I will probably always remember the look on Maryjane Mellmer’s face when we met. We were in the elementary school Structured Communication Class (SCC) where she serves as the Teacher. FYI – SCC is a Special Ed program for kids with autism. She was supporting the efforts of a Para-educator to physically control a fifth-grader who, obviously, didn’t have much self-control. I was there to start a three-week assignment as a substitute Para-educator. When my introduction included me saying, “I want you to know that I’ve never done this before … I don’t just mean that I’ve never subbed in this sort of classroom … I mean I’ve never worked as a sub in any classroom”, though she had a numb look on her face, through a forced but brave smile and with intentional enthusiasm, she said, “Well, OK!”
To my surprise and probably to Maryjane’s surprise too, we’re now in our fourth school year working together in that same classroom, Room 20. When I tell others about my experience in Room 20, I consistently tell them that I’m blessed every school day to get to work with 21st Century Miracle Workers. Of course, I recognize the exaggeration in saying that. The Miracle Worker is the story of Anne Sullivan, whose tutoring of the blind-and-deaf-from-infancy Helen Keller not only connected Keller with the world in order for her to have a decent life, it made it possible for her to have an exceptional life. Anne Sullivan was one of a kind. Miracle Workers like her don’t come along every day. With that said, I can’t think of a more fitting description for Maryjane. This past month, the school district where she works honored her with its Employee Excellence Award and in doing so; they acknowledged her as the leader of a team of 21st Century Miracle Workers. In other words, they agreed with me. Considering these things, I want to tell you a little bit about how Maryjane came to her role as a Special Ed Teacher, along with some details of what she is achieving in that role.
Often, when a student in Room 20 behaves inappropriately, they are told that their behavior is “unexpected”. I suspect Maryjane might use that same word to describe her ending up in Room 20. After high school, she went off to college on a swimming scholarship. There, she majored in Elementary Education, with a minor in Early Childhood Development. She says that she considered Special Ed but she was “afraid of it.” For most of the next 20 years, she worked in jobs more connected with her athleticism, along with handling the responsibilities of a wife and mother. After completing college and teaching for a year, her first son, Andrew, was born. Her second son, Kevin, came along eight years later and her third son, Brandon, came along four years after that. Brandon’s birth turned out to be a watershed event in Maryjane’s life. With this baby, she found herself desperately trying to deal with constant behaviors that were “unexpected”. When he was six months old, it seemed apparent that his father wasn’t going to weather this storm with her so, for financial security; she took on a job running a health club. At the age of 18 months, her youngest was diagnosed with autism. For most people, that may seem like dreadful news to get but Maryjane praises God for the diagnosis. After a year and a half of trying to figure out what was going on with her baby, she had some definition and thus, a realistic shot at developing strategies for lovingly dealing with it.
The diagnosis of autism doesn’t come packaged with solutions for its challenges. With significant effort, related resources can be found but there is no Autism category on eHow.com. And, 12 years ago, when Brandon was born, help was very scarce. Complicating this further is the fact that an autism diagnosis determines where a child is on the Autism Spectrum. That means each diagnosis is unique, calling for individualized treatment. Worse yet, since the causes of autistic behaviors and their “cures” remain mostly undefined; finding appropriate prescriptions for treatment continue to be elusive.
Brandon’s circumstances included that he didn’t speak a word until the age of five, he couldn’t eat solid foods, he couldn’t use a toilet and he couldn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time. Thankfully, Brandon was blessed with a Mom who was determined to do whatever it takes to get him the help he needs. She provided for her family by working a $10 per hour job and she sought help for Brandon wherever she could find it. That combination resulted in times when she needed to tearfully recruit her own mother to care for Brandon overnight just so she could get some sleep.
It seems that real breakthroughs for Maryjane and Brandon occurred by her meeting two women who she regards as her heroines. The first of these was an Advocate, assigned by the state. In Washington State, Special Ed kids can be assigned an Advocate to help parents navigate their way through the morass of services available for various special needs. Maryjane says she never would have been able to figure this out by herself. The second of these was Brandon’s Pre-school Teacher. When Special Ed kids turn three in Washington State, the state hands their case over to the kid’s local school district, where their education is provided for free, from pre-school through age 21. In addition to the Pre-school Teacher’s positive impact with Brandon and Maryjane’s efforts for him, she influenced Maryjane’s decision to earn Special Ed certification herself, in order to better help Brandon and others.
Maryjane’s first step in moving towards getting her Special Ed certification was to move from her job running the health club to working as a Substitute Teacher in several local school districts. Then, she signed up for school herself, to get her Special Ed certification. Eventually, she managed to secure a long-term (two-year) sub job in Early Childhood Special Ed in the school district where she presently works. Prior to that, she had worked a two-week sub assignment in SCC. That is when she fell in love with the program. When she got her Special Ed endorsement and finished the second year of her long-term sub job, she learned that the Teacher position in the SCC program was open. Of course, she applied for the job immediately and obviously, she was hired. The current school year marks her sixth year in that position.
