My friend’s daughter had the book Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper on her reading list. Out of curiosity, I borrowed it and was completely moved and immersed myself in memories. The story is told from the point of view of a girl named Melody who is an 11-year-old with severe cerebral palsy. She can barely move and cannot speak. Therefore, everyone assumes that she is profoundly mentally retarded, a word that she rightfully despises. So when she starts school, she is placed in a brightly colored room with a new teacher every year and a revolving door of assistants, where curriculum is often dumbed down.
It made me think of an experience I had during college. For one of my education classes, we had to spend time observing in classrooms. Because I took the Honors version, they decided we were going to visit alternative schools. I was already familiar with these programs because I had attended one of the Montessori schools and we did activities with one of the other alternative programs. Plus I was already employed at another Montessori school. So I was told that I could actually work with the kids instead of just observing.
My assignment? A young boy about seven years old who had CP. Why? “He needs a lot of extra help, and I just don’t have time for him.”
I sat down with this delightful young man at his table and we started chatting. He broke my heart when he said, “You know, I’m not dumb. It just takes me a little longer to do things.”
I was so angry with that teacher. How dare she make this child feel this way? I don’t know that she ever said anything directly to him. At least, I hope she never did. But that line, “Actions speak louder than words” definitely rang true for this young boy. And it was not okay.
I often think of him and wonder how he is doing ow. He would be in his early 30s. I hope that he found teachers who understood him and could work with him where he was at. I hope he never felt shamed because he was slower. The realistic part of me knows that is highly unlikely. But I like to think it happened.
I can still picture him in my head, though his name now escapes me. But his impact on me and my teaching remains. I never talked down to kids with impairments. I acknowledged that there was more going on in there than we realized. And it made me a better educator.
I hope you can do the same.