The Art of Being Irresistible
The range of abilities in those who are born, or acquire through injury, deficits in cognitive or physical functioning, is huge. During my years in Special Education I have worked with children and young adults with almost every degree of ability, and disability. One rule stands however; people are survivors and my students have found the most amazing ways to navigate intractable handicaps in an unforgiving world.
I have been called in, from time to time, to assist teachers with large case-loads in various schools, in the assessment and management of students. I sometimes consult about behavior or learning strategies, or I may administer formal evaluations. Recently I had the privilege of going into a nearby Middle School to do just that. My charge, a lovely teenage girl with Down Syndrome, was new to the school. Her name was Teresa (name changed), and I had never met her before. Down Syndrome manifests in many ways, and this young lady had severe cognitive delays, and some hearing and vision impairment as well. But the things she lacked were more than compensated for by something amazing that she had cultivated throughout her young life.
I prepared the assessment materials, introduced myself to her, and walked her to a quiet office where we would do the test. At first she walked a little behind me, kept her head low, glancing at me occasionally from the side, sizing me up. The content of the test, for the most part, was beyond her capacity to read or comprehend, but gradually her confidence grew and she became decisive and quick in her choices among multiple possible answers. Although her thinking skills related to the tasks were small, her determination to look and ACT independently and with confidence, was immense.
Standardized assessments, even alternative assessments designed for youngsters with learning disabilities, can be tedious and exhausting. The test was difficult and seemingly endless. I asked Teresa on several occasions if she needed a break, or wanted to get up and stretch. Each time she indicated that she wanted to continue to work. I could tell after awhile that her eyes were getting fatigued, but she persisted. I used every trick in my book, a soft voice, slower speaking cadence, encouragement, smiles, to help Teresa through her big job. But Teresa was doing the same for me. Her social mannerisms were very “teenage.” She tilted her head just right to look coy at times, she flipped her hair, her gesticulations were not unlike the conversational gestures of other teenagers, and she expressed her self-deprecation with the same eyerolls an big exhalations used by typical kids. She was connecting with me on a social level, and in doing so, she won my heart. Teresa was blazing a path of her own around judgment and up and over social stigma. Teresa was onto something.
As the testing wore on, she strove heroically. I had to take a breaks for water and to stretch my legs. Teresa looked at me with mild disapproval during my moments of distraction. She could see that I too was getting tired of the tedium. About half-way through the assessment, her vocal tone became a little higher, more positive, and she began to end every answer with the endearment, “honey.” She would point to the answer she thought was correct and say, “That one, honey,” or “I like this, honey.” Teresa was encouraging me. This little girl was guiding the social dynamics of this “formal” interaction.
I responded to HER encouragement. I was revived by her endearments. I was energized by Teresa’s positive attitude. I was absolutely charmed by her flirty, teenage demeanor. After the test was complete, I walked her back to her classroom. Midway through the hall she put her hand on my back, in the manner of an adult guiding a smaller child. I could see that she had become my friend. Her charm was irresistible and I threaded my hand under her elbow, and we walked, arm and arm, just like BFFs, back to her room.
Teresa taught me something wonderful that day. Human accomplishment is often measured by tangible metrics; how high is the place value of the zeros behind the dollar signs, how many houses are owned, how many trips are taken, whose faces are most recognizable? But those tangibles are only one facet of the human experience. The mastery of kindness, the ability to help one feel loved and accepted, are less concrete, but of vastly greater importance, and too often lacking in human interactions. Teresa, with her cognitive deficits, her physical struggles, and the barriers placed by nature and social stigma between her and what most regard as fulfillment, are not quite as daunting when measured against her ability to connect with another’s heart.
Teresa, and others, whose chosen art is love, are wonderful examples of the benefits of becoming authentically irresistible. Social mannerisms need not be superficial. Kindness, encouragement, endearing words, can shatter the artificial barriers that fear places between us and others. The magnificence of God’s human creation is most apparent in the little ones who master the art of love.
by Marjorie Haun 2/14/14