Halfway through our fourth week of homeschooling, I must admit something to you all: I am not Maggie’s primary teacher. I know. It’s like you can’t trust anything you read on the internet. But it’s the truth. Maggie’s instruction comes from the redoubtable yet lovable Mrs. Hooter.
Mrs. Hooter is a good listener. She hugs when frustrated tears come to light; she changes things up. Maggie can talk to her openly and honestly, and Mrs. Hooter will change course. Mrs. Hooter takes no nonsense, either. She sees through stalling tactics and takes Maggie over the jumps with firm kindness. She is everything you would imagine a teacher could be, if she had the time to devote all her energy into one student and sounded more like Mrs. Doubtfire with a head cold.
This is that worthy lady:
No, I haven’t been eating glue. That is Mrs. Hooter, hand puppet and educator.
A few months ago, Maggie started asking me to participate in scripts (a form of echolalia that relaxes and soothes her mind). The more I said in character, the more she enjoyed it. She responded to characters (particularly my Stitch to her Lilo; I’m really good at Stitch) making requests. It added an element of fun, and an element of safety as well.
When you’re little, and especially when you’re little and Autistic, grown-ups are inherently unsafe. They say odd things, unpredictable things. They laugh at jokes you don’t have a hope of understanding, even if you didn’t mean to be funny. Maybe especially if you didn’t mean to be funny.
Adults are so cruel to kids, without ever noticing or seeing–or intending to be. Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind said it best, and seeing that movie in 2004 laid the bedrock for the parent I would become ten years later: “Sometimes I think people don’t understand how lonely it is to be a kid, like you don’t matter.” Even with the best intentions, I make mistakes like that. Sometimes I laugh when the girls are deadly serious, without realizing until a second too late how serious they are. I say the wrong thing without realizing how wrong I was. It hurts. I have to regain ground and become safe again.
Enter Mrs. Hooter.
Mrs. Hooter follows scripts. Mrs. Hooter’s eyes are just right for gazing into, without that panicky overstimulation of an emoting face staring back at you. Mrs. Hooter is quiet and thoughtful, and just the right texture for a warm hug. Mrs. Hooter is safe, and it is of paramount importance to us that Maggie feel safe everywhere, but especially in her classroom. We need her confidence high to clear the hurdle of perfectionism/low frustration threshold. Mrs. Hooter’s rumbly voice (brought to you by throat lozenges) and gentle nature becomes a confidante as well as a mentor.
Today, believe it or not, I didn’t remember Mrs. Hooter. Maggie got so frustrated with me that she excused herself, found Mrs. Hooter, and had a conversation with her: “I just make mistakes and get scared and angry of them and need to cry. Then I’m okay and I’ll try again.”
Do you get what kind of a breakthrough speech that is for her? If you don’t, let me fill you in: THAT IS A HUGE F’ING DEAL. HUGE. Self-advocacy! Identifying emotions! Isolating cause and treatment of a meltdown ON HER OWN. That is gigantic.
So we’ll press on, Mrs. Hooter and I. One day Maggie may outgrow Mrs. Hooter the way she outgrew needing pencils that were as big around as a small branch, the way she outgrew needing chubby-handled forks, and outgrew needing jackets that button instead of zip. Moira may grow into her, liking (perhaps needing) the element of silly but reassuring safety that Mrs. Hooter provides.
But when I look back on our first year of homeschooling, it won’t be at her forming letters or her delicate but increasingly firm grasp on the number line. It will be on Mrs. Hooter’s throaty rumble, and the joy and security–and love–she brought to Maggie in her time in the classroom.