A story of fighting fear and finding humanity along the way

Paper-clipped piles of papers sit to the left of me, a reminder that grades are due soon. As we near the end of the semester, however, these are not at the forefront of my mind. Today something pretty incredible happened in my room, E121. And this isn’t a story about grades. It’s about a mute student in a speech class and 23 of his peers.

Meet Nate*. Nate does not speak in school. He is selectively mute. At home, he talks so much, his cousin calls him annoying. The first day of speech class this year, I asked the students to all participate in sharing something. We got to Nate and it was silent. I waited allowing the awkward silence to ensue. Finally, a student piped up, “Ms. Peterson, he doesn’t talk.” I was confused, didn’t believe her at first. Nate nodded, and I finally understood. We moved on.

A mute student in a speech class? As the teacher, I struggled with how to proceed. How could I create an environment that would be encouraging, yet rigorous so that he would feel compelled to speak? I had to learn more.

I called Nate’s home and spoke with his mother. She cried on the phone. I learned that Nate has been selectively mute at school since kindergarten. His mom did not have a reason ready for why he chose not to speak. To her, there didn’t seem to be a reason. She shared that it was his choice to take the speech class at this time…he wanted to overcome his fear. He wanted to speak in school.

Nate has an accomodation, which as teachers, we are legally obligated to uphold. His accomodation allows him to video tape speeches and other peformance assessments. And this is what he did for all his major speeches. And on the clips, it was clear: Nate has a natural, speaking voice, something that can’t be taught.

For his final, persuasive speech, I encouraged him (along with his cousin who is also enrolled in the course) to deliver his speech to at least a few of us. I offered to sort of hide in the room, so he would feel he was just delivering the speech to his cousin. He came into my room with his cousin over lunch several times, gearing himself up.

Today, was the last day of speech class. Last chance for Nate to speak.

With 25 minutes left of class, I looked at Nate, smiled and raised my eyebrows. And the class took it from there…

This group of students embraced Nick with their words, some with their arms, and many with their gestures of kindness. One female student, stood up and walked confidently to the front of the room declaring she was dedicating an impromptu speech to Nate.

“I believe there are no coincidences in life, Nate. You are here for a reason. You are in this class and in this room for a reason…” She explained that the whole class was there for him and that we would all support him in overcoming his fear to speak. I was moved to tears.

When the bell rang, no one moved. We sat in the circle around Nate that the students had so organically created. I ordered pizza and we eased into the moment before us. The circle was maintained and the students who chose to stay through lunch began to share some of their deepest fears. They even drew Nate encouraging words such as this on the board:

photo (5)

Nate never did speak. But, perhaps that wasn’t the end goal, after all: It was clear he came a long way in his inner struggle. In fact, I was fully convinced he was about to open his mouth and utter a word. Before today though, I am not sure I would have believed it. And at least he knows now that when he feels ready to speak in school, there is a safe place for him.

Calling the mother of the student who gave the impromptu speech was another highlight of my day. She hesitated when she picked up and realized it was a teacher. “I don’t normally get phone calls like these,” she said. After a 15-minute long conversation about what happened in class and how her daughter helped to facilitate it, she thanked me for calling and said “this was exactly what I needed to hear today”…Maybe her daughter is right; everything does happen for a reason.

Class today was about something bigger than getting someone to speak. My students reminded me, Nate, and each other that humanity can still exist in education; in actions and in words.

*Please note: Names have been changed.

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