A Salute to Ms. O'Brien: The Special Educator Who Made a Difference for Me

Ms. O'Brien's legacy, decades later: a Larry, Curly & Moe reunion at Wrigley Field, July 2017

Ms. O'Brien's legacy, decades later: a Larry, Curly & Moe reunion at Wrigley Field, July 2017

I shared this story on Facebook a while back, and it got such a great response that I thought it deserved a spot here on the blog as well.

Last fall I was on the phone with Bev, who was in charge of looking for some inspiration for South Dakota Special Educators. (I was eventually honored to be the keynote speaker for teachers at the 2018 South Dakota Special Education Conference earlier this year.) In the course of the conversation, Bev asked me about my own story ... and it's funny how certain questions prompt buried treasures.

Class of '81 at Rochelle Township High School may still be the largest group of kids who were ever jammed into our now-flattened bricky maze of an asbestos cathedral. We had about 1,900 students and exactly one Special Ed teacher. Think about that number. I’m not sure if there’s an ideal ratio of Special Ed teachers for nearly 2,000 kids — but I bet one per two thousand ain't it.

God bless Ms. O'Brien, she’s no longer with us — but her big laugh, huge heart, and bouncy soul still tinkers away in the thousands of former students she taught, listened to, and laughed with.

Ms. O, as we called her, really liked kids. She believed the world was yours to shake up and grab and she never doused a dumb dream or tilted her head at one of our less-than-well-thought-out plans for world domination. She wanted to hear more and then tell you, "Sure, do it. Why not?”

The thing is, I wasn't officially one of Ms. O's Special Ed students; but I was lucky because she made me one of her special projects anyway.

Ms. O was the rare teacher who "got" kids — all kids. And more importantly, she got me ... and clearly got a kick out of not just my antics, but those of two other far less cautious rule-benders. So within her classroom, the three of us bonded and became a trio — a little like the Three Stooges — who are still lifelong friends today.

Ms. O was also a mischievous but reasonable rule-bender, and perhaps in today's fastidious system she might have been fired for what I’m about to disclose. Because Ms. O wrote us passes — and by "passes" I mean she wrote out bald-faced lies. She told the office we were "helping grade papers" or "hanging art" — which I can barely remember doing twice in the two years during which this story played out.

What Ms. O really did was get us out of a study hall that I never studied in. The passes were okayed by the principal’s office and allowed us to shift our Three Stooges routine over to her classroom during, get this, her break time. You heard me. While most teachers smoked, gossiped, graded papers, or stared at a drying biscuit in the vending machine, Ms. O chose to play counselor and laugh-track to our miscreant Moe, Larry & Curly road show.

I don’t think you fully understand the significance of this. Having a pass to skip out on the Monday-Friday, 2-3pm tick-tick-tick-tick “Why won't the paint dry?" daily grind remains one the four great miracles of my life! (I’ll save the other three for the end of this tale.)

Now keep in mind that I had already tested out the value of study hall, and here's what I found: I could study and get C’s and D’s, or I could not study and get C's and D’s. For me the cost/benefit just wasn’t there.

Instead, in exchange for that previously wasted time, I found someone who was ready to absorb my day’s biggest and brightest dumb thought du jour. She would also belly laugh at my teacher imitations and then on top of it all let me hang with my loser dream posse!

I mean, my god, this was either a gift from heaven or a deal with the devil and I didn’t care and still don’t. If some mysterious fellow with diamond-studded horn-rim glasses were to knock at my door tomorrow and demand my firstborn, I’d shake a fist and say “Noooooooooo, take me instead!” — but in the end I'd relent because it really was a pretty good deal. That's a joke, no need to repost on the DCFS website — but now do you believe me when I say I wouldn't trade my time in Ms. O's classroom for, well, almost anything? Because Ms. O loved kids in a way that colored outside the lines of today’s rule-based education machines.

Here was her gift:

  • She listened, laughed, and approved whenever possible. Years before I studied improv, Ms. O was already teaching me the value of "Yes, and ... "
  • She gave counsel when asked — and a little sigh followed by a look up and to the right when we crossed a line.
  • She gave us a playful sounding board for 1,000 dumb thoughts ... and rewarded us with smiles and a side-order of big-eyed fist-pounds on her desk for the good ones.

And the biggie:

  • She told us we were special. And of course, she said this to all her students, but she found that perfect window and time to say it that made you feel like she knew something that you didn’t. It was her secret, and now it was yours.

Like every kid, I was in need of a special educator — but I only found her through the luck of a skinny, hapless Larry-like loser who found his way to her classroom first, and then invited me along for the ride. "Larry" now runs a fancy-schmancy government office in Texas, and he’s respected and beloved by family and peers.

The "Curly" in our trio is now an esteemed and gifted physical therapist who rejects cell phones and Facebook, but never turns away patients in need of repair.

When I mentioned Ms. O to "Larry" during a recent phone call, he got very quiet for a minute and then he said: "Without her I might not have graduated from high school, and there's no way I would have ever gone to college."

Ms. O was in every way a savior who bent the rules of space and time. I wish more kids today had a Ms. O. In fact, I wish every kid in every school could be taught by a special educator who offers them a place for gentle head tilts, listening, and laughter. A secret corner to air out their best and worst self, with less elder-critique and more affirmation. I know Ms. O would give a desk fist-pound to that idea.

Time to roll the closing credits:

  • "Larry": Lynn Blackmore, Associate Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Over Program Operations and Administrative Services
  • "Curly": Rex Brown, Physical Therapist — Specializing in Cardio Rehabilitation, Repetitive Stress, and Work-Related Issues
  • "Moe": Yours Truly

And here are the footnotes ... the other three miracles I mentioned earlier:

  1. The woman who married me after seeing me eat deep-dish pizza.
  2. Finding a former English teacher when I was in grad school to give me input on my papers and help me earn a Master’s Degree. She was my modern day Grammarly, which is my new favorite thing in the world!
  3. My daughter, who I wouldn't really trade to the devil, and who I hope finds someone like Ms. O to guide her through those years when her parents' voices switch from words of comfort and security to the sounds of blathering idiots who "just don't understand."