Brad Smith credits students with helping him overcome issue
BATTLE GROUND — When he was a high school student in Beaverton, Ore., Chief Umtuch Middle School special education teacher Brad Smith signed up to be a peer tutor for students with special needs. He figured that it would be a good experience to connect with and help his peers. What he wasn’t expecting was that this seemingly inconsequential decision would entirely change his life’s trajectory.
“I still remember my first day walking into the classroom, and there was just this feeling of acceptance from the kids,” Smith said. “The classroom was the definition of a ‘judgement-free zone’, and within just a couple of weeks, I knew that becoming a special education teacher was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Smith soon graduated from high school and moved on to college at Seattle Pacific University. All along the way, he chose classes, internships and eventually a graduate program to prepare him to be a special education teacher so that he could help teach students and adults with autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, and intellectual and other disabilities.
It’s been 11 years since Smith finished his master’s program and was hired first as an instructional assistant, and then as a special education teacher. However, about eight years ago, Smith’s trajectory was unexpectedly altered yet again. This time, he was simply sitting on a flight when he made what he describes as “awkward eye contact” with a flight attendant. While such a thing wouldn’t normally have stood out for the typically outgoing Smith, for whatever reason, the incident triggered the onset of something entirely new to him: debilitating bouts of social anxiety.
“For most people, making awkward eye contact wouldn’t be a big deal,” Smith said. “They might think about it for a minute, but then a person could just move on with their day. For whatever reason, that incident and that moment stuck in my mind and the more I thought about it, the more I would ruminate and become anxious about the next social encounter I would have. Suddenly, worrying about things like meeting people, having conversations, and making eye contact snowballed until it became hard for me to talk to people without having panic attacks that would leave me dripping with sweat.”
Statistically speaking, it’s very likely that someone you know is affected by an anxiety disorder. The National Institute of Health estimates that 19 percent of adults in the U.S. had any anxiety disorder in the past year, and 31 percent will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
After a few years of trying to cope with his social anxiety through therapy and medications, Smith also turned to writing as a way to process the thoughts and feelings he was experiencing. Before long, he decided that he would turn his writings into a book. Now, four years after he started writing it, Smith has published his book “A Special Education in Anxiety.”
In the book, anxiety consumes the life of a young special education teacher named Michael Smith, causing him to feel hopeless and defeated. He constantly worries about when the next cycle of anxiety will strike and is desperately trying to keep it from derailing what he is truly passionate about: teaching his class of middle school special education students.
Readers of “A Special Education in Anxiety” will go through a year in teacher Michael Smith’s unique and engaging class. Together, the students and teacher experience a series of positive breakthroughs and heartbreaking loss. His special needs students, as well as some unexpected adults, are key in Michael’s pursuit of overcoming his anxiety.
“When people ask me if this book is fiction or nonfiction, I have to say it’s a little of both,” Smith said. “While events, plot points and the students in the book are all made up, they are all heavily inspired by the amazing kids I’ve had the blessing of working with each year. And the anxiety described in this book was–and in some cases is–still very real to me.”
While Smith’s book started out as a therapeutic way to help him work through his anxiety, he soon realized that was only a portion of the story. After all, the first words of the title aren’t about anxiety, but are about special education. That is because the six students you get to know over the course of the story become part of the solution in helping the main character come to grips and find peace with his mental health issues, mirroring Smith’s real-life experiences.
“Anxiety manifests in different ways for those experiencing it,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, the topic is a very relatable story to many people. Ever since I wrote this book, I’ve had so many amazing conversations with friends and co-workers about how it has impacted them or someone that they love.”
Smith’s story, both the book and his own life story, are powerful illustrations that everyone can benefit from interacting with their peers who have special needs. Such interactions are beneficial to everyone involved, and you never know: they just might change the course of someone’s life.
Information courtesy of Battle Ground School District.