I’ve been an eyewitness to nearly four-years-worth of miracles that have taken place in Room 20 and I have no doubt that each student who has passed through Maryjane’s classroom during the past six years has experienced miraculous progress in one way or another. I’d like to tell you about every one of these but that doesn’t seem practical. So, in order to give you some sense of why I describe myself as one who is “blessed every school day to get to work with 21st Century Miracle Workers”, here are the top three, according to Maryjane:
- The first happens to involve the very first kid I encountered when I walked into Room 20 in the Fall of 2010. He was a second-grader who was small for his age. When he spoke to me, I had no idea what he was saying. It turned out that he had a soft palate and though he was actually quite verbal, he was very difficult to understand. It, also, turned out that he was quite intelligent. As you might imagine being intelligent and having difficulty communicating can be frustrating. When you couple that with autism and the lacking social skills that often accompany it, you’ve got some challenges. Thankfully, this had been somewhat mitigated by his family investing in him learning ASL (American Sign Language). The dilemma this presented Maryjane was that this little guy’s intelligence called for his academics to be outside Room 20, in GenEd classes. While his intellect was up to that, his social skills were not. But, he desperately needed the opportunity to achieve that level of socialization. So, Maryjane’s approach was to begin sending him out to a GenEd class for a specific daily lesson. At first, he was accompanied by a Para-educator to support him and to return him to Room 20, if he had a meltdown before the lesson was done. Once he was consistently getting through the lesson, Maryjane would add another daily GenEd lesson for him to join in. This strategy proved to be so successful that he was invited to join in the GenEd Spelling Bee at the end of the school year and guess what, he won! And, I’m very pleased to report that his progress didn’t stop there. The following year he was moved to a program for kids with higher skills than the kids in Room 20, his palate has continued to complete its development, so he’s continuing to be able to speak more clearly and this year, he was enrolled full-time in a GenEd class.
- The second involves a student who came into Room 20 last year, as a fourth-grader. He was completely non-verbal but he was already becoming familiar with iPad communication. Over the past year, he has developed that skill to the point where he has one of the best reading vocabularies in the class. The ironic flip-side of this is that he just isn’t good at handwriting or coloring or any similar activity. And, of course, he has his own set of shortcomings with socialization, that go along with his autism. With this guy’s challenges, Maryjane, again, employed a strategy of beginning to get him out to GenEd classes. However, the aim here was combining opportunities to develop art skills along with social skills. So, instead of going out daily, he goes out weekly to Art, Gym, Music and Science. Although this student’s education will, most likely, always be in a Special Ed environment, he has been successful at consistently staying in full lessons for the GenEd classes he has attended and the other students have welcomed him as a fellow class member. And, though his handwriting and coloring still leave much to be desired, earlier this school year, one of his art projects was selected for display during our city’s First Friday Artwalk.
- The third involves a little guy who was a first-grader when I arrived in Room 20. Part of the reason he was little, even for his age, was that he required eating therapy. I’m told that when he first came into the class he was close to being non-verbal. By the time I came along, he had become more verbal but much of it exhibited a behavior known as echolalia – i.e. repeating back the words that are spoken to him. This is actually a natural phase of childhood development but for a baby, not for a first-grader. When combined with the deficiency in social skills that typically goes along with autism, this can be very trying, especially when the student is being non-compliant in doing their work. Unlike the first two students I described, this boy’s set of issues have been addressed using Room 20’s “standard regimen”. Getting off the bus in the morning, breakfast in the cafeteria, structured free time, the multiple forms of communication and physical activity of Morning Circle, Reading, Recess, Snack Time, Communication, Writing, lunch in the cafeteria, Story Time, Math and getting back on the bus in the afternoon, along with all that’s involved in transitioning between each activity … every moment is planned, with an aim to help the student in every way possible. The results with this kid include that, though he may always be a bit small due to his earlier need for eating therapy, presently he consumes with the best of them at breakfast, snack and lunch. And, his communication skills are among the best in the class too. When he arrives in the morning and I ask how he’s doing, he doesn’t just repeat back my words. Instead, he says, “I’m good. How are you Mr. W?”
As I said, I’d like to tell you about every one of these miracles but that doesn’t seem practical. So, I guess I’ll just have to be satisfied with telling you about these three and hope that’s enough to give you some understanding of the miraculous progress I’ve witnessed with the kids in Room 20. Oh! Wait a minute! Maybe there’s one more you’d like to hear about. A frequent visitor to Room 20. Maryjane’s youngest son. Brandon. How’s he doing?!
Of course, my perspective on Brandon is much different from Maryjane’s. I’m not with him 24 x 7 so I’m sure Maryjane sees much more than I ever will about changes in him that would be helpful. But he has made tremendous gains, considering his earlier description as a boy who “didn’t speak a word until the age of five … couldn’t eat solid foods … couldn’t use a toilet and … couldn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time.” His mother and I agree, regardless of any abilities he may be lacking, “He has personality oozing out of every pore.” I love being around Brandon. Our conversations are never sophisticated or complex but they are always amusing. And, though he continues with behavioral issues that can accompany autism, including OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), that’s not always all bad. I’m particularly fond of the fact that anytime I visit his home, before I get out of my car, Brandon, compulsively, comes bounding out the front door to hug me and to say, “I love you, Mr. W!”
