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The Truth, The Whole Truth?

Tales of an Accidental Mentor

By Natasja RosePublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 6 min read
The Truth, The Whole Truth?
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

At first, I wasn't planning to enter this challenge.

I didn't have any real mentors growing up, and the people I look to now for guidence and support are more a relationship of friends and equals. Most of the people I can honestly say I "drew inspiration" from were more in the sense of "right, I'm never being like that jerk!" than an example to follow.

There is one exception.

I don't know that I'm Inspired so much as continuously amazed by this person's determination to reach their goals, and just as continuously baffled at the fact that they look up to me.

*I'm going to preface this by saying that this is not a case of Disability Inspration Porn. Differently Abled people are far more than how well they can compete with the Able-Bodied, and deserve more than to be held up as "look how inspiring this person is! (If they can do it, why can't you?)"

Stock Photos only for the same reason, and to protect privacy.

By Josh Appel on Unsplash

I met M at the beginning of 2013, a few weeks into the school year, when I began work as their Special Learning Support Officer.

Honestly, I was drastically under-qualified for the role. I'd only just finished a Trade Certificate as an Assistant In Nursing, rounded out by growing up with a Special Needs twin, and a few sessions of scribing exams. The school had other SLSOs, but neither knew how to do Manual Handling, and one had injured her back doing it wrong, and the other had quit rather than deal with it alone. My mother worked in the Math department, and knew someone that not only had some idea of what they were doing, but could start the next day, thus sparing the school weeks of interviews while the child was unfortunately excluded from school due to lack of an aide.

AKA, me.

I was overwhelmed, but showed up, determined to do my best. There was no-one to teach me, other than the vague "Treat her like you would one of Sally's friends" advice from my Mum.

To be fair, none of the other teachers had really dealt with anything on this level before, either. Physical limitations aren't touched on as much in a teaching degree as learning limitations. In a Kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyes (wo)man is Queen.

By National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

M had been born with Cerebral Palsy, which affected her physical movement and speech. Premature birth had left her with under-developed lungs and vocal cords. Muscular Dystropy didn't help.

Still, this bright-eyed child beamed up at me, looking thrilled to be here.

Introductions took a few tries. M had only started speaking at all a few years prior, after experimental Stem Cell Therapy. When she got excited or agitated, the words all tried to come out at once, losing any coherency. She was a Quadraplegic, and had very little control over her trunk or head, which often flopped around like a rag-doll.

Despite this, she was as smart as a whip, and had a wicked sense of humor. Her favourite subjects were English, History, and any class she shared with her crush of the month. We liked a lot of the same music genres, and bonded over Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians books.

(We quickly cut a deal: I would read to M at lunchtime, complete with voices and strategic pauses for laughter, as long as M co-operated with her mother's efforts to feed her lunch. Laughing so hard she had to catch her breath and unclench from a spasm didn't count.)

A big part of my support was reassuring the other students that M wouldn't break if they got too close, translating their responses and writing notes, and re-adjusting M's position in their mechanical wheelchair when their head or body started to slump.

On occasion, I had to hunt down a teacher during a break and brainstorm ways for M to perform an Oral-based assessment, like reading the monologue M had written, or alternating lines in a performance of "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Mis to pass a Music exam. (M is not a bad singer, but needed a breather between lines, and couldn't hit the note changes on some of the lines. Not sure that my performance was much better, but we got a standing ovation from the rest of the class.)

Somehow, in the midst of all this, M decided that I was an awesome person, and an example to follow. I'm still not sure where she got that idea from.

By Danny Nee on Unsplash

I lasted almost three full years as M's Classroom Aide, before leaving due to a combination of Workplace Politics, lack of experience, and the fact that while I was M's absolute favourite, my Autism made me... less great at helping the other students who needed classroom assistance.

I couldn't read body language, or the majority of social cues, other than the ones that screamed that they didn't want me there, no matter how much they needed me. Add in Sensory Overload from small classrooms packed with loud teenagers, and a tendency to take people at face value when they say they don't need help... yeah.

I wasn't renewed for a fourth year. M found out some skewed version of this from another SLSO the same day I was informed that I wouldn't be asked back the next term, and came in the next day fired up with an entire honest-to-Gods speech planned about how I was the best Aide she'd had and how dare they get rid of me.

Luckily, M had yet to reach the point of making that speech on her own, and I was able to intercept and point out that non-class-related things should be discussed in non-class time. I asked that she let me handle the 'not coming back' announcement, and M agreed. The indignation on my behalf was still very sweet, and the school got an earful from M's parents about it.

M's Disability Package included some money for social support, and she wasn't willing to give up someone who understood her jokes and creative passion, so she hired me through an Agency for an hour or so here and there until M finished High School, and then once per week to support her at TAFE.

By Roman Kraft on Unsplash

In nine years, I've seen M go from trying several times per word to be understood, needing recovery time after each sentence, to talking for over an hour at a stretch, with only minimal clarifications for similar-sounding words. She's gone from accidentally giving me a black eye when her head dropped at the wrong moment, to only needing adjustments when she's truly run down to the point of falling asleep.

M went from needing someone to present an Oral report on her behalf, to a Distinction for her presentation on Disability Laws in her Social Justice and Human Rights course.

By Elizabeth Woolner on Unsplash

A few days ago, M, who has always loved writing, showed me her very first fanfic, on a brand new Wattpad account.

Her eyes were bright, and you'd need paint remover to wipe the smile off her face. She was so proud of herself, taking this percieved first step toward her dream of writing professionally.

Then she asked my opinion, and my life flashed before my eyes.

I remembered when I wrote my first fanfic, about the same age M is now, and how crushed I felt when it got (justifiably) blasted seven ways to Saturday. I remembered how thrilled I was the first time I recieved positive feedback. I compared the fanfic to the first piece of creative writing she'd shown me, back in 2013.

I complimented the pacing, originality and flow of the story. I pointed out the times the dialogue made me laugh, and told her she'd done well.

Was it practically a Trope checklist that bore only a loose resemblence to the Fandom Canon? Yes, but that didn't stop me from finding things to genuinely like about it.

Sometimes, Inspiration can be as simple as seeing someone try their best, every day, for the Tiny Wins.

Sometimes, Mentoring can be as simple as being kind, equal, and supportive of odd interests.

By youssef naddam on Unsplash

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About the Creator

Natasja Rose

I've been writing since I learned how, but those have been lost and will never see daylight (I hope).

I'm an Indie Author, with 30+ books published.

I live in Sydney, Australia

Follow me on Facebook or Medium if you like my work!

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