“Ellisa, please look to the front of the class,” Mrs. H demanded. I couldn’t look away from the spot I was staring at. How would they know? I couldn’t simply disrupt the class with something as off-topic as this. I would have to wait for someone else to notice—to see what I was seeing. Staring was the only way I knew how to casually draw attention to something. I flinched as Mrs. H said my name and I reluctantly turned around. As soon as her eyes left me, though, I moved to keep an eye on the menacing creature.
Mrs. H was deathly allergic to wasps, so it was just her luck that her first classroom of her teaching career had a wasp infestation. “Why aren’t you listening to me?” my sixth grade teacher asked. I quickly glanced back at her, nervous that I’d be in trouble. I never meant to go against orders. I turned back to watch the wasp slowly crawl along the carpet. Maybe she’d understand this time.
“What is she looking at?” a para asked. Yes, I thought, you’re on the right track. (As a side note, I’m unsure why we sometimes had a para in this classroom. I think they were assigned to specific students who needed extra help with math or reading).
T stood up, squinting in the direction my eyes were focused on. “It’s a wasp,” he said, which caused a small stir of commotion. He proceeded to drop a large reading textbook on it, squashing the life from its mischievous body. This wasn’t the first wasp to have graced us with its presence and it certainly wasn’t the last. I turned back to the front of the classroom, ready to listen.
Four years later I sat in the front row of my chemistry class on the first day of tenth grade. Mrs. G wanted all of us to arrange ourselves alphabetically by last name. Most teachers usually did this for us, but Mrs. G thought it would be a fun ice breaker for us to do it ourselves. I froze, trying to remember the others’ last names. I was good with names. Normally, it would be easy for me to figure out my seat since my last name usually set me at the first desk in the front row. However, this class had H in it and H had a last name that trumped mine for first place. Okay, easy enough. I’d probably be next to him. M slid in beside him and I recalibrated, spelling out her last name in my head. M and I shared the first three letters of our last names, but my fourth letter came before hers. Uh oh. M and H had been dating since I don’t know when (their relationship ended up lasting all through high school). I wasn’t about to break the news that they couldn’t be lab partners. I stood there, anxiously running through the scattered nonsense in my brain. The order wasn’t right. How would I fix it? I stood at the front of the classroom in a silent panic as the other students struggled to alphabetize themselves. All the seats were starting to fill up. Mrs. G had made it clear she wasn’t going to aid us in this task. Finally, Mrs. G joined me in the front, asked my name, and became the bad guy as she split the inseparable couple up. I was glad she wasn’t annoyed with me.
It was often a similar experience whenever teachers let us choose our own partners. After a while, I stopped trying to pretend to look for one. By twelfth grade, I would simply stay at my desk and wait until the teacher assigned me to someone. There was no use pretending anymore. To be truthful, I worked better alone, despite what my eighth grade self thought. Fourteen year old me was lonely, insisting she worked better with others to quench that feeling of loneliness. I didn’t really know myself then, though. I didn’t know I learned better without the distractions of other people. Sometimes, teachers would allow me to work by myself like they allowed for some of the more ostentatious students—the ones who usually had paras with them due to an IEP or 504 plan.
In intermediate algebra my freshman year of college, we were expected to work with partners we chose ourselves. Somehow everyone seemed to already be friends with each other on the first day of class, and I had to awkwardly ask to join someone’s group. It didn’t take long for me to stop asking though, as it seemed everyone always said ‘yes’ either out of pity or to be nice. When I retook the class the following semester, I made sure to work primarily on my own.
This became a problem when I tried to enter the workforce the summer between my sophmore and junior year of college (2016). I sat in a booth at a chick-fil-a, the initial in-person interview much longer and grueling than the average fast food interview.
“Do you have experience working with a team?” R asked. I mentioned my work with other student volunteers at a small town church. She didn’t like that response. “What about in school?” I quickly dug through my memories. We sometimes had group projects but nothing major that required us to work outside the classroom. By that time, I knew I worked better alone, but wanted to make a good impression. I think I might have mentioned my work with my high school e-communications classes, which often involved group assignments for video production. She liked that I had an interest in videography. One of her employees did too. We would potentially get along well. I thought I was doing okay in the interview—that I wasn’t letting her see too much of my social awkwardness, but that soon changed as the interview went on. R brought up her daughter in our conversation. “You remind me of her,” she said. “You’re both shy and quiet.” She went on to compare us. Dang it, I thought. She knows. Somehow, the interview turned into R trying to convince me I didn’t want the job—that I wouldn’t be good at it—instead of me convincing her I would. I accepted a job at a sandwich shop nine months later—another restaurant that valued teamwork. I remember silently directing my thoughts back at R as I exhibited what she thought I couldn’t. Haha, look at me now!
“By working independently, Ellisa indirectly helps to accomplish department goals,” my supervisor at my current job wrote in my evaluation last year. “This is Ellisa’s way of contributing to the team.” I liked that perspective. It fit with my intentions. My current job is driven by independent work that ultimately reflects upon the productivity of the team. We indirectly help each other.
It took a kind of teamwork to notice and kill the wasp in my sixth grade classroom. My staring had started it. I wouldn’t have been able to kill it on my own as I’m terribly afraid of stinging insects. I waited for someone to notice my behavior. It was noted, but not assessed. It wasn’t until the para thought to ask the reason behind my behavior. A friend investigated and killed the wasp.
This is how intervention should begin in the classroom. A behavior was observed, but Mrs. H skipped a step when automatically trying to correct it. She forgot to ask why. Why was twelve year old Ellisa not looking to the front of the class? By skipping this step, the behavior was only corrected for a short period of time before it returned. When the para asked why and the question was answered, a solution was drawn that ultimately corrected the behavior.
They say that with selective mutism, early intervention is vital. When a child does not speak, the question of why should be addressed before trying to correct this behavior. When it comes to an anxiety disorder, the answer to the ‘why’ tends to be a lot more complicated than a wasp on the carpet. The broad answer could be, “They have selective mutism.” This doesn’t answer much for people, though. There isn’t a lot of awareness of this disorder. Until educators can understand the key details of selective (or situational) mutism, it can be difficult to find a solution in the classroom.
This is why I leave these little anecdotes on this blog. While every child with SM experiences the disorder differently, my experiences may help others understand and work toward solutions.