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When My Students Notice My Facial Differences

I chose a social career when I chose to be a special education teacher. I should have predicted the effect my facial differences would have in choosing a career with children. It always influenced my interactions with people. I thought I knew as a teacher what I my interactions with students would be like. I thought I would teach them by giving them the tools and skills to live productively and independently. I was naïve to think my influence on them would not take a personal effect and involve my differences.

My first special education classroom comprised of kindergarten through second graders with learning disabilities in an inner city school. Within the first day or two, I saw my students try to hide snickers behind their little hands as they “listened”
to my directions or tried to move their lips side to side as they spoke with their
classmates. This continued as we all gathered on the rug for story time and I read “Hooway for Wodney Wat” by Helen Lester. I had a choice. I could have ignored the goings on and continued reading the story as if I didn’t notice, or I could stop the story in mid-sentence not to shame their behavior but to answer the questions they did not know they were asking.

Uncharacteristically (I’m an avoider by nature), I chose the latter.

“I can see you have questions about my mouth and face, and that’s OK. What’s not OK
are the things you are doing like laughing and moving you mouths like you have been.”

There were no denials of that statement. I continued, “You are all old enough, and I know all your parents taught you to be polite, so you can ask me any polite questions you like about my face.”

They all sat up straighter at that compliment and opportunity presented.

“Why does your mouth move like that?”

I gave them the short version of my story.

“The bones in my jaw did not grow completely on one side of my face, so one side of
my mouth is shorter. When I talk my mouth will go sideways because of that. But you all can understand what I say and I can do everything you can like eat and breathe and laugh. It may just look a little different.”

Satisfaction started to fill their eyes. As we continued the conversation, they raised their hands, waited turns and listened to me and to each other. Some of them hemmed and hawed at first not really trusting that it was polite to be asking such questions or how to ask. But with openness and encouragement, everyone seemed satisfied in the end.

We went about our business the rest of the year, and soon any differences were forgotten as I kept my students busy with learning. In January, we welcomed a new student into our class. As I spoke with him to acclimate him to our rules and routines, he looked at me curiously. He glanced at his new classmates, possibly surprised they were oblivious to what he saw as glaringly obvious. Hesitantly but not impolitely he asked me, “What is wrong with your face?” I replied simply, “My bones didn’t grow correctly so my jaw is too short on one side.”

That seemed to satisfy him. One of my other students, hearing the exchange piped in eagerly. “But you look good anyway, teacher!” Trying to be helpful another proudly proclaimed, “Teacher, you can go to the doctor and they can fix everything!”

I had to smile at how sure he was of that. I told him the doctor’s had done all they could, but it was OK because he could still understand me, right? He looked disappointed for a fleeting moment before he became distracted by his classmate and went happily on to the next thing. The new student took that cue to get back to classroom business. It wasn’t long before everyone was busy and productive.

This wasn’t the first time or the last time I would tell my story. Each new classroom, each new student I’ve told different versions to. Each time though I see the result. With questions answered, students accept my realities as their “new normal” in which we are able to work together. More surprisingly, students I have shared my story with have become unknowing agents of change by making it OK for their friends and family to be curious but accepting of the differences I embody as I teach.

The Mighty is asking the following: How would you describe your disability, disease or mental illness to a child? If you’ve done this before, tell us about that moment and the child’s reaction. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.