Autographs

After graduating from college in 2007, I moved to Maryland and learned about Kennedy Krieger’s special education program and knew instantly that I wanted to work there. Kennedy Krieger schools are geared towards preparing students to transition back into their communities and lead successful lives after graduation. I have been working at Kennedy Krieger High School (KKHS) for three years and my students never cease to amaze me. Today, I want to tell you about one of those students whom I’ve known from the start and has impressed me in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I first met him.

I was lucky enough to meet DeVante—a shy, reserved student with an autism spectrum disorder—during my first year here at Kennedy Krieger.  When I first started at KKHS I was a teacher’s assistant in an Academy II classroom. During my first week, DeVante visited our classroom and asked to speak with the new staff member, Ms. Bates. He approached me with his head down and in a soft voice, he asked me to sign his “autograph book”. Timidly, DeVante explained that signing the book authorized him to share drawings with that person throughout the school year. As a teaching assistant, I was eager to get to know not only the students in my classroom, but all of the students at KKHS, so of course I said yes! This marked the beginning of learning exactly who DeVante is and who he wants to be.

DeVante enjoyed interacting with his peers, but we saw that he started breaking out of his shell and was gaining more confidence through his unique way of sending drawings to teachers. I was immediately impressed by his willingness to try something unconventional and his determination to improve. Through his drawings, I also noticed DeVante’s methodical nature, which helped him to follow through with every task.

A couple months later, I was promoted to a teacher position in the high school’s retail industry classroom/student-run business, which gave me the opportunity to work more closely with DeVante. In the retail track, our students learn hands-on what it’s like working in customer service for a variety of businesses including a bank, a small school store, and a clothing boutique. As DeVante began working in each of the businesses, I really started to see him strengthen and discover his many abilities. He immediately transferred the communication skills he learned from drawing pictures for employees to his work in the store and his interactions with his co-workers.

DeVante has come a long way in few short years. As a sophomore, DeVante chose to work as an inventory clerk in the stores and assisted with data entry tasks in the bank.  By performing these types of job tasks, he was able to keep to himself and have few interactions with his co-workers and customers. Over time, I noticed that DeVante would naturally step in to help customers if they had a question and if he saw his co-workers struggling. Now, DeVante is our cashier and student manager. As a student manager, DeVante oversees all three businesses and the students working in them. When there is a problem or question, DeVante is the first to respond.  He also helps with the promotion of our virtual store, a website from which employees can buy things from our clothing boutique.

I often think of DeVante as our student leader. Throughout his time as student manager, DeVante has been known to diffuse multiple situations. One particular day, there was a student who was very nervous and upset about being cashier in the school store for the first time. DeVante immediately stepped in and launched into a calming speech. DeVante explained, “I used to get upset every time I had to do something new as well, but look at me now. Now I can change positions whenever I am needed, and soon you will be able to do that too. How about I switch with you?” I was in awe of how he knew exactly what to say and seamlessly took over the job until the student was ready to try again. Students always respond well to DeVante, so much so that students are now asking DeVante for his autograph.

DeVante is opening up in ways we never expected. His first year at Kennedy Krieger, he would never attend something like the school talent show. Three years later, DeVante didn’t just attend—he performed. Dancing has become another way for DeVante to express himself, just like his drawings did. He also shares his passion with others on YouTube.

Still, my most proud moment came when DeVante asked if he could meet with me and his other teachers to discuss his plans after graduation. Like many of our students, I guessed that he might want to talk about the transition and explain his fears. DeVante came to this meeting with notes and questions so that he could make a detailed plan for after graduation. We work on this with all of our students before graduation, but I had never seen a student take the initiative and begin to map out a plan on their own. This is why I know DeVante has a bright future ahead of him.

Part of being a teacher is to help the students who you’ve come to know well to graduate and move on. Each year you send one group off, hoping you have given them the tools to succeed in the working world. And then you welcome a new group to share your knowledge with. It is the greatest gift and the greatest sadness to watch our students move on each year.

In June, DeVante will graduate from Kennedy Krieger High School and enter the working world. While I am so happy and excited for him, I’m also sad to see him go, because I know he will be truly be missed. Watching DeVante grow into the person he is today has truly inspired me and continues to motivate me in my job every day.  

Katie Bates is a special education teacher at Kennedy Krieger High School in the Retail & Consumer Services Industry, one of the school’s five career clusters.

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