A few weeks ago I substituted for a group of moderate special education students. I walked into a situation where a student, Carlos, had sprayed a few spritz of one of those drug store after-shave colognes like Axe. Immediately a couple of instructional aides started to complain, although before Carlos sprayed his cologne, there was a stale and stagnant odor in the room. I guess the smell of Axe cologne was a bit more forceful or pungent than the other odor, because one of the aides started to ask, “Who sprayed that?” She started to frantically walk around the room looking for someone to reprimand. She found Carlos and started to admonish him while he defensively tried to explain that “it stunk in the room.” She then walked toward the phone threatening to call his parents, and he raised his voice and irritably said, “alright, alright, I’m sorry.” She then walked past the phone, mumbling something about, “If you do it again, you’re out of here.” Carlos seemed to be agitated, so I went ahead and validated that the room was a “bit stinky,” and that I understood why he had sprayed cologne. I asked him not to spray anymore, and told him I would open up the windows and door instead. He then started to work on a math packet the teacher had left for the students.
It was basic math such as simplifying fractions like 42/20 or turning fractions like 7/10 into decimals. He raised his hand and asked me to help him because simplifying fraction was too difficult for him. I went over and modeled a couple of the problems for him and then had him do some guided practice. He didn’t know the difference between an odd and an even number. I explained to him that to simplify a fraction he had to find a number that both the numerator and denominator could be divided by. I explained to him when the numerator and denominator are even numbers, one of the quickest ways to begin to simplify the fraction is to divide both by two. When I showed him the fraction 24/16, he wasn’t able to recognize whether the numbers were odd or even. Once I told him both numbers were even, I reminded him he could divide the top and bottom by two. Because he didn’t know his basic multiplication, even with a calculator , the work was challenging.
Later on at lunch, I saw him sitting around a table with friends laughing away, just enjoying life and being in the moment. I wondered how many of his friends were in special education? How many had trouble with basic math? Was he the only one, and how did he hide that part of him to his friends, to the world? Carlos was probably a struggling reader, too. I wondered how he compensated in high school classes for the lack of those skills? How far along would he get through high school before his self-worth and dignity are buried under piles of IEP (Individualized Education Program) forms and assessments.
Maybe he would become hopeless in a system that only has packets and Fs to offer him. Eighty-five percent of all juveniles who come in contact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. Each day in America 763 Black children drop out of school. A recent study shows that Black men in their 30s now, without a high school diploma, have a 70 percent chance of going to prison. The pipeline was already set at Carlos’ doorstep.
As I thought of him and his journey, my heart began to break. All of a sudden, right there in the midst of all this injustice whirling in my head, I saw a dragonfly hover next to me for a few seconds, and continue on its path.
This is what I once heard referred to as a “God shot.” A moment in which you are shown enough light to recognize you are falling into the darkness. Then, I smiled. Thought about Carlos as I held immense love in my heart for him. That evening I researched the symbolism of a dragonfly, discovered it’s connected to the concept of change and light. When it shows up in our lives, it may remind us to bring a bit more lightness and joy into our lives. It calls on us to live and experience ourselves differently. It reminds us of the ability to take things lightly, even in the darkest moment – to keep the light and have a positive outlook no matter what. The solution may lie in our ability to adapt and tackle the issue from a different angle. The gift of the dragonfly in a moment when I was feeling heavyhearted helped me to shift and explore my emotions as an opportunity to focus on the empowerment of children rather than on their oppression.
I meditated and set an intention for Carlos and all the students like him – that they may all figure out how powerful and magnificent they are and grow to be the greatest versions of themselves. As a substitute, I probably will never have contact with Carlos again, but I can hold the thought of him with immense hope and love, and maybe that energy will reach him when he most needs it.
I also meditated on my role as an advocate and activist for our children. The challenges and injustices can seem so daunting. This is when it is the most important to understand our own power. Though we walk our paths normally, inside we harness an unlimited amount of power to envision and recreate the world we live in, whatever our purpose and service may be. The education system is a microcosm of our society, and as such, its transformation will require a collective force. My role is to figure out how I can contribute to that force through inspirational and innovative ideas and work that will have a direct impact on our children now.