Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Sweetest Treat of All

In college I was required, along with all other pre-service teachers, to take a special eduction course. One of our assignments was to spend 20 hours around people with disabilities. I split my time between two places. During the day, I visited a middle school classroom comprised of students who were mildly cognitively impaired. Approximately 10 adolescents learned together in a classroom with one teacher and three paraprofessionals. I read with them in small groups using materials that reminded me of those used by the students in my mom's first grade classroom when learning to read for the first time. Regardless of their reading level, I learned these students were smart! One of them picked up on the fact that I startle easily, so he made it his mission to poke me every day until I jumped high enough to meet his satisfaction. Occasionally, I would fail to startle so he would look at me with frustration and ask, “How come you're not doing it?” as his index finger jammed repeatedly into my side. Just thinking about this makes me laugh. I also met a girl with cerebral palsy which affected her speech. One day while walking down the hallway, she looked at me and slowly formed the question, “Why do you walk like that?” I looked into her eyes and said, “I have cerebral palsy.” She lit up, “So do I!”

Volunteering in this capacity was an eye-opening and humbling experience for me. I was overcome with thankfulness that the first time I had seen the inside of a special education classroom was not as a child, but as a college student. I was mainstreamed in general education courses throughout my K-12 schooling experience, pulled out only to work with the adaptive physical education teacher to stretch my leg muscles a few times per week. On its own, CP does not affect intelligence. However, it is often co-morbid with other disabilities such as mental retardation, seizures, and speech impairments, none of which, I have ever experienced. I would often reflect on how much I have been spared while I drove back to campus. As the semester came to a close, I realized I needed more hours of service to complete my assignment, so a friend suggested that I volunteer for United Cerebral Palsy's (UCP) Halloween Party. Every year, UCP hosts a party for kids with all sorts of disabilities. Dressed as the Flash, I staffed the bean bag toss for the majority of the evening. Like volunteering in the classroom, I also found this experience to be incredibly humbling. I saw a wide range of kids with disabilities, many who dealt with greater challenges than I do every day of their lives. I was also struck with the fact that unlike a special education teacher who can leave the experience of disability when the school day is done, family members deal with this experience continually. 
Posing as The Flash

This led me to reflect on my own family's experience, especially around Halloween. Let me start by saying this: I am a die-hard trick-or-treater. In 1986, before I had surgery, I could hardly stand on my own and struggled to walk. My brother had to support me in this endeavor, but we still went out trick-or-treating. The Halloween Blizzard of 1991 did not stop me from going door to door! Little comes between this girl and her chocolate! There is however, one Halloween that will forever be ingrained in my mind—Halloween 1988. That year I had told my mother that I wanted to be Minnie mouse. She painted my nose black and found me a red top to wear along with mouse ears. However, that year I did not have to worry about trying to squeeze a jacket underneath my costume because I had under armor of a different nature...a plaster body cast.
Halloween 1986--I am enthralled with our friend Lisa.  My brother Jeremiah is the skeleton holding me up.

Earlier in the month, I had undergone an intensive orthopedic operation in order to correct my gait. My leg bones were broken and my tendons were severed. I was placed in a body cast for six weeks to heal. This experience impacted our family. For a time, I had to stay in the hospital, usually one parent stayed with me, while my brother was at home with the other parent. When I finally was able to come home, part of our house had to be rearranged so that I could sleep in the living room. Carrying me upstairs to my bedroom was out of the question! Getting me into and out the car required multiple people, I had to be flipped every couple of hours to prevent bed sores.....

Ready to go out trick-or-treating as Minnie Mouse

Playing with Minnie after making  my rounds!

At times, I suspect my elder brother of three years, Jeremiah, felt lost in the mix. However, it was on Halloween that I remember him showing love and care for me in a tangible way. While my mother or father wheeled me down the street through our neighborhood, it was my brother who took my candy bucket up steep driveways to the door for me, rang the bell, and explained to the greeter why I couldn't come to the threshold. Without complaint, he collected candy for both of us that year, which we later went home, sorted in piles, and enjoyed!

Why am I reminiscent of this memory? My brother Jeremiah is now a father to two precious little girls, Lily who will be turning two in December and Tizi (pronounced TC) who will be turing 4 early next month, just about the age I was when I had my operation. His family has recently moved into a house in our childhood neighborhood and he will likely be taking the girls around the block to the very same houses we visited as kids. When I think about this, I am again humbled and grateful. I am grateful that while the girls will also be able to experience the care of my brother, they will not have to have him collect their candy because they are able to walk to the door themselves. Their childhoods will most likely not involve children's hospitals, invasive surgeries or long recoveries. They might have to learn how to wear a coat under their costume (a trick for all MN kids!), but probably not a body cast. Tizi spends Tuesday afternoons not at physical therapy, but at dance class. 



