A memory interrupts the quiet of my summer respite. Pulls me back to the early morning hours of June 24, 2015. Past the empty parking lot, through the still hallways to the St. Bernard School gymnasium. There, fans struggle to cool the hot, humid June air. Chairs stand at attention, row after row on the solid floor. I Am posters and silhouettes adorn the walls. One for each of the 60 Grade 6 students to be celebrated at this day’s Leave Taking Ceremony.
Awards checked, re-checked and preparations complete, I sit alone. Reflecting on the significance of what will soon ensue here while I wait for staff and students to arrive.
In due time, on stage, I stand alongside Mark McCormick and Kim El Ghazal, my teaching partners. Before us is a gymnasium full of parents, family members, students, and teachers.
Outside the gym, our students wait anxiously. Their anxiety eases when the music begins playing. A song comes forth…
I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine
(I Can Only Imagine by MercyMe)
One-by-one, our students proceed up the center aisle. Each ushered forward by the song’s lyrics of potential and awaiting opportunities. All contemplating the past, present, and future the song evokes. The promise of a life walked in Faith. A vase at the front of the gymnasium receives a single rose from each student. Parents, standing on tiptoes and leaning sideways, seek the perfect photograph to memorialize their child’s auspicious accomplishment.
In this moment, as I watch my students come up the aisle, my accumulated fatigue and stress of the preceding year falls away. Pride and genuine love for my students radiates from deep within me. I feel a sense of joy emanating from those in attendance. Issues, dramas, learning struggles, conflicts and days of practice for this one event…all are forgotten as I send forth my students. Confidently knowing that we have done our very best, closure comes easy.
In this collage of memories, my most poignant is of two boys, each with cerebral palsy, walking up the aisle with their peers. One boy came to us from Africa the year before. Where due to his physical and learning issues, he was in kindergarten in his own country. He was a heart-warming, determined and ambitious addition to our class. His exuberance and confident smile set the tone for the others. On this day, organized alphabetically he is the first student to enter the gym.
The second boy masterfully processes up the aisle on cue. He has left his walker outside the gym entrance. Tears of pride fill his father’s eyes as he kneels to capture the moment on camera. Before gently moving towards the stage, where he leans across and guides his son onto the stage to receive his diploma.
This summer, the memory that comes forth from all of my years standing on that stage, is of that year and those two boys.
I think about how a year before graduation, when Kim and I coached the boys’ soccer team, the second boy was part of our team. How he kicked the ball, blocked and defended his team while running with his walker across the field. He didn’t question his participation, or his own abilities to compete. This was his every day – playing soccer at recess with his friends. Happily immersed, wholeheartedly accepted, he engaged fully with his peers. Never doubting his peers’ willingness to accept him. He simply ran through the blue exit doors every day into the yard at recess. No holds barred!
Can you imagine a world such as this? One where all people, regardless of perceived differences, find such grace and joy. Full of ease of acceptance and seamless inclusion.
This is the world that I can only imagine.
At the close of the most recent school year, I did not have the peace and closure of previous years. Stress and fatigue lingered far into the summer break. I sought retreat. Put social media and writing on hold. Took time to go deep within. To extinguish the firestorm in my head.
Exhausted, I am haunted by questions about inclusion, differentiation and Special Education. The work to be done, not just with my own students, but within the educational system to make learning accessible to all students. That in our schools, all children can be students, but not all students are learners.
As I reflect about my fatigue, I understand that its source is not my own students but the system itself. I am proud of each of my students’ work and efforts. For their growth this past year. They took risks and made major academic gains. In the quiet of summer, I clearly see that my time with them was about much more than this. It was about helping them stand up into their own learning. It was about breaking down barriers and rebuilding the image of who they are as learners. It was about them seeing the gifts and abilities within their own reflection.
I now realize that of all the barriers to be overcome, the individual academic ones were easiest. Leveraging technology, individualizing and targeting reading and writing instruction worked wonders. As did hands-on learning in Mathematics and time invested in developing independence skills. Feelings of anxiety and frustration curbed by learning self-regulation strategies. Body breaks, fidget toys, down regulation, flexible learning space. All pursuits met with student success.
By far the most daunting barriers for my students to overcome involved their attitudes and mindsets about themselves. This is the source of my fatigue. The reason why I lack closure. Mindsets and attitudes were my biggest goals with them and the most difficult to repair, overcome and achieve. A barrier that is actually created and perpetuated by the system, of which my students and I are a part. It is the barrier over which we have the least control.
Despite my extensive work on LD awareness with my students, my struggle to help them see themselves as smart and capable is a very real and enduring one. The negative self-deprecating remarks lingered until June. The quips about “needing a new brain”, “I’m just stupid” or “Oh sure, we are going to learn this…” These remarks were not easily replaced by self-affirming ones.
The thoughts such remarks engender are deeply ingrained in students by fifth grade. A sad contrast to the joyful enthusiasm each student brought to Junior Kindergarten. What happened? Our system changed them.
Moreover, it is the same system to which they will return in September. That is the reason I lack closure and cannot move on. While, each year I teach a select group of students with learning disabilities, ultimately the success of my work, and that of my students depends on a system that has little understanding of their learning needs and the effective tools for enabling their learning. My work and my students’ growth can only be continued if there is an equal understanding of this within the wider educational community.
A dear friend recently told me that the way I feel in education is similar to countless other educators in our system. But, he challenged me further. He said that I “was different because I have a voice. I can write.” And this I commit to. I will continue to bring this message forward into the educational community in an effort to break down the barriers that learners face.
The truth is that the education system breaks some students and teachers. Regrettably, it sometimes breaks hardest those most invested in trying to create the change this system needs.
As I get ready for the 2017/18 school year, I am imagining an educational system in which the fence depicted in the image below simply disappears. No boxes to stand on. No blocked view. Just free entry and admission to all just to joyfully play the game of learning.
The cure for my fatigue is a heartfelt commitment to making inclusion and learning within the classroom as seamless and joyful as that grade 6 boy running out that blue door at recess to play soccer with classmates. Not questioning himself, just savouring the experience and living in the moment. Universal access for all. No holds barred!
In that commitment, I imagine my students returning to their home schools this September being met by educators who understand the unique gifts they bring alongside their learning disabilities. I imagine them being met with an openness to using technology as barrier-removing tools. I envision my students seeing their respective gifts. I pray they will confidently advocate for the tools that work best for them. I hold steadfast in my faith that the strategies I have tirelessly instructed have left an indelible mark on who they are as learners.
I also hope that all educators approach this new school year feeling supported by those around them. And, when they face the firestorms within their own heads, I hope they can find the same solace I did.
I imagine a world in which being different is regarded as the gift it is. That every child sees his own reflection and potential in every classroom. A reflection of God’s perfect creation. Perfect as created. Not missing anything. Needing nothing more to succeed. Knowing that all each of us must do is simply stand up and get into the game. Barrier-free.
Of this, I can only imagine.
Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you, Jesus,
Or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah?
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine
I can only imagine