Thursday, April 5, 2012


Yesterday, I played UNO with Mary and when she laid down a "Draw Four" card, I said, "Gross!" And she busted up laughing and repeated: "Gross? Ha, ha gross! Gross."

Randy walks everywhere slowly with his hands behind his back as if he's pondering deeply the philosophies of our time. And he might well be for all we know.

Charlotte sits for all of 2nd period two inches away from the computer screen listening to Taylor Swift's YouTube music videos over and over and over again. Then she smiles mischievously as she steals my checker pieces.

Kristin is our own little pop culture juke box. She remembers what she's heard and repeats it back to us: commercials, songs, a conversation in the hallway, a Disney movie. The other day, I said, "Giddyup" and she did too for the next 30 minutes.

Mckayla races me back from the cafeteria. In her wheelchair. And wins.

We walk in circles around the gymnasium and James comes up behind me. I say, "Turn left." And he repeats "Turn left" and then does so. We turn right. We run. We stop. We lift our right hand. We jump. He can repeat what I'm saying and follow directions, but he can't form new sentences of his own.

Mary kicks the soccer ball. I put up my hand for a high-five. She smiles and takes a step forward before dropping her hand at the last moment and grinning over her shoulder.

The last two days, I've looked around at these students and been humbled. Some have hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, Downs syndrome, or autism, and they are all vastly unique and impressive in their own way. I've been substitute teaching in the SPED (special education) department at a public high school and it continues to teach me so much.

Several times in the last year, I've realized I enjoy these kids. I love how unpredictable they are, yet how completely methodical. I love how they each have their quirks and their habits. Emilia doesn't like new people. Randy randomly jumps and yells. Kristin likes to pace. Mckayla likes to comfort.

Mckayla has cerebral palsy. She strolls about in a wheelchair by directing her movements with her head and uses her nose to point to letters to spell out everything she wants to say. Her arms, legs, and head move about out of her control. Her helper, Roberta, watches her movements intently to be able to spell out what Mckayla is trying desperately to say.

So the other day, Colin stormed into the classroom, breathing heavy, threw his books on the ground and plopped into his chair. After a few minutes we found out that Mckayla was saying, "Colin looks sad. Let's go talk to him." So Roberta pushed Mckayla in his direction and spelled out, one letter at a time, "What's wrong?" Colin was having a relationship "crisis." He talked. She listened. Her head dipped and bobbled in between sentences and she would spell out what she wanted to say in response. After a few minutes, Mckayla asked Colin, "Do you feel better?" And he did. And that was that.

Those of us watching sat in awe. We weren't able to understand what he wanted or comfort him, but Mckayla, with her limited resources and abilities, was. Amazing.

SPED is this whole 'nother world that it's easy to forget about (which is true of any world that is not our own reality). If you are not a person who is disabled, and if you don't know someone who is, it's easy to be uninformed about the day-to-day reality of this world.

I do this with just about everyone whoss reality is different than mine. I don't often think about what it would be like to be Mexican or a millionaire or a police officer or gay or to live in Bangladesh. I don't think about these things because I don't have to think about these things. And that's a problem and that's selfish. It's this limited-perspective reasoning that keeps most of us separate and isolated and ignorant.

We have to be willing to try on another pair of shoes. To experience, even for a few minutes, what it would be like to live another life. It makes me more aware. It makes me conscious. It makes me compassionate. It makes me humble.


Emily Morris said...

Just an idea--if you would like to keep working with people with disabilities, Region V Services is a great place to work for. Might be something good for part-time while you're deciding where to go next.

Heather said...

Emily! Thank you SO much. I was just checking out their site and I'm very interested.

Mindy said...

So true. Well said.

Emily Morris said...

Heather, I just started working for Region V a couple months ago. If you have questions feel free to contact me via email or Facebook :)