The walk of life living with a disability is sometimes a courageous one—filled with challenge, struggle, and insight. I've certainly learned things along the way that have been profound. I applaud those with disabilities who rise each morning, facing all of life's challenges with joy and perseverance. I will admit that having CP has formed my character and in many ways has positively affected my outlook on life. However, if am completely honest, there are some childhood joys that I wish I could have experienced: learning how to skip, wearing flip-flops, and riding a bike without training wheels to name a few. Tizi and Lily will be able to enjoy all of these things and so much more—for this I am grateful, it is the sweetest treat of all.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Do You See Me? Do You Like What You See?

October is a month of celebrations.  Hispanic  Heritage Month runs from September 15th -October 15th, Bully Prevention Month, Pastor Appreciation Month, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and National Disability Employment Awareness Month are all celebrated during October.  Not to mention MEA weekend for teachers, and Halloween!  As a media specialist, it is my job to coordinate our daily news program at school focusing on various celebrations this month.  With so many things happening, where should our focus lie?  I believe that during this month, and every month, the focus needs to be on people!

In late September, I had the opportunity to hear author Jonathan Friesen speak at a library meeting I attended.  Friesen has both Epilepsy and Turrets Syndrome.  As a junior high student, he endured a grand mal seizure while in class.  This incident labeled him a “freak,” by his peers and ultimately drove him to lock himself into his bedroom for two years!  Finally, one day, one of his classmates decided to stop by and visit him for an hour, just to see how he was doing.  This unexpected act of kindness encouraged Friesen and enabled him to return to school.  Friesen went on to become a teacher and is now a successful author!  You can learn more about him by visiting his Webpage:  If you have time, check out his 5 minute video so you can also hear him speak, it’s inspiring!  

Jonathan Friesen challenged me with this statement.  “Now that I’m an author, I decided I’m only going to write books that answer two questions, because I think there are only two questions that students are all asking of each other.  They’re simple, they’re so easy: Do you see me?  Do you like what you see?”  Wow!  I think Jonathan Friesen hit it right on the head.  When my students come in the media center, they need to know that they are seen and that their teacher likes who they see.  Realizing this has changed the way I interact with children.  I make it a priority to take attendance every day, calling each student by name, making eye contact with each person who walks through the door.  I believe the saying is true, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  I believe students are motivated to learn when they know they are loved.

Are Jonathan’s two questions applicable in the real world?  I think so!

It’s not only students who are asking the questions, “Do you see me, and do you like what you see,” it’s all of us.  As I realize this truth, I am led to a deeper question:  Do I take enough time during my day to truly see people?  Do I let them know that I like what I see?  Effective human communication has suffered due to the accelerated pace of our society.  In my rush to check everything off my “to-do” list before I head home, I don’t always take time to treasure the people I behold with my eyes.  Do you find yourself in the same situation?  Join me this month in my mission to see people!
Sometimes seeing other people is natural and enjoyable.  Recently, my two little nieces moved home to MN where I now have the luxury of seeing them on the weekends.  I love looking into their eyes, taking in how beautiful they are, and realizing that they look and act a little bit like me.  I love them so much—I think I could spend a whole day just looking them!  

Not everyone I meet is as beautiful or holds the same place in my heart as my nieces.  Some people are hard to treasure and behold.  It’s true.  This week I walked into a hardware store needing some help finding an item.  The sales associate I interacted with was cross-eyed.  I wasn’t sure how to make eye-contact.  It was awkward.  As we walked through the store, he kept asking me if I was okay.  “Are you sure you’re okay?”  To satisfy his relentless questioning, I finally turned to him with a smile and said, “I have cerebral palsy, so this is my natural gait.  I’m sure I’m okay.”  As I turned to walk away I heard him sigh, “Oh.”  I think we both failed to see each other.  

While out for coffee this week, I was talking with a friend I have known for years about our shared experiences of living with respective physical challenges.  As we were talking she made direct eye contact with me and I saw a look in her eyes of intense personal pain.  The look in her eyes matched what I have felt so many times.  It was like we were finally seeing each other….for the first time.  Beholding someone is a powerful relational tool.  

When beholding people with disabilities, I have found that patience is an important component, along with self-control.  When I’m listening to someone who processes information slowly or has speech impairment, I often have to resist the urge to mentally check out, hurry the conversation, or finish the other person’s sentences because my mind is working faster than their mouth.  It is in these moments, that I have started to challenge myself to behold the person in front of me.  I stare straight into their eyes because I believe the eyes are the window to the soul.  I remind myself of an important truth while I am waiting to hear them articulate their thoughts. “The person in front of me is a precious human being.  They deserve my respect and my attention as a fellow member of the human race.  They have a voice just like I do, and it deserves to be heard….I see you and I like what I see.”

This month you might find yourself studying Hispanic history, breaking up fights on the playground, sending a thank you note to your pastor, dawning a pink ribbon, or employing a person with a disability.  While you are putting your finishing touches on your Halloween costume, consider leaving the mask at home.  This month, join me on my mission to see people.  Let’s let people know that they are noticed and treasured in the eyes of their beholders.