Trials of daily living with special needs can't temper the gratitude families like mine feel for special people who grace our lives.
You know who you are, and you are many: sibs, friends, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, caregivers, co-workers, bosses, neighbors, mail carriers, volunteers, camp counselors, kind and patient strangers, philanthropists, school administrators, and teachers.
So many teachers.
Like kindergarten teacher Diane Radey. She popped a question I dared not dream: "Wouldn't you like to see your daughter in a regular education classroom, learning with typical kids?"
She’s a believer and makes it look easy, but the idea of teaching children with and without special needs together was radical 25 years ago. Proponents collided with critics, and bureaucrats constructed high hurdles.
When Noni started school, inclusion seemed a long way off at best. I wondered whether my child’s low-level of functioning might exclude her as a candidate. In the beginning, hard to believe, I felt grateful for whatever education the schools would provide her and reticent to make waves.
Until I encountered this maverick teacher with bigger, bolder visions than my own. Was she genius? Or, zanier than me!
How grateful I am today that we hitched our wagon to her star and let her show us the way. We didn’t know it then, but she launched us on an educational odyssey best described in the words of Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”
Fast forward to third-grade teacher Tony Zuccaro. He said yes when we asked to bring Noni from a faraway public school, back home to her neighborhood school, where she would be its first and only student with intellectual disabilities.
This young teacher’s leap outside his comfort zone flung open the neighborhood-classroom door for her and many others to follow.
Probably riddled with second thoughts, he asked us nervously, “Are you going to be mad if she doesn’t learn to read in my class?”
“Do you disappear into a phone booth and emerge with superpowers that we’re unaware of?” we chuckled, putting him at ease.
He expressed fear of making a mistake.
“Never fear,” we assured him, “you will, but no matter how hard you try, you’ll never make as many mistakes as we have.”
What Mr. Z, Mrs. Radey, and many more mighty teachers and aides instill in all students in their welcoming classrooms goes beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. Or science, technology, engineering, and math.
Kindness, friendliness, and charity are put to the test here. Measurable outcomes take the form of invitations – to play during recess, to attend a birthday party or play date, to sit together on the bus ride home.
Such seemingly small gestures give all kids, especially those with differences, the soul-filling gift of belonging, which endures.
As will our thankfulness for unforgettable teachers.