By Sean Dolan
It really happened naturally. Our school has a large Planning for Independence Program(PIP) with a pretty sizeable cohort of special needs students. All “on the spectrum,” these students tugged on my heartstrings with their authenticity and innocence. I also enjoyed engaging with these kids – whether it was on lunch duty or passing them in the hall.
Things changed one day when one of the boys, a burly teen named Troy, waved me over and said, “You know what? You’re old. I am going to call you old man.” And from that day forward, every time he saw me, he’d say, “Hey, old man!” – that is until the day his teachers put a stop to it. They thought it was disrespectful. However, Troy being Troy, he found me in the hall one morning shortly after the old man ban and explained, “I can’t call you old man anymore. My teachers don’t like it.” Then, after a pause, he added, “Instead, I’ll call you grandpa.”
The opening two paragraphs should reveal two things about me: first, I am a pretty good natured guy who enjoys humourous exchanges with students; second, I am old. I am not only in the twilight of my career, I am months away from retirement. Put a fork in me, I’m done – 30 years of service (almost) in the books. To add insult to injury, I look older than I am (a mere 54 years of age) thanks to the white hair gene passed down to me via my Irish heritage. Troy exploited both of these facts.
After about a semester of “Hey grandpa!” greetings in the hallway, Troy and his posse decided to descend on my office every day at lunch. He’d show up with his main man Lucas and a cast of special needs characters (sometimes as many as six kids) that were an absolute joy to be around. They’d huddle into my office for about a half hour and listen to music, watch YouTube videos, and socialize. Eventually, Troy, the most extroverted of the gang, decided that, because I’m so old, he would take over my office because I’d be gone soon. I assume he meant gone to retirement. He even put up a sign that said TROY’S OFFICE to declare his claim for the space the moment I was no longer part of the community.
Of course, I played right along with all of this. I got a huge kick out of how comfortable our special needs students were with coming into Guidance and taking over my office. I am not saying it wasn’t taxing – because, at times, it was – but I felt really happy with the fact that these kids had branched out from their regular haunts to hang out in the Guidance Department.
As the “Hey grandpa” semester rolled along, Troy would end his visits with a parting salutation: “Bye grandpa! Love you!” To which I would respond, “Love you too, son.” Everyone would giggle (especially the Guidance secretary and the other counsellors) and off went Troy, with Lucas in tow, leaving me to get back to the grindstone* doing various school related chores. This went on for the balance of the semester and was eventually interrupted by summer break.
When Troy came back in September, he told me that his teachers thought it would be better if he limited his visits to once a week. There were a few indicators that this might happen the previous spring. These kids need to understand a few boundaries and I wasn’t doing a very good job of establishing those boundaries. Thankfully, the special needs teachers stepped in and did what was best for Troy (and, by extension, me).
Now Troy and Lucas come to visit every Wednesday. Our school puts together a pretty tight daily video announcement program and posts it on YouTube. I reserve Wednesday as the day that I record the Guidance announcements for the show with Troy and Lucas by my side. The students more or less expect that, if Mr. Dolan is on the announcements, Troy and Lucas are going to be with him.
I am telling you this lengthy story to illustrate the main lesson that Troy and Lucas and all of the other special needs students have taught me: I am a counsellor for all students. I am a counsellor for the students who come by things easily and the ones who have a hard time; the ones who excel at sports and the ones who struggle in every game they play; the ones who love the arts and dread the sciences and the ones who delight in the sciences and shy away from the arts. I am a counsellor for kids with needs and kids with special needs.
If Troy didn’t decide to reach out with his unsolicited observation regarding my advanced age, I probably would have maintained an arms-length but amiable relationship with the special needs students at our school. Instead, he dubbed me “old man” and did me the honour of allowing me to graduate to the elevated status of “grandpa.” This is something I cherish not only because of the endearing nature of our relationship but because it has taught me to be a counsellor for every student I connect with each and every day.
*Back to the grindstone! Only a guy on the verge of retirement would use such an archaic phrase. Fun fact: In days gone by, the expression “back to the old grindstone” referred to the grinding of wheat against a stone until it was converted into meal or flour – a tedious but necessary process for our ancestors. Perhaps this is something I will take up in my retirement. I’ll have to ask Troy and Lucas if they think this is a good idea.