Don’t stare. Keep your heads down. Eyes forward.
My elementary school teachers, all of whom I loved and respected, uttered these kinds of things in the hallways whenever we passed THAT group of students…the ones who looked, sounded, or perhaps acted just a bit differently than my classmates and me.
I knew practically nothing about those mysterious kids other than that I was NOT to make eye contact, wave, or say hello. Doing so would be downright rude and possibly cause a disturbance of some kind. And…being the good, little girl that I was, I complied. They’d go about their business. We’d go about ours. End of (very sad) story.
It’s hard to believe that that was the norm when I was in grade school. The separation. The exclusivity. The disengagement. The hollowness that filled the space between those thumb-tacked, artwork-covered walls. The countless missed opportunities to connect.
In my teen and early adult years, I got more chances to work with students with disabilities. In fact, I began volunteering to do so and gathered so much insight through the relationships we developed. Each person I grew to know amazed me in their own unique way.
However, it wasn’t until later in life when I got to teach the first grade inclusion class at my school that I truly understood the beauty of togetherness in learning and in life.
Teaching the inclusion class taught me how to be a better teacher. I learned how to see the world through the eyes of my students, and to use outside-of-the-box strategies and supports to meet their personal needs. I learned daily bits of wisdom from my colleagues, and how to effectively collaborate and communicate with all those invested in a student’s success. I learned to set lofty goals for every child, because the possibilities are endless. I learned to embrace adversity, and to be the champion that says, “Yes, it can be done” when others argue “No.” I learned how to give an equal voice to those who sometimes struggle to express themselves. I learned about the unwavering strength of families, and to trust in parents’ visions, as they know their children the best. I learned that there is pure genius inside of everyone, and infinite joy to be shared. I learned that laughter is the common language that bonds all. I learned about unconditional love and friendship, and that prejudice is a learned behavior. We are born to include and it is vital that adults model, model, model how to do so. I learned that the inclusion setting is socially, emotionally, and academically beneficial for ALL learners. I witnessed magical moments every day. I also learned about the power of advocacy, and that while we’re heading in the right direction, there is so much more we can and should be doing to prioritize special education.
Above all, though, I learned how to be a better human being.
The other day in the makeup aisle of Target, I noticed a woman with Down syndrome pushing her cart towards me alongside her mother. She was dark-haired, about my age, and wore a warm smile that immediately brightened my day.
We made eye contact. We waved. We said hello. A conversation then naturally arose that left all three of us laughing.
This anecdote doesn’t deserve a celebration. It simply illustrates the way the world needs to be. We must seek to understand one another.
Let’s continuously learn, grow, and make a positive impact…together. I hope you will join me in writing a more inspiring (and inclusive) story for all.