Sometimes friends would ask, “Don’t you worry about sending your child with special needs to public school? After all, kids can be cruel." While media focus on bullying in schools and cyberspace, the other side of the story we rarely hear is how kids can be kind, especially when those with and without disabilities grow up together.
Fact is, inclusion has the power to turn a bully into a buddy.
One of our elementary school teachers had a brilliant (though some might think “foolhardy”) idea to invite my daughter with multiple handicaps into his class so his students could read to her. It was a brave experiment, since the class consisted of six boys with severe behavior disorders.
My daughter, likely the most vulnerable student in the school, would be paired with the most troubled.
Entering their classroom, Noni was all smiles and sweet as could be to each boy. Unencumbered by stereotypes (some might say “not knowing any better”), she presumed the best in them, not the worst.
They didn't disappoint. The boys, famous for violent outbursts, melted. Kindness and gentleness took over as they sat together reading storybooks and chatting.
She loved every minute.
So did they, not just because she kindled the good in them and doled out generous helpings of respect, but because she needed and appreciated their help. She met their fundamental human need to be needed.
Fast forward to middle school years, as Noni and I are exiting our local K-Mart, I hear a young voice say, “Hey, Noni.” I turn to see a band of boys with no resemblance to Beaver Cleaver hanging out on skateboards.
My impulse is to pull my daughter close. “Hey, Matt,” she answers excitedly, and wriggles free from my grasp to wave.
“Who’s that?” I ask her, as we make our way through the parking lot.
“That’s my friend, Matt.”
“How do you know him?”
“Is he a nice boy?”
“Oh, yeah!” she says, with a fist pump.
It hit me. This mom needs more practice to get better at not judging a book by its cover. Luckily, I’ve got the perfect person to teach me.