Tennyson Street School: syndrome

Syndrome: (n) a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms;
a group of symptoms that consistently appear together or occur hand-in-hand

Miranda brought cookies. Fresh from the grocery store’s holiday bakery display, they were soft and crumbly, a cross between a sugar cookie and a shortbread. I had one for breakfast with my coffee, and then I grabbed another for later. Full of sugar and sprinkles and that warm feeling that begins after Halloween and leads into Thanksgiving, I continued putting the finishing touches on my learning environment.

Based on my long hiking journeys, I’d settled on a travel theme. Above a laminate map of the world I’d written, “We Are Going Far!” I’d drawn arrows from college into the world and across oceans.

My Lab groups would start in one week, after I’d had a chance to shadow Fellows at another school. Even though I had reviewed the routines and format of our program, I was feeling nervous to actually begin tutoring, because I knew full well that book knowledge is one thing – street smarts are another.

A savvy, experienced educator set off like Commanding Teacher, leading her well-provisioned expedition into the wilderness of learning. I had found the term I dreaded in a reference journal called the “Missouri Conservationist” put out by the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1979: Greenhorn Syndrome.

“When you [sufficiently] plan an outing, … you can march into the wilderness, knowing that if you become lost, shoot your toe off or fall over a cliff and break a leg, someone will become concerned when you are unreasonably overdue and notify authorities.

“When your sense of direction departs and familiar landmarks vanish, there are two basic reactions. One is the greenhorn syndrome: finding himself disoriented, the greenhorn is likely to start looking unsystematically for recognizable landmarks. This usually results in the victim’s flogging about in the woods, getting nowhere and, eventually, going literally in circles. Consequently, he becomes more and more lost, rather than less, and finding him is more difficult for searchers.

“The experienced outdoorsman, on the other hand, finding himself disoriented, can save much anguish and spare possible search parties a great deal of trouble. Since his method is the preferred one, let’s examine it in detail, with a view toward improving your own response in a similar situation.”

As I strapped my whiteboards with colorfully patterned masking tape into defined data areas according to the Literacy Fellows model, I felt quite disoriented, already far beyond my recognizable landmarks. I worried that once I had students, I would begin flogging about in circles due to ignorance and inexperience.

But I was an experienced outdoors…person. And an experienced social work…person. I may not have the Masters or marksmanship awards, but I had years out there in it, in the wilderness of human relationships. I had enough behavioral tools not to shoot myself in the tenderfoot as I figured out how to be a tutor. This was just a new, unfamiliar landscape; trekking, I knew how to do.

“When you find yourself with the unpleasant realization that you are lost, your first move should be to sit down, make yourself as comfortable as possible and pour a cup of coffee from your Thermos bottle. While you’re sipping your coffee, let your eyes roam around. Enjoy yourself. Watch the squirrels and listen to the birds sing. In short, relax. When your coffee is finally drunk and you are thoroughly relaxed, you are ready to consider your situation objectively.”

I finished my coffee, enjoying my second cookie. The purple, blue, and green colors in the space were beginning to come together. I liked how this learning space felt.

I began to work on my small “Better Choices” bulletin board. Each student’s first name was written on a clothespin. At the beginning of group, I would place the students’ names on a colorful continuum, from “Star Student” all the way to “Call the Office.” Initially, they all started on “Ready to Learn;” if they weren’t displaying “Ready to Learn” behavior, we might have to move their name down one color, to “Make a Better Choice.”

In my experience, it’s easy to agree when we’re not feeling ready – to learn, to hike on, to start tutoring. It’s not hard to agree to make a better choice, either – but how? What would a better choice look like? This is the moment we start to feel lost in the woods. How do we not start flogging about in pointless circles until we either fall off a cliff and break our leg or get called to the office?

When we feel lost, we need to make a better choice. And choice-making is much easier with guidance toward useful options.

