i’ve worked in one form of special ed or another for almost 16 years now. as i started at a new school 2 weeks ago, i met a number of new folks and we swapped stories about why we’re in special ed.
i’ve found over those years that many of us have “a story” – a neighbor was handicapped; a brother or sister was disabled; a student in high school had down’s syndrome; a deaf man/woman used to come into a place where they worked – you get the picture.
i hadn’t thought about it for a while: why am i so in love with special ed?
and then i remembered.
17 years ago, i was a student at the University of Cincinnati looking at getting into economics. i wasn’t a very good student (and wasn’t particularly business-minded) so i bounced around in different classes. i started taking a sign language class and learned a lot more about my hearing impairment – it was pretty intriguing! i had no idea about a lot of this stuff, so learning about why i had problems with this or that – pretty cool!
my last semester at UC i decided to take an introduction to special education course just to see what i could learn – mainly about deafness and deaf education. through the course of this 10 week class, we had to take 3 field trips to different schools or organizations that provided services to the disabled.
this was where my life changed.
i don’t recall much about the class. the professor was cool. the information was interesting. but the first two field trips were not memorable.
the third one? hah!
my class met at this residential school here in town and were taken through by one of the administrators of the school. she walked us through the classrooms, explained their mission, explained how they work with the students, explained that many of the children there were unable to help themselves at all – profoundly retarded, in other words. many of the children who were there were lying on mats and could not even roll over or know we were in the room.
we came through one room and a number of students were lying on mats while the teacher worked individually with them. as we listened to the administrator telling us about the kids, one kid stood out.
he’s maybe six years old. he’s blind. he’s deaf. he can’t walk or talk. he has only enough brain matter to keep him breathing and his heart beating. if you held a flashlight up to his head, his head would glow because there’s nothing but fluid in there. in essesnce: this kid had no life – it was meaningless! he was a vegetable! what good could it possibly be to keep a kid like this alive? what’s the point?
and then i noticed the t-shirt he had on. it said:
so we’re about to move along and i couldn’t resist.”wait! what does the t-shirt mean? who’s mary and how is he hers?”"oh! well, mary is one of the nurses here. if anyone other than mary picks him up or tries to work with him, he screams and cries and won’t let them do a thing to him! but if mary picks him up, he smiles and lets her do what she wants.”
well, this was an epiphany!
“you mean to tell me that this kid: blind, deaf, no brain, a vegetable: he can tell who mary is? he reacts to that? HOW??”
“we’re not sure. that’s just him and he knows the difference!”
that was a life-changing experience. here’s a kid that 5 minutes before i had written off as a vegetable – and he’s got a FAVORITE NURSE!! haha!! NO WAY!!! i was completely floored. he had a personality. he reacted to the things around him. he DID have meaning! he IS valuable! he’s mary’s and by golly, when mary has him he’s happy. content. joy is experienced, even if only in short bursts and in ways we’d never understand.
my class left that school a while later and of the fifteen students, thirteen of them were overwhelmed with disgust and revulsion. one girl said she felt like throwing up after being in there.
one other guy and i were spinning like tops – that was the most amazing thing i had ever seen!
very soon after that i got a job working with profoundly handicapped pre-schoolers over in Northern KY and i LOVED it. when we moved to washington dc, i started working with learning disabled deaf students at Gallaudet University. then it was the national children’s center in NW D.C. working with autistic kids (multiply handicapped, little communication abilities, violently aggressive, severely retarded) for five years. then it was marley glen special school in baltimore, maryland working with autistic kids again for two more years.
even as we moved back to cincinnati for me to get my degree in youth ministry, in the back of my mind i wondered if i was making a mistake.
i’ve been VERY lucky! the two greatest jobs in the world, and i’ve done them both! special ed! youth ministry! i did both at the same time for 10 years!! i mean, who gets this lucky when it comes to jobs??
so now that i’ve left youth ministry as a profession, i’m back in school getting my M Ed. in special education at xavier university, working for princeton city schools working with another group of special ed kids and loving it!
i’m one lucky dude.
whatever happened to that kid on the mat who had no brain, belonged to mary, experienced joy and changed my life?
i dunno. but i love him still.