Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Students I Remember: "Nacho"

During my second year teaching sixth grade in Cicero, Illinois we had a teaching "in-service." That's teacher talk for "a day with no kids, just excruciatingly boring professional development."

In the seminar I was in, we were assigned to write down the names of two students: one of your best and one of your most difficult students. Then we were to pair off with another teacher and discuss them.

I ended up paired off with Ms. J., a fifth grade teacher. As we started discussing our students, we were startled to discover that my good student was her difficult student.

Ms. J. had had Ignacio "Nacho" Puentes the previous year. I had him that year. Ignacio was a bright little pip of a guy. I was curious why Ms. J. had found him difficult. She told me that they had gotten in a year-long battle royale over SSR-- Sustained Silent Reading.

I replied that Ignacio loved reading. She told me that when doing SSR, she required students to read "chapter" books. All Ignacio wanted to read was about birds.

She was correct in that. Ignacio was interested in little other than birds. He acquired the nickname "The Birdman." He spent much of his day reading up on birds. He would do the other assignments quickly and perfunctorily-- this could be a problem. He would rush through them, usually performing poorly, so that he could get back to reading up on birds.

One day, I checked my email while at work. My parents had moved to Tennessee a few months before, and my mother was spotting birds she hadn't seen in Illinois. She knew about my "birdman" and emailed a description of a bird she'd seen nesting near her and my father's home.

I read the brief description to "Nacho," and he immediately stated, without hesitation, that it was a Carolina Wren. I emailed this to my mother, who looked up a picture of a Carolina Wren on the internet. Sure enough, Ignacio was correct. I was floored.

As the year went on, it occurred to me that Ignacio might have Asperger's Syndrome, a fairly newly-discovered (1981) form of autism. People with Asperger's Syndrome are very high-functioning, have difficulty with social relationships and are obsessive about one subject.

Obviously Ignacio was obsessive about birds-- he basically refused to study anything else, no matter what the consequences. And he was prone to odd, random conflicts with the tight-knit group of friends who surrounded and protected him. Toward the end of the year, I began to realize that he probably did have Asperger's Syndrome.

I wondered what to do. I talked to the school counselor, who told me there really wasn't much they could do.

Ignacio finished sixth grade and was sent to the massive (5,000 student) junior high school that the district opened up that year. I saw him a couple of times the next year when he would pick up his younger brother who was still at my grade school.

The year after that, I didn't see him, but I ran into a kid who had been in that class. I asked about a few of the students. When we got to Ignacio, she said "Oh yeah, Nacho's still the Birdman."

I hope that his family has the good sense to steer him toward college, and hopefully, ornithology. I expect that some time in the next ten or fifteen years, I'll run a search on his name and find a book on birds written by Dr. Ignacio Puentes.


cheer34 said...

It must be frustrating to meet so many children and not know the outcome of their lives. To wonder what happened to the ones that remain in your heart and head.

I hope you do find that book someday.

Anon. Blogger said...

I hope that book gets written by "Nacho", too. I hope that in spite of his unique characteristics he is able to be successful (even survive) in an education system that is not designed for uniqueness.

Skylers Dad said...

I know a couple of kids with Asperger's Syndrome. One of them is like birdman, only with Military aircraft. I email his mother quite often with stuff I picked up from the Navy days, he loves it!

Natalie said...

I don't quite understand how a teacher could get upset when a student had a profound interest in reading something, even if it wasn't in chapter format. I wonder how hard it would have been to find some bird fiction so they could have a compromise? Or if she even tried.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Oh, that was how I was hoping you'd end the story too.

"jew" "girl" said...

that is such a sweet and gut wrenching yarn. very interesting...

Kathy said...

I'm enjoying these reflections of your teaching experience.

Johnny Yen said...

It is, sometimes. Once in a blue moon, I'll run into one of them, usually in a store. There's one I used to run into a lot-- he was a cashier at the Office Depot near my house. He told me some happy news-- that Eduardo, a kid in that class (back in 1993) with severe learning disabilities, but incredible art talent, was in filmmaking school at Colombia College here in Chicago.

Anon. Blogger-
You're absolutely right about that-- our education system is based on the factory system-- moving kids down assembly lines, "installing" the different subjects.

He was incredibly strong-willed-- I have a feeling he'll make it.

Skyler's Dad-
My ex-wife Cynthia had one in her first-grade classroom-- his thing was trains.

It was a little mind-boggling. It turned out that that had been her first year teaching-- she was all full of piss and vinegar-- she was going to do things her own way. She hadn't yet learned one of the first rules of teaching (and parenting)-- choose your battles wisely.

She's actually a great teacher-- she got tenured at that school and I didn't. She must be doing something right. I think she learned her lessons.

It's a good ending, isn't it?

It's actually pretty happy-- I really enjoyed having Ignacio in my class. It was a very cool, unique class in general-- one of my favorites.

I'm enjoying doing them.