Please welcome today’s guest writer, Alex Westenbroek. Alex graduated from Calvin in 2014 with a double major in linguistics and classical languages. He works as a speech language pathologist for WordPlay Speech and Language, a small company serving charter schools, grades K-12, in the Twin Cities metro area, and he is nearing completion of his clinical fellowship year. Alex enjoys many things, including collecting and listening to vinyl records and playing board games. He lives in Minneapolis, and looks forward to living with his partner, Sarah, come June.
I work with a student, here referred to as Connor, in the specialized classroom at an elementary charter school in South Minneapolis. He’s ten, and his cognitive, communicative, and emotional skills and needs elude a fair diagnosis. Suffice it to say that a fourth grade classroom isn’t a place where he can learn, and he struggles to complete academic work that most of his peers mastered in Kindergarten. He spends his school days upstairs with a special education teacher, four paraprofessionals, and five other peers, who, like my friend, need a quieter space in order to survive school.
I usually find Connor upstairs in the afternoons with his shoes off, sometimes asleep. He’s only thrown things in front of me a few times, and never at me. And he’s only stormed out on me once. We usually keep our work time limited to 15 minutes, about all he can handle.
One of Connor’s goals this year is to use more feeling words to name his needs. I hoped to equip Connor with some extra vocabulary that might turn at least some of his frequent spirals of violence and withdrawal into their distilled forms: simple expressions of frustration or loneliness or glee. We’ve been matching vocabulary to pictures of faces, and practicing a simple frame: “I feel X because Y.” Grade school mindfulness.
I got to Connor’s room for our session today with a worksheet of feeling words and cartoon faces that we’d already practiced. I was underprepared and rushed—three minutes late, exhausted from lack of sleep and a day full of split-attention and redirecting and performing in front of my students. I was feeling depressed, though I hadn’t yet named that or what was causing it, even though I had been crying at my desk just an hour earlier. It’s my first year in this new job. In three weeks, Sarah’s moving in. I still don’t know how I’m going to make rent during the summer months. And end-of-year stress and social pressure surges and spirals into self-shaming, avoidance, paralysis. It has before and it will again.
I brought the worksheet of cartoon faces, my eyelids half open and my gait barely more than a shuffle. Connor didn’t want to do a worksheet, especially one he had already done. I justified it to both of us. “We still need to practice—” but he stormed out, and I could only trail after him.
I found him with Tessa, his teacher. She was kneeling beside him pressing blue putty into his palm, which he was squeezing. He was silent, and she was speaking too softly for me to hear. He looked up at me and said, “what are we gonna do?” As if he were the one giving me a second chance.
“Let’s play a game.”
I scrapped the sheet, but we talked about feeling words while we played a simple game, all three of us. Tessa stayed by his side while Connor tried out new feeling words. “I feel X because Y.” I gave examples and Connor followed. Then Connor picked his piece of candy and left.
Neither Tessa nor I gave a pep talk, or an ultimatum, or an explicit motivation of any kind. He tried our task again, a different way, with putty in hand and an extra companion. Connor told me about his feelings, and he imagined new feelings with words.
Why do I feel depressed? That is, why is depression something I experience? It’s one of many thoughts always caught in the spiral. One of the more metaphysical of my mud-ruts.
Later that afternoon, I emailed Tessa to thank her for helping out during Connor’s session. She caters to countless and huge needs every day, so fifteen minutes of her attention is a gift. A break I’m not willing to give myself. She responded back within minutes:
“It was great to see your relationship with Connor. The relationship you’ve built with him is impressive in and of itself. Thank you as well for always being so flexible.”
Even on a bad day, we can practice building something beautiful. A spiral can be distilled into an expression of frustration, fatigue, inadequacy, or maybe even some gratitude.
Today, I feel tired because I stayed up too late fretting, drinking, staring at the ceiling, talking at myself.
Today, I feel anxious because of moving plans that have to be made, reports to be written, friends to be texted back.
Today, I feel depressed because I think I’m a bad grandson, bad partner, bad employee, bad teacher, bad therapist. I’m probably mostly wrong, but I can think it and feel it.
An opportunity for self-taught practice: therapy through sentence frames.