“Get your compass out (you should have one, you know) and establish your directions. If you don’t have a compass, use the sun and with a strong mental twist, move the directions back where they belong. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes north will seem to be east, so much so that only by a definite intellectual effort can the sun be wrenched into its proper place and the cardinal points of the compass be fixed accordingly.”

I cut the four bright colors of paper into long triangles. Orienting one to point straight up, one to the right, one straight down, and one to the left, I was creating a compass rose on the small bulletin board. In the teacher’s workroom, I had come upon the curious marvel that is the letter stamp, a simple, nearly-antique tool involving stamp blocks for each letter, but using built-in blades instead of ink, cutting a perfect letter from construction paper using only a well-positioned letter block and your arms to pull down on a long metal lever. Now each bright triangle was anchored near the center by its cardinal letter and an associated choice: E for Explain my idea; W for Write my words; N was ask for what I Need; and S to Sit straight and strong.

“Determining your proper orientation with regard to directions may clear things up to the point where you can proceed….”

I couldn’t have agreed more as I glued a pointed paper dial to a large magnetic block, the needle we would use to reorient ourselves in Literacy Lab if we became confused or restless or any other kind of lost. A very analog system for children of the digital age, but I felt that a limited number of positive choices would let me guide them back on track easier and faster than asking them to brainstorm a solution when they felt lost and bewildered.

“If your wristwatch has hands, instead of a digital read-out, you can use it for a compass. Point the hour hand toward the sun; south is exactly halfway between the hour hand and “12” on the dial.”

I looked up at the old-style clock on the classroom wall. Its long black hands simply told the time, like the old Timex watch on my wrist. Neither gave flashy feedback about heartrate or how many steps I walked or my efficiency at anything, really, other than my ability to note the passing of time in the blink of an eye.

“Where are you going?” I heard Miranda asking. I stepped out from my cubicle. A little boy was walking all around the Lab; but he was not a Lab student.

“Can I help?” I asked.

“Thanks,” she said with relief, returning to her students arguing in the corner. “His class is next door.”

I looked over, confused, but she had her hands full and wasn’t looking my way. I thought next door was Spanish ECE, tiny people who liked to sing Spanish songs loudly, con gusto. This little guy was quiet and peaceful, and seemed a little bigger than a preschooler.

He looked up at me with calm, soulful eyes, almond-shaped and dark. Multiple cracks in his dry lips caught my attention, a common symptom for children with Down’s Syndrome, which appeared to be his situation. He touched my wristwatch, as fascinated by the smooth face as I was by him. Then he looked back up at me again.

“Let’s get you to your class, okay?” I touched his shoulder to walk with me, and he came right along. We entered the open classroom next door.

“Hola, David – que pasa?” the Spanish teacher asked him.

“He wandered into our Lab next door – does he belong in here with you?”

“He comes in for Spanish, but not right now. I’m Lourdes,” and she smiled at me. I introduced myself, as well. “You need to go back to class, David,” she told him.

“Do you know where his class is? I don’t,” I told her.

“Oh! Yes, I think it’s across this way?” Lourdes pointed diagonally across the room and out the door.

“Okay. David, shall we go?”

And David immediately took my hand. Holding hands, we walked down the hall to a first grade room, where his teacher gave him an impatient scold. “Did you go to the nurse? Did he go to the nurse?” she asked me.

“I … no idea, he wandered into the Literacy Lab…it’s colorful…and….”

“Did you get changed?” she commanded. David would not let go of my hand.

“Do you want me to…take him to the nurse…make sure…?”

“Can you? That would be great,” she sighed. “Thanks so much.”

So David and I slowly walked back down the long hall to the nurse, who said yes, he’d been changed, then back one last time, all the way past the Lab and back to his classroom. We didn’t talk. We just held hands, walking happily together.

This, I knew how to do, smooth as the face on my watch, which was useful in establishing not only time but a relationship. So glad for hands, which can be used as a compass in a pinch, pointing me in the direction of my own magnetic north by pointing me to look away from myself: be who you are, the hands indicate. Just be here now, along for this part of the journey.