It’s a teacher’s worst nightmare.
I'm standing outside the Pearly Gates only to be confronted by angry parents of a student I once taught! And I think to myself...SpongeBob...he ruined me!
I was a first-year special education teacher hired to teach reading and social skills. As a case manager, I had to know as much about the law, as I did teaching. The newest law on the books was Indicator 13 which translated to mean: when a student turned 13 it is the district’s responsibility to begin the transition process to prepare them for life after graduation.
Well, Casey (not his real name) had just celebrated his 13th birthday. He had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and was terminally ill. But as most parents do, they had chosen to fight. A new bout of chemo treatments had caused his brown hair to fall out in patches and had weakened his arms and legs and he had begun using a wheelchair.
(While he did qualify for HomeBound services, it was decided that the social benefits of being in school outweighed what he would be able to learn one-on-one with a teacher who came to his house).
Some days it was all he could do to stay awake during school. It felt almost cruel asking him Indicator 13 questions about the future and what he saw himself doing one day. But it was my job to complete the paperwork: dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s (or so I thought).
Much to my surprise, Casey seemed to like the idea of answering questions about his future and interests like whether or not he would like to go to college or a vocational school. I learned that he made a mean grilled cheese sandwich, and I also learned that his best friend was SpongeBob SquarePants. He said it with all the sincerity in the world, even after rephrasing my question about who was someone he looked up to, Casey didn’t waiver. Not only did he know SpongeBob...they were “best friends.”
In case you don’t have a child or a student who watches Nickelodeon, Spongebob SquarePants is a cartoon sponge, with eyes, nose, mouth, arms and legs who goes on adventures with other “likeable" characters under that sea. He eats crabby patties and has his own movie. But he is not real. I knew it. Every other middle school student knew it. Everyone….except for Casey.
Visions of Casey going to his Science inclusion class the next period telling his classmates that SpongeBob was his best friend, made my stomach turn. Middle school students can be cruel (to say the least); even to kids with cancer..
So I did what I thought was best for my student. I made the decision to cut off any future jokes by telling him the truth. “Casey, the students in our class are real, your neighbors are real, your parents and brothers are real, but Spongebob SquarePants is a cartoon. He isn’t real.”
It was one of those moments you would do anything if you could take back your words. But it was too late. Had I known the back story that his family had been flown to the Island in Hawaii by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and that he did, in fact, meet SpongeBob and even had a luau complete with all of his favorite characters, I would have known to have kept my mouth shut!
All I knew was that I had made a BIG mistake!
His lower lip began to quiver and tears welled up in his eyes. “Mrs. Dollar, he is real! I met him on my summer vacation!”
At our parent conference the following morning, which included the principal and counselor, I told the story. His dad confessed to writing personalized “letters from SpongeBob” to hide under his pillow if he’d made a good grade at school. They even cooked “crabby patties” (which is a SpongeBob hamburger) on the weekends. They had planned on sharing this information with his teachers, but felt shame for feeding his fantasy.
They were ordinary people who had been dealt a bad hand. If believing in SpongeBob gave their son joy and helped him believe in miracles…then so be it. Suddenly, all the Indicator 13 paperwork and transitional files took a backseat to the hopes and dreams of a boy who had, in many ways, been rescued by SpongeBob SquarePants!
That very day, we all agreed it was in Casey’s best interest for me to encourage more conversation. I spent our student/teacher conferences listening to letters he had written and received from SpongeBob. He talked about wanting to fly airplanes so we researched aviation schools and he delved into learning about how airplanes are built and how to fly them. I was invited over for "crabby patties" and Casey even promised to introduce me to his best friend in the world!. That is, as soon as he learned to fly!
- How would this situation have been different if there had been better communication between school, parents, doctors, community?
- Are there "exceptions to the rule" in cases of terminally ill students?
- What can schools/districts provide more socialization for Homebound students?