Ann Lambert is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Irving Middle School in Roslindale, MA
When he gets upset or uncomfortable, he puts his hood over his head and walks in circles. Sometimes he just faces the wall. When he raises his hand to answer a question, he takes at least one minute to get a word out. Most often he never finishes his sentence. He takes everything literally, questioning idioms that roll off the tongue. And his idea of small talk is playing “would you rather,” posing gruesome scenarios and making you choose how you would prefer to suffer. He’s awkward, but smart. Curious, but without social cues. He’s autistic—Asperger’s syndrome. He’s Ethan.
Last year, when Ethan was placed in two apprenticeships—Healthy Eating and Mock Trials—I was (admittedly) nervous. How is he going to excel in the spotlight? Healthy Eating? OK, fine. Maybe he’ll be able to help make and taste the food while others comment on its nutritional value.
But Mock Trials with Discovering Justice? He will inevitably have to stand before a federal judge, a jury, a bailiff, and a courtroom full of observers and deliver either an opening or closing statement, or a direct or cross examination. Not Ethan. He can’t even tell me that the denominator is on the bottom of a fraction without clamming up and putting his head down in distress.
Alas, WOW! season came, and not only did I watch as Ethan presented to a group of nutritionists, comparing and contrasting the caloric, fat, and vitamin content of two different smoothies, I saw him rock his part at the Mock Trial. Ethan’s mom and sister came to both events, beaming with pride, nodding fiercely with encouragement as he looked to them for approval and confidence. By the end, they were nearly in tears. They had been watching their quirky inhibited 7th grade boy come out of his shell and shine in such a unique way for probably the first time ever—and the Citizen Schools Apprenticeship program gave him the opportunity to do that.
So here I am, on the brink of yet another round of WOW!s; and as I reflect on successes and surprises of seasons past, I am reminded why this work is so fulfilling. It’s the moments when I am proven wrong: when the shy student takes the spotlight, the trouble-maker is engaged, and the daydreamer sits focused. There are so many dark horses and underdogs of the middle school world, much like Ethan, who develop powerfully when given focused attention and the chance to step up. Apprenticeships create these occasions for ordinary students to be extraordinary; and those who underestimated them, quite literally, are WOW!’d.
What is your favorite WOW! memory?