A warm welcome for Professor Fussypants
Good morning friends of The Village School! It's looking like another hot summer day, with the chickens squawking lazily in the distance, early morning sunlight filtering through the glistening leaves, and zucchini coming out of our collective ears. Our school days have been playful and relaxed lately. The kids are exhausted from late nights and long afternoons of swimming in the pond, and all our minds seem to be wandering in the clouds, as is only appropriate at this time of year. At times this has been stressful for me, bringing up anxiety about my worth and value as a teacher, causing me to wonder if I’m not doing enough, not earning my keep. I’ve had to remind myself that this was a deliberate choice, to follow the energy of summer, to model and teach wonder, relaxation, rest, and play as valuable and vital life skills.
I’ve also had to remind myself of one of my core principles of education, that I am not in control of what the children learn, that my job is to create and offer rich experiences that support and inspire them in their own learning journeys, not to dictate what they are going to learn, and when, and how. One such experience in the past two weeks has been the introduction of a new character to school. While the kids were engaged in a game one day, a fun idea jumped into my brain. I snuck into the office, and with the hasty addition of a paper moustache and a basket for a hat, I became Professor Fussypants. I grabbed my clipboard, stepped out of the office, and introduced myself.
“Hello, my name is Professor Fussypants, and I am here from the International Association of Wonderfully Weird Schools. Your teacher has applied for accreditation from our organization, and I’m here to ask you a few questions.”
WOW! The excitement from the kids was palpable. They were bouncing up and down in their chairs with delight, asking questions, laughing. I proceeded to question them about what kinds of skills they were practicing in the game they were playing, breaking it down into the basic developmental categories of social/emotional, fine and gross motor, and cognitive skills. Quickly sniffing out my agenda, the kids began a concerted program of distraction from this rather obvious attempt to get them to learn something. I hadn’t had time to get into character, and my accent and mannerisms kept wavering. “You sound like Gabs!” they shouted, mercilessly poking holes in my performance while I was still “onstage”. After I beat a hasty retreat and transformed back into myself, there was a flurry of activity in the office as moustaches, hats, and beards were generated and a variety of hilarious old people began running around campus yelling and hitting each other with sticks.
Over the next few days, they kept asking for Professor Fussypants to come back, despite my lackluster performance and their seeming resistance to his rather dry line of questioning. I knew I wanted to bring him back, but I also knew that I needed to give him more depth, to make him more believable and enrich the experience. In that first performance, I had mentioned on a whim that I (Professor Fussypants) had autism spectrum disorder. This was not an entirely random move. At the beginning of this session, we took a new student who seems to have some substantial developmental challenges. He is still in the process of evaluation, but it seems likely that he has some form of autism. It’s been very difficult for him to participate in school and trying to figure out how to include him has been a big challenge and learning opportunity for myself and for the kids.
As a result, I’ve become fascinated with neurodivergence and so-called developmental “disorders”, and with autism in particular. I’ve been reading up, watching “Atypical” on Netflix, and talking about it all with the kids. Just a few days before the appearance of Professor Fussypants, we had read a wonderful book during story time called “How to Talk to an Autistic Kid”, which was written for other kids by a fourteen year old with autism. So when it was time for Professor Fussypants to come back for a visit, I put some thought into his autism. It felt edgy, like there was a risk of my portrayal being more stereotypical than informative, but I decided to go for it and hope that the learning value was worth the risk. I practiced before school, experimenting with self-stimulating behaviors and sensory processing challenges. When the time came, I had the character dialed in. More importantly, I felt that I had found aspects of myself within this character that I could draw on, the social anxiety that I sometimes feel, my love of charts and tables, and my dislike of loud noises. I had made him into a real person, like me.
The difference in the kids’ response was remarkable. This time, Professor Fussypants introduced his autism right off the bat, saying that he was uncomfortable speaking to large groups, and that they might see him petting his clipboard to calm himself down. He mentioned that sometimes people make fun of him for that sort of thing, and that it hurts his feelings. He needn’t have worried, however, because the mob of hecklers from the week before had suddenly turned into an attentive array of polite young children, even to the point of offering him verbal reassurance when he expressed discomfort or anxiety. “It’s ok, Professor Fussypants”, the children chorused when he announced that he had trouble making eye contact and apologized for not looking them in the eye.
With this tone established, Professor Fussypants proceeded to give a rather long and elaborate explanation of the different developmental categories, drawing out examples of skills within each and activities that can help to build those skills. The children were attentive and kind throughout, accommodating and making space for his needs without patronizing or pitying. It was liberating, to interact with them as someone else, to redirect my relationship with the kids into another person’s body, habits, and mannerisms, and to see how that changed their responses. And it was honey in my heart to know that Professor Fussypants, at least, would find such warm welcome in their company even with all his differences.