by Jean Swearingen, October 2, 2013
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in Ukiah, and I have just finished watching the Nicolas Cage/Shirley MacLaine film Guarding Tess for the umpteenth time, this time with new insights into the parallels between the plotline in the film and my current professional aspirations. I have not submitted any articles to the AVA for several months, the main reason being that my employment with Ukiah Unified as a Severely Handicapped Inclusion teacher has severely limited my opportunities for creative literary expression, particularly of the unpaid variety. After having been out of the field for over a decade, my adjustment to being back in the mainstream of special education once again has necessitated the dedication of practically all of my time, attention, and focus, to the virtual exclusion of everything else in my life, including my writing, in which I engage solely for the pleasure of doing it, with no expectation of remuneration.
In the film, Douglas Chesnic (Cage), a Secret Service agent, is assigned the duty of guarding Tess Carlisle (MacLaine), a former First Lady, an assignment for which he has decided that he has put in sufficient time, and, as such, feels he is entitled to move on to “greener pastures” (such as being assigned to the current president’s detail). When Tess specifically requests that he continue to be assigned to her detail, because, as she states to the president, she “likes him,” a battle of wills ensues between her and Chesnic, which is the central theme of the film, eventually leading to the two of them becoming eternally dedicated to each other, to the extent of Chesnic laying his life and his reputation on the line to ensure her safety.
In my twelve-plus years of experience as a special education teacher, I have discovered that quite often the challenges of the position often end up being the greatest rewards, once I am able to focus on the aspects of my job that really matter the most, such as the incredible support networks that are available.
I am a firm proponent of the concept that students with academic, social, and behavioral challenges are in the educational system for the sole purpose of challenging the members of their educational team (which includes parents and other family members, teachers, service providers, paraprofessionals, fellow students, administrators, and community members) to examine all aspects of their educational program in order for the educational team to provide for them not only the “least restrictive environment” in terms of academic support, but also to honor their uniqueness in their individual approaches to accessing the core curriculum and utilizing it in conjunction with their own individual learning styles. In my twelve-plus years of teaching special education, I have seen far too many special needs students being “written off” solely because they were not able to access the core curriculum through more conventional means.
That said, I want to applaud Ukiah Unified, and particularly the elementary school to which I am currently assigned, for all their efforts toward mitigating the effects of these students’ educational challenges toward including them, academically and socially, in the mainstream of the district educational system. Although the programs are not perfect, I have witnessed, in my short time there, all members of the students’ educational teams working diligently together to meet these students’ educational and social needs and contributing toward their positive self-image as valued members of their educational community. This is an exciting trend to witness, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be included in its execution.
Returning to the plotline of Guarding Tess, I admit reluctance on my own part to fulfilling the professional responsibilities of dealing with individuals with socially challenging behaviors, regardless of their status within the educational or larger local community. Behavioral challenges have always been one of my least favorite aspects of this job that has claimed the bulk of my professional experience, although I readily admit that in most cases, particularly where non-conventional modes of communication are involved, the messages that have been conveyed to me were exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the time and in the manner that I most needed to hear it.
This renewed immersion in special education has mostly served to remind me of the dedication of all of the members of each student’s educational team toward their social and academic success. As someone who, 21 years ago, when I first applied for a special education teaching position with Ukiah Unified, has been on the forefront of inclusive education when it was just a theoretical concept, I am thrilled to witness the theory in practice, thanks to the dedication of all of the parents and other family members, certificated, classified, and administrative staff members, and other invested parties, who have contributed so much of their time and effort, to make the dream of inclusion a reality. The system works, despite its challenges, because of their dedication.
In conclusion, my assignment, like Douglas Chesnic’s, is a difficult and challenging one. Although, like him, I was “hand-picked” to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of my position, there are days during which I yearn for an “easier, softer way” (in AA vernacular) to earn a living wage. I recognize that I am called to a higher purpose that has nothing whatsoever to do with a monthly paycheck, my admiration for these students and their families is boundless, and I am humbled in their presence. ¥¥