The dictionary defines the word “miracle” as “a work of God”. My view is that a Miracle Worker is one who God chooses to use to accomplish His work because they are willing to yield to His touch and to use all the talents He’s blessed them with to get the work done. There are several ways in which this clearly applies to Maryjane.
First, she pours herself into her duties as a Teacher. In a separate article, entitled It Takes A Well Educated Village , I said, “… staff at the level of individual schools is the wrong target to focus on for Education Reform. … Rather, (my) experience (is that these are) knocking themselves out for the benefit of our kids, working long and hard hours at very low pay.” I think that description fits Maryjane to a “T”.
Beyond her job description duties as a Teacher and at least as important as the learning that accomplishes, is how she shares her heart to care for the kids. She is diligent with the kids’ curriculum and she applies discipline when needed. And, I’ve seen her join in physically restraining a child, for their own safety and the safety of others. More often, though, I’ve seen her do things like having a kid lie down under her desk while she read him a favorite story until he regained his composure, finding ways to give extra attention to a boy who was feeling insecure due to a new baby in his home, going for walks with a student because he opens up more outside of class, sitting on the floor in an assembly with her arms and legs wrapped around a little one so she can stay to experience the entire program, eating her lunch in the classroom in order to be with a student who isn’t capable of dealing with the cafeteria environment, etc., etc., etc.
Additionally, she strives to influence as many as possible to be part of the team helping the kids. That includes her staff of Para-educators, colleagues at her school, peers throughout the school district, community organizations and most importantly, the students’ parents and families.
When asked about her keys to success, she first points to the fact that she has a son who has been diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum. She says, “It allows me to empathize with parents as well as giving me the authority to be a little harsher with them if they are not doing their best for their child. I have been there … we spent two years not sleeping and I still managed to get my kiddo to school every day and to therapy, while working a full-time job. It is horrible but it is doable. It also allows me to see the kids as not just students but as somebody’s baby.”
Maryjane’s words of encouragement for parents just now facing what she began facing with Brandon over 12 years ago are, “The #1 thing is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Things can be really hard and it may seem like there is no end to the problems. But, if you really work at making things better, it gets better. It would have been really easy for me to take state money and just raise Brandon but things are better now and he is better because I really worked at making him that way. He is so great now, by no means is he cured but he is great. There is a reason that I am so happy about him and never stop trying to make him better. Small victories are huge.”
Maryjane’s motto is “Fake it till you make it”. I’ve heard it from her many times. She says, “It seems like lying sometimes but eventually you feel it.” I can testify to that. Do you remember what I said to Maryjane when we first met? It was, “I want you to know that I’ve never done this before …” What I had been doing, for the previous 40 years, was having a very successful business career but not much about that applied to the needs in Room 20. I really had no clue what I was doing and I’ll add to that by repeating what I’ve admitted numerous times – i.e. If I’d seen a video of what goes on in Room 20 before I went there, I probably wouldn’t have gone there. And yet, I decided to ascribe to Maryjane’s motto because I saw some kids who needed all the help they could get and I thought I might make a difference.
In this article, I’ve referred to Maryjane Mellmer as a Miracle Worker and I’ve described progress her students have experienced as miracles. Maybe you agree with that and maybe you don’t. Maybe, if you don’t spend your weekdays in a Room-20-like environment, you’re just not able to see these things as I do. To me, she is truly an American Heroine, very much the sort of role model I would point today’s youth towards, to emulate. In an earlier article entitled God’s UPS Drivers , I talked about another American Hero and role model who shares the earthly wealth God has blessed him with to benefit others and that in doing this, he describes himself as being “one of God’s UPS Drivers.” He says, “God puts stuff on my truck and as long as I keep delivering it the way He wants me to, He keeps putting more stuff on.” I would describe Maryjane similarly but, in her case, instead of “stuff” being put on a “truck”, it’s precious lives being placed on what is commonly known as a short bus.
Regardless of whether it’s best to call Maryjane a Miracle Worker or God’s Short-bus Driver, God is blessing many through her. Obviously, the kids are being blessed, as are their families and pretty much everyone who has any contact with these kids. However, as I’ve found to typically be the case with a person like Maryjane, she realizes that, in the process of serving, the one God blesses the most is the servant. In fact, when I asked her if she sees it this way, she said, “Are you kidding?! I get to be a part of the family of each and every kid. It is a really close relationship. So much so that you’ve seen it get ugly, with both me and a kid’s Mom crying when it’s time for their kid to move on to another class. But I am still able to be part of their family on a regular basis. And, I get to celebrate the small things. I got to cry tears of joy with our kid’s family when he had his piece displayed at the Artwalk. There’s so much more. I could go on forever. Let me just add, the relationships are what keeps me going, both with the families and with you guys. Believe me, when you spend a few years together; getting attacked, hugged and screamed at; you get to be forever friends no matter how much you talk in the ensuing years.”
That last part is an added blessing for me. In addition to the blessing of getting to serve in a role where I thought I might make a difference, I’m blessed to get to do so while working alongside and being inspired by Maryjane. My hope, in writing about her is that it will bless and inspire you too.