and Amari speaking, I do believe they did or had figured out an efficient way of communicating. Amari would “tell” Joshua what he wanted or needed and Joshua always obliged him by making sure he got it somehow. They actually helped each other out with their class work. Joshua was a math whiz but Amari but could only do second-grade math.
Amari was reading (as far as I could ascertain, based on questions answered in writing about a book) on about a fourth-grade level, but Joshua was only reading on a second-grade level. Together, they were a decent student and I sat them together as requested by the counselor. After a while, I decided to make Amari “ask” for what he wanted, rather than rely on Joshua to relay messages. I was happy with a handwritten note, since he didn’t like to write and needed the practice. It was important to me that Amari make himself heard somehow and not be dependent on his friend. I included both boys in separate small reading groups. In this way, each had to rely solely on what he knew. Amari had a listening role in his reading group, but I expected him to answer questions by pointing to the answer or showing on what page the answer was found. The first half of the year, Amari always smiled with his mouth closed, but as we neared the mid-year mark he began to let his teeth show a bit when he smiled. His therapist told me this was great progress, even though he still was not talking and made no sound when he laughed. She tried to get him to agree to just say “yes” or “no” to me, but that didn’t happen.
When Amari brought hi guitar permission slip back, Joshua delivered both his and Amari’s with a smile. At LKR band practice, Amari rapidly surpassed everyone in the group of 5th to 8th graders with his talent. I was thrilled that there was something he was great at and hoped it would be a conduit for speaking this year. Amari never forgot to bring his guitar to class and always practiced what we had learned. In fact, about halfway through the year, Jackson, who was in 8th grade and had been playing with us since 5th grade, took me aside and conceded that Amari’s talent exceeded his own and he was highly impressed. There was an opportunity for three of my students to play onstage with Joshua Radin at a 1200-seat venue in center city on Valentine’s Day. I issued a challenge to all the LKR kids to learn Radin’s song, Brand New Day. The three who played it the best would get to play with Joshua Radin on stage. We practiced for weeks and it was not hard for me to choose who would make their stage debut that evening – Jackson, Amari, and Steven. Joshua Radin came to visit our class that day and we played our best songs for him along with his Brand New Day.
It was the first time Amari would smile widely that year when the class posed with Joshua Radin and a member of his band. If I thought he was excited in class, I was not prepared for his reaction after during and after sound check. He was so happy! The kids and their families were treated to dinner before the show at the Hard Rock Café. I was surprised and flattered when Amari chose to sit next to me, across from his mom, at the restaurant. Man, did the boys feel like rock stars! We even had All-Access passes to wear! I cannot begin to tell you the thrill I felt for the boys, but especially for Amari as the sold-out house cheered them for a long time after they played the song with Joshua Radin. When we came out from backstage to go home, the audience high-fived the boys as they walked down the aisle. There was a certain spring in each kid’s step as they walked down the sidewalk. In fact, I don’t think their feet touched the ground!
The experience was a springboard for Amari to keep improving at the guitar. In fact, I ran out of things to teach him and had to go into student mode myself to learn new things to teach him. He never did speak to me aloud, but he wrote several songs and I heard him laugh out loud once. When he got to Susan’s class in 6th grade, he finally did speak, saying yes, no, hello, and goodbye. I was so proud of him! I’d like to think the activities he participated in with me in fifth grade gave him a boost to be able to finally speak. I hope he will continue to feel more comfortable in school and be able to fully participate in school. Slowe and steady wins the race.