"Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, All is bright...."
I was a brand new teacher and these were the first words of sign language I was entrusted to teach my new students at the Adaptive Learning Center. The ALC was the educational arm of a state residential facility for children with severe and profound mental disabilities. In the small rural town that surrounded its perfectly manicured but securely gated grounds, it was referred to as the "State School." Whatever it was called, in town or at the Governor’s mansion, it was "home" to a thousand men, women, and children who had at some point in their childhood been made a "ward of the state" and institutionalized. These children would never know a home-cooked meal, or bed sheets that smelled like sunshine and fresh air, or the way it felt to wake up to the sound of birds on a spring morning, or the sparkle of Christmas lights in the living room down the hall.
Many of us who had devoted our lives to their education, care, and recreation were keenly aware that we were the only touch of human kindness these children would ever know, especially during the holidays. Being a new teacher, my awareness of this reality weighed heavily. I had a class of boys ages 4 through 6. They were extremely active, unfocused, and perseverant. Our days were filled with educational activities that most mothers taught their toddlers. Repetition and simplicity were key. I spent many a night in restless dreaming, frustrated that I too was unable to hold a small object between my thumb and forefinger, and move it into a designated hole on a puzzle board without dropping it...again.
The institution had finally hired a music therapist earlier that summer. She, like most of us, was a fresh recruit out of college, eager to put to the test her love for children and her desire to make a difference in their lives. She had a rigorous schedule of working with each of our classrooms, and my little guys were her favorites. They were cute and precocious and we believed that, if we were the "miracle workers" we hoped we could be, in emulating Helen Keller's teacher Anne Sullivan, they too could become functioning members of society. And not only would they function, they would sing...and sign.
My guys were auditorily challenged--hearing impaired--and a big part of every day was spent in speech therapy, both in the classroom and in one-on-0ne sessions with the speech therapist. I delivered all of my lessons in both spoken and signed language. That fall and winter we worked hard to prepare for the annual Christmas show with a signed rendition of the first verse of "Silent Night".
Day after day I positioned hands and fingers over and over again as we sang "Silent Night, Holy Night..." Often I would come back to their residential cottage after dinner and showers to work with them during their evening time in the “day room”. This large empty room offered a big television suspended from a platform in the corner of the windowless, concrete encased walls and floor. It’s where they spent all of their waking free time. They'd pace back and forth or just sit in a corner while Archie Bunker ranted and raved about the decline of society or while Big Bird cooed on about "the neighborhood".
One evening after a long day in the classroom, I was on the verge of tears. I had been head-butted by a 120-pound six-year-old whose anti-aggression medication hadn't yet taken effect. Scott, my "star" pupil, was going to step forward during the concert and do a "solo" signing performance of "sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace". But he had been especially non-communicative, a behavior consistent with the autism we were working so hard to break through. Scott had been making some very flitting eye contact with me over the course of a month--we are talking no more than a second or two in a day of working together--and I was buoyed with hope. But on this night I could not help him quiet an anxiety that we had moved beyond some weeks earlier. I was devastated.
Since there were no chairs in the day room, I had been standing with him in the corner farthest from the endless drone and chatter of the television. He suddenly spun into an endless spiral of movement, vocalizing and hand flicking. I slid down the yellow, thickly-painted cinder block wall and dissolved into exhausted tears. I was no Anne Sullivan. I was barely me and this me still had to work a shift at my second job waitressing before I could hit the pillow and find relief from my aching body and the disappointment in myself as a teacher.
I can remember the coldness of the concrete floor and the smooth ripple of the cinder block walls against my palms as I slid to stop. Even as I type this, I can still hear Carroll O'Connor in his best Archie Bunker voice yelling "Edith!" My tears were still hanging from eyelashes and rolling down my temples and onto my navy blue cardigan when…I felt a calloused little finger…slide across my cheek. I looked up and there was Scott, big brown eyes staring into my face, calm and concerned. The moment lasted fewer than fifteen seconds....but it also lasted more than five and I was stunned. I sat there as silent and still as I could. All was calm and all was....yes, bright.
As soon as it had begun, it was over. Scott's eye began flitting around the room. He rocked back and forth singing to himself a sing-song that was not anything even close to "Silent Night". But when I approached him to try again with the signs for "sleep in heavenly peace", he did them without resistance or confusion.
I had learned early in my still young teaching career working with special needs children not to overwhelm them in the celebration of their accomplishments, but to quietly affirm their success and encourage them to repeat it. Soon the residential caregivers arrived to take the boys back to their beds and I followed to join them for "tuck in" and sung lullabies. Usually this is done by a recorded voice, but on this night I wanted to reinforce the Christmas carols we had been learning. So I stayed and sang to them.
Throughout the next week Scott and his classmates worked hard to learn the signs for "Silent Night". I discovered that Scott's breakthrough in making sustained eye contact and connecting emotionally was real and repeated...and not just with me. His solo came off without a hitch and I wasn't the only mom that night weeping for joy that this little guy--his white shirt and red striped bow tie pressed, his normally unruly dirty blonde hair combed to the side like a little man--had done well.
I can't hear "Silent Night" and not feel a small calloused finger reaching out to touch his teacher's cheek. My hands still find the signs for each word of that carol in space. My eyes still sting with tears at the memory of that group of boys in their ill-fitting Sunday best, arms and legs all akimbo putting their forefingers to their lips and waiting for my cue to begin the sign for "silent"....
This morning my mother-in-law sent me a video card of "Silent Night". As I opened the link and heard the first strains, I was transported back to a crowded recreation room with a makeshift stage and a little boy....who spent most of his days as a "ward of the state" rocking back and forth to confused murmurings....standing tall and scrubbed and full of human dignity as he painted "sleep in heavenly peace" through the silent air in front of him with those hands that had wiped away my tears. I have so much to be grateful for and I wish you a silent night filled with the gifts of knowing that the world is full of holy children longing for the Christ touch....just like you and me....
"Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth "
K & J