Katherine Clunis' Learning Story


In my life I have been fortunate to have had many great teachers. I remember Mr. Shepard, my second grade teacher. I didn’t know it then but he was the very definition of a hippy. He, quite frankly, didn’t look or act like any teacher I had ever had. He wore jeans, had long hair, and did projects where we got dirty. He would read aloud to us every day and as a reluctant reader made stories spill off the pages in ways that made me think about the characters in the book long after the school day was over. I would get to school early just to ask what was going to happen next. Mr. Shepard was one of my first inspirations for thinking that maybe teaching could be different, maybe I could possible learn. Before him I am not sure I believed I could. In a lot of ways Mr. Shepard prepared me to meet the person who I believe has been one of my greatest teachers. It would be 24 years since I left Mr. Shepard’s class. Somewhere inside of me I remembered the essence of what he taught me, ‘I could be a learner.’ The first time I met D he looked at me, he didn’t say a word. He looked at me. He looked at floor, then looked at me again. He looked at me in a way that told me very matter a factly, ‘This place is not for me.’ In fact he hardly spoke to me at all. The clothes he was wearing looked uncomfortable as if someone else had picked them out for him. His shoes were polished and stiff. His shirt was a buttoned down long sleeve number that looked pressed to perfection. His pants were slight too long, but pressed. His hair was about eight inches from his scalp. His hair was curly and unreformed. That first day D taught me to be an observer. To not rush to judgment and to learn to see. As D and I develop a relationship I started to learn that just because he didn’t talk or have a large collection of words to access didn’t mean he didn’t have a lot to say. D taught me how to communicate in non-conventional ways. D had spirit. Ok some people might say he was a non-conformist. Ok some people might say he had no regard for other people’s needs but his own. I wasn’t one of those people. You know it was the other people that might think those things per say. I was still trying to figure out D. I was trying to learn how to access D and how D could access me. One day I realized that D had accessed me. His access came in an object that flew across the room and barely missed my left ear, ok it grazed it. I wasn’t going to let him know that. He got me good that day. My immediate reaction to him was, ‘Not in my company you wont.’ I gave him an earful. Boy did I let him know how I felt. He looked at me. He looked at the floor, then looked at me again. We . . . went right back to the disconnect of the day we met. All right I thought, ‘How come I almost lost an ear and I feel bad?’ ‘How come this isn’t working?’ I started to think of areas in my life where I hadn’t felt like a learner and I hadn’t fit in. There were so many I was starting to get depressed. I changed my focus. I started to think about all the times I felt successful. I was doing things that I knew how to do. I was doing things that someone had put in front of me that had multiple entry points. I thought about projects that involved creating, looking, and getting messy. I was starting to think like Mr. Shepard. Did that mean I was a hippy? I pondered. D and I started to spend time together. We spent time creating. Yes there was the occasional object that flew my way, but my reactions to them changed and with that he too changed. Once I learned what set him off I could be better prepared. Once he knew I was in it for the long haul things continued to change. Next to me he sat one morning and looked at me, not at the floor, but directly at me. He paused a few seconds and said, ‘Help.’ I followed his lead and I helped where he needed me to. While our moments together got longer our conversations started to get longer too. He would say, ‘ Help me.’ There was the day, two months after we met when he said, ‘ I farted.’ He looked at me and gave me half a smile. I gave him a half a smile right back. Spending time with D taught me more about patience and understanding than I had ever learned before. Spending time with D taught me that everyone can learn it just meant helping him where he was at. D and I went from long stares at each other to dancing together. Our dances were metaphorical and actual. We danced for hours. Like many great people that came before him, D was starting to see himself in a beautiful way. He was starting to understand that his step and his stride had meaning and purpose. He taught me how to appreciate the baby steps that we take to change. Each moment in D’s company was a moment where I learned something new. I learned to listen without words. I learned to paint pictures without paint. And most of all I learned that sometimes there isn’t any symbolism in the words, ‘I farted.’ Two years had past since I first met D. He came up to me and said, ‘I am strong. You want to see my muscles?’ I said, ‘Why yes D, I most certainly do.’ Very soon after he told me those words I had to come to the realization that I wouldn’t be able to spend as much time with him. It was time for him to go to second grade. I wasn’t ready, but he was. One of the last important lessons he taught me was to trust that he would continue to make progress without me and that his new teachers were able to teach him. He taught me that I wasn’t solely responsible for his progress, but that it was a collaboration. A collaboration that he needed to make with as many people as he could. I am very fortunate to have D as a teacher and a friend. Each afternoon on his way to the bus he gives me a hug. The kind of hug that makes you know there is love behind it. And I, I just hug right back.