May 22, 2014 0 Share

From One Sibling to Another


The author at a book signing.
Photo by Katie Arnold

Last week, I received this poignant letter from a fellow sibling:

“Dear Caroline, 

I am now a week away from starting a job as a classroom paraprofessional [teaching special education] …. I am grateful and super nervous. It has made me very happy to connect with students and build them up when they learn something new. As you may remember, my younger sibling has autism …. I am nervous that I am not as understanding a sister as I should have always been. I am anxious of being unhelpful or even impatient with students. 

But actually … that [has] never happened. When situations became difficult with a student, I was pleasantly surprised to see how naturally my good problem-solving skills kicked in. When I started to notice this, for the first time I felt confident about this professional space. It felt "off" to see I could be more patient with students than with my sibling. Did you have [similarly] conflicted feelings … ? 

I also question whether [my] individual-based mindset is the right one for figuring out if I can become a teacher. It concerns me that I will not be objective, realistic, or in tune with how I am really doing my job … whether I am fitting into the space as a classroom leader. I am nervous about MISSING important signs …. Do you have suggestions about how to strike a balance?” 

I replied: 

Dear friend, 

Oh, yes … I can definitely relate to your description of work relationships being easier to manage than family relationships. Fellow siblings I've met have shared similar stories, so know this: We are not alone. 

As you know, living with other adults with disabilities did significantly improve my relationship with Willie. It gave me a different perspective, and that is priceless. For years I struggled with taking my brother's behaviors personally. But in caring for friends with special needs, I learned to look for the reasons behind certain behaviors, to be more objective. I also learned that everyone is doing the best they can. And with those lessons in mind, I could see Willie in a new light. I couldn't believe how capable he was. He could feed himself! Dress himself! Bathe himself! Since I spent my days caring for people who needed more help than he did, I could appreciate his independence anew.

Yes, I did feel guilty about not figuring all this out earlier. But then I realized that our family relationships are pretty much always harder than professional ones, because the roots go so much deeper. It's like Anne Lamott writes in “Traveling Mercies,” "I tell you, families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness …. It’s like learning to drive on an old car with a tricky transmission: if you can master shifting gears on that, you can learn to drive anything.” (I learned to drive stick on an old truck this past year, so that description seems spot-on.)

I know what you mean about the fear of missing important signs, too. I know the debilitating fear of not knowing whether the next step is the “right” one. I have been there; in fact, I'm there every day. All you can do, though, is make the best choice you can given what's in front of you now. You can't know what life will look like 10 steps down the line.

That said, you can ask for input and seek feedback from trusted colleagues … but I'd guess that the real question isn't whether or not you're capable. It seems like the real question is, What if I choose “wrong”? Well, then you'll adjust and choose something different. Perfectionists like us struggle with that, but it really is okay to change your mind. That said, if you love to teach, then the odds are that you've made a good choice.

In fact, I'd feel anxious if you weren't a little nervous about your new job. it is a big responsibility to teach. But the fact that you're asking questions indicates that you're the kind of person who puts the welfare of her students first … the kind of person who could make a great teacher. Good luck!