First Grade

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December 16, 2015

When was the last time you were in first grade? Lucky for me, I was there just yesterday. I’m 37 years young and still get to go to first grade. I’m also lucky enough to get the chance to just watch those bundles of energy… all kinds of energy… attention-seeking energy, excited energy, working-really-hard-to-please-your-teacher energy, frightened energy, running energy, please-come-be-my-friend energy, shy energy, I-hope-I’m-doing-this-right energy, creative energy, yelling energy, I’m-trying-to-be-so-good-but-it’s-oh-so-hard energy, wiggly energy…  Those are just a few I saw yesterday and when I go back tomorrow, I can add to that list. 

I’ve worked with children and adults with special needs in a variety of settings as an occupational therapist for almost 15 years now. My heart has always been drawn to those that are misunderstood and don’t quite fit in. Maybe that’s why I’ve been drawn to working with children with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder and other difficulties that aren’t always understood at first glance.  

This morning when I woke, I saw a Facebook post of a beautiful, full-of-love video by Emilie Parker’s mom, Alissa Parker. The video is called Evil Did Not Win. Emilie Parker was a first grader at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut on a fateful day in December 2012. I remember driving to school to pick up my own first grader as I heard the news of the shooting and I burst into sobs. I could not drive and pulled to the side of the road, sobbing for another 5 minutes. Later in the day, I learned that close family friends were involved in this tragedy. Emilie’s family still carries the unbelievable pain from that day when Emilie didn’t return home to them. I’m in awe of Alissa and Robbie’s strength, determination, faith and love through this tragedy. I love and respect these friends and would have anticipated this kind of strength and love from them by who I’ve known them to be. I pray that I might one day have the brave faith and determination they show.

I never knew Emilie, but I imagine Emilie having the creative, working-really-hard-to-please-you, energy. I see her getting lost in a blissful imagination of her own. I picture that no adult could do anything but love this little blonde, beautiful first grader.

There is another side to the Sandy Hook story that is the most difficult to talk about, that we don’t want to talk about because we don’t want it glorified and we simply don’t have answers to the questions. I 100% agree with this. But, when I go back to first grade tomorrow, I can’t help thinking about another once-upon-a-time first grader named Adam. He was the precursor of the Adam that became the horrific part of the Sandy Hook story. Because when I see the energies of those 6-year-olds, I have to believe that he had some of those same energies I saw in first grade yesterday. And I have to believe and have faith there was another option than the outcome at Sandy Hook Elementary. What turned that energy is my question? While this question may never be answered and I am not presuming to know the answer, I do believe this is an important question to discuss for all children’s futures.

This little first grade class I was in yesterday has gained the attention of the entire school. There are a few boys in that class that are already infamously known by teachers, administrators and students. Their energy is not the appreciated kind of energy in a first grade class, and their energy can hold an entire classroom and school hostage. How can this be at just 6 years old?

I wonder about first-grade Adam in his classroom, in his house, on the playground, going to tumbling class… When he showed that unappreciated kind of energy, what was the reaction of those around him? What kind of attention did he get with that energy? And from that attention, what did he learn about himself as a 6-year-old boy that eventually grew into a horrific mass murderer?

As I watch those harder-to-manage first graders, I see them searching franticly for some kind of reassurance from their peers and especially the adults. Many times it is attention, sometimes it’s the assurance that they have a sense of control over anything, other times it’s to know they will be safe, sometimes it’s acceptance.

The majority of children know how to gain attention, control, safety and acceptance because they learn well from the environment they’ve been living in. They’ve learned how to use the energy they have to feel this way. But what about the ones who haven’t?

Did Adam learn that to get attention, it had to be a bigger and bigger act to receive attention? Did he learn that the most immediate and quickest attention was when he broke the rules or hurt someone? Did he learn that the only two ways for him to feel safe was to run away or aggressively attack whatever felt unsafe? And had he learned that he really wasn’t ever accepted by any peers or authority figures for anything he did?

As I’ve worked with children with unappreciated energy for over a decade, I am reminded every day that there are no easy or perfect solutions—absolutely none. If you happen to know one of these children, you intimately know the constant, never-ending struggle. But, hopefully, you truly love this child without end and are willing to continue this struggle every day. Please never lose hope and never give up in your search to help this child feel loved with secure boundaries. Please come back the day after you’ve “given up” on this child, to keep searching and keep loving. Because this search and this fight will most likely change daily and give you more and different answers to find than the previous day. You may physically, mentally and emotionally scream and pull your hair out. Do that, and come back, knowing your hoarse voice will heal and your hair will grow back or you can start wearing a new hairstyle with less hair. 🙂

My plea to you, parents, teachers, coaches, grandparents, friends, is that you will make this first grader or any other aged-child, to feel just as attended to, in control, safe and accepted as Emilie felt by her loving parents and caregivers. I believe that we can make just as much difference with the struggling first graders as we can with Congress passing gun laws for the entire nation. There are many, many small and big solutions along the way that will make a great impact, but none of them are successful without seeing the child with love and compassion. Please persevere in memory of those 20 beautiful first graders and in the memory of an innocent, first-grade Adam.

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