My husband Blue and I learned firsthand that our nation's public elementary schools were full of teachers who performed miracles on a daily basis, often with only their students as witnesses. When they were young both our children were blessed with good teachers, but Robin came along at a critical juncture in our son Eliot’s life. We knew Eliot challenged Robin, but we didn't know how much until long after we had nominated her --and she had won-- the award for Teacher of the Year.
If only the public school system could clone her. She was fun and unflappable, and her magic was based on a simple formula: treat disabled persons like our autistic son with love and dignity, while at the same time challenging them. Robin never let her kids fall back on their disabilities where they had the capacity to grow.
Robin turned on the music, handed her kids instruments, and sang with them. In Robin's classroom, music, art, cooking, doing dishes, and housekeeping were not activities that were set aside when these students entered the elementary grades. While even then, before the current financial crisis, such activities were all but dead in our public schools due to lack of funding and a focus on standardized tests, they were precisely what activated kids' brains for math and reading. Robin's music, both literally and figuratively, primed her students for learning, and more importantly, made them happy, thriving human beings.
Parents who are put off by the "extreme sports" atmosphere of the severely handicapped classroom could learn a great deal from a teacher like Robin. She set aside any fears she may have had of communicating with a severely autistic child, and accomplished amazing feats, namely figuring out how to get through to her students.
When Eliot's medication wasn't working and he was disruptive, instead of calling us and telling us to come pick him up, Robin found a way to work around his difficulties. Being able to walk away from her classroom in the morning knowing she embraced our boy with all of his challenges gave us immeasurable comfort. Despite the havoc her students could wreak, she carried on, and as a result, her students carried on. Robin's classroom was a safe haven for her students and their families.
"I love my new school," Eliot said shortly after joining Robin's classroom. It was no wonder. We loved Robin too.
After a year and a half in Eliot’s classroom, Robin moved back to San Diego to be close to her family. It crushed us to see her go, but we were grateful we had known her at all. My faith told me that if Robin was leaving there must be even greater things in store for Eliot. That would turn out to be true, although we would have to make radical changes to find an environment where Eliot felt as safe as he had felt in Robin's class.
Eliot has since developed a remarkable ability to communicate directly, but back then he devised clever and hazardous schemes to get what he needed. On Robin’s second to last day in the classroom, Eliot ran away from her, and when another adult went after him, he said he only wanted Robin to chase him.
Watching him run with one arm bent, one arm flailing, and legs whipping like eggbeaters, Robin had a hard time being angry. When she caught up with him she said, “This is not goodbye. We can email each other. And I’ll see you when you come visit in San Diego.”
That night I showed him the pictures of Robin in action, which I had taken and put in a book as a gift for her. Pictures were an important link for a visual child like Eliot cut off from the world by some of his other perceptual difficulties. He looked at them for a long time and said, “I want to keep her.”
Then, “She fine! She needs to stay here and enjoy!”
He spent the rest of the night looking at the pictures. I believe he was saying goodbye. But she was right. It wasn’t goodbye. We saw Robin every summer after that.
It was years later that I heard a story about Robin in the classroom that capped anything I'd witnessed myself. One day when Eliot was overstimulated he started spitting, and Robin turned her back to him, at which point he started spitting in her hair. After it was over and school let out, she put him on the school bus. Then she went back to the classroom, brushed her spit-gelled hair into a ponytail, and went off to a meeting with the administrators who oversaw her work. If it weren't for another adult in the classroom (who has remained a trusted adult in Eliot's life) I would never have heard that story. For Robin it had just been another day. For me it was the ultimate example of the work a teacher like Robin does, often with no audience other than the other students bouncing